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A while back, I suggested that we pay pundits for their performance. Now is as good a time as any to start. First up for evaluation: Jonathan Alter.

He should brace himself for a pay cut.

Let's review his most recent performance in this week's Newsweek magazine. He relishes the tough choice facing states that want Race to the Top money:

[L]ift your caps on the number of innovative charter schools allowed and your prohibitions on holding teachers accountable for whether kids learn—or lose a chance for some of Obama's $5 billion "Race to the Top" money.

A pretty weak showing so far. For one, states have to lift caps on all charter schools, not just the "innovative" ones. Given that charter schools have had rather mixed results, can we blame states for worrying about the charter school land rush that might ensue? Here's what researcher Tom Toch writes in the most recent edition of Education Week: "Even with an infusion of federal funding, it would be difficult for C[harter] M[anagement] O[rganizations] to expand much more rapidly without compromising the quality of their schools."

Let's see if things get any better in Alter's next paragraph:

This issue cleaves the Democratic Party. On one side are Obama and the reformers, who point out that we now have a good idea of what works: KIPP and other "no excuses" charter models boast 80 percent graduation rates in America's roughest neighborhoods, nearly twice ...

Just when you thought New York City charter schools were the Best Things Ever, a new report calls their quality into question.

According to the city's education department, students in charters made less academic progress than students in traditional public schools did. What's more, the city's charters enroll fewer special education students and students who are not proficient in English. Just over four percent of charter school students aren't proficient in English. Compare that to almost 15 percent for the district as a whole.

This report doesn't come from some hothouse for anti-charter research. It comes from the city's own education department, which has been nothing if not supportive of charters. Charter schools are falling behind according to the city's own measures.

What does this mean just a short month after Carolyn Hoxby's study praising the city's charter schools? For one, it should prompt a review of Hoxby's findings. Did Hoxby forever silence arguments that charters cream the best students, as the ...

The Baltimore Sun compares Baltimore's and Washington DC's school reforms, and it finds DC's wanting.

To be more precise: The Sun finds DC's Chancellor Rhee to be wanting. The paper sees little difference between the two districts' reform plans:

there's little doubt the personal leadership styles of the two CEOs have largely determined how reform efforts have been received. In public, at least, Mr. Alonso eschews drama. Ms. Rhee, by contrast, once appeared on the cover of a national news magazine wielding a broom to symbolize her intention of cleaning house.

Which city has a better shot at success down the road? The Sun votes for Baltimore:

We're betting on Baltimore getting there first, if for no other reason than that Mr. Alonso's style seems to mesh better with the players in a city that also seems to have fewer structural obstacles in the way of reform than comparable urban school systems. It's freer from ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Welcome to Our World

"Welcome to my world," said the traditional public school to the charter.

Reformers who get mugged by reality can sound an awful lot like the dreaded "establishment." Take, for example, the story of the Opportunity Charter School in Harlem. Started by ardent reformers, the school now faces closure if it can't raise students' scores by next year. The reformers are crying foul.

Their arguments sound familiar and reasonable. The school takes the city's lowest achievers, half of them with learning disabilities, so it has a tougher road to travel. The state's tests can't measure the kinds of progress the school has made with those students. And the one-year deadline is unreasonable.

The reformers are on shakier ground when they seek to distance themselves from traditional public schools. The charter's assistant principal claims that the state can't "expect the school to be accountable for a system that has failed ...

School reformers take heed: We ignore communities at our own risk.

This warning came through loud and clear in a Chicago Tribune story about the gang brawl that ended the life of Darrion Albert, a 16-year-old bystander. One passage jumped out at me:

The conflict escalated between the two neighborhoods after Chicago Public Schools (CPS) transformed Carver High School, located in the Altgeld community, into a military academy. That put many Altgeld kids at Fenger [High School] behind enemy lines, traversing unfamiliar streets in unfriendly territory.

This reads almost like the history of a small country roiled by ethnic strife years after colonial powers redraw its national boundaries.

No, CPS is not like a colonial power. And claims that school reformers somehow caused Albert's death by reconstituting Fenger High School are way over the top. Fenger was troubled by violence long before the district tried to turn it around.

But the Fenger story reminds us of how important it is to understand the social and political context of communities whose schools we want to transform. Even with the best of intentions, we can do harm.

The vicious circle of violence and reprisals that traps some of Chicago's poorest teens has a logic all its own. It's the stuff of Sophocles, a tragic cycle that ...

As everyone knows by now, Aldine Independent School District in Texas won the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education. And they did it without mayoral control (gasp) or even a single charter school (say it ain't so!)

So what did they do? For one, the board, administrators, teachers and community members collaborated on common solutions to the district's problems. For another, they worked hard to give teachers and administrators the support they needed. Most important, they committed to improvement for the long haul. No quick fixes at Aldine.

The Learning First Alliance offered far more detail in a 2003 case study of Aldine. Here are a few highlights from what we learned back then:

  1. Recognize that you have a problem. When student peformance cratered in the mid 90s, district leaders knew they had to do something.
  2. Set high expectations for students and staff. Yes, this has become a truism--but only because it's so very true.
  3. Give schools a first-rate curriculum. In 1996, Aldine created "benchmark targets," a curriculum aligned with state standards. Teachers asked for

Fewer than half of students in Boston charter high schools make it to graduation. That's the bottom line of a union-sponsored study of the city's charters.

Charter leaders don't deny the numbers, but they do deny consciously pushing students out of their schools. It's those doggone high standards that are to blame! According to the Boston Globe:

Many students, charter leaders said, choose to leave to dodge high academic standards, returning to city-run schools where getting a diploma is often easier. Only in rare circumstances, they said, did a charter student quit school without subsequently earning a diploma.

“We are not just handing out diplomas,’’ said Thabiti Brown, principal at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester. “We want students to be successful in college, but unfortunately we have students who leave because they feel our academic standards are too high."

Is it me, or is there a double standard here? Shouldn't education reform zealots, for the sake of consistency, accuse Principal Brown of heresy? After all, he seems to believe that some children can't learn to high standards. Shouldn't a "no excuses" school do "whatever it takes" to hold on to each and every student, regardless of how unmotivated or intimidated by high standards? I though only "establishment" educators made excuses.

More to the point.... How can we say charter schools are better than traditional public schools if charters can't hold on to less motivated, less accomplished ...

"Say Yes to Education" may finally get its due. Joe Biden, Arne Duncan and Tim Geithner converged on Syracuse yesterday to learn about the innovative program.

We've honored Say Yes time and again on this website. The initiative has nearly closed high school and college graduation gaps separating urban youth from their suburban peers. How? By providing low-income youth comprehensive supports ranging from health care to academic help and college scholarships.

So will this event catapult Say Yes into the national consciousness? Early signs aren't good. The event has been covered, well, almost nowhere. Not in the education press. Not in the blogosphere.

It did get a few hits in the local Syracuse papers, but those focused mostly on college affordability: an important, but small, facet of the Say Yes program. I suppose I can understand why. The White House Task Force on Middle ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Education Bedfellows

In the past few days, articles in two major urban newspapers have demonstrated how quickly education reformers and the education "establishment" can find themselves in the same boat.

According to the LA Times, the schools at the center of Mayor Villaraigosa's reform efforts have fallen short of their goals:

The scores at Villaraigosa's schools fall well short of what his original rhetoric suggested. He implied that he could deliver rapid academic gains if given control of schools in the nation's second-largest district. At the time, L.A. Unified officials and some education experts said Villaraigosa was unfairly discounting the school system's incremental progress.

On Tuesday, it was the mayor's turn to celebrate increments.

"We expect progress and we have progress, but we still have a long way to go," Villaraigosa apparently told the LA Times. "Transforming a failing school takes more than one year." Very true.

According to the Chicago Tribune, turnaround schools championed by ...

Former teacher Sarah Fine is no Hollywood heroine, and some people won’t forgive her for it. By leaving her job as a teacher at Washington, DC’s Cesar Chavez charter school, she failed the superhero test. She couldn’t Stand and Deliver.

Fine explains her decision to leave in a recent Washington Post article describing the tough working conditions many Cesar Chavez teachers face every day. Many of her readers left sympathetic comments, but quite a few expressed moral outrage. She was a “quitter,” a “whiner,” someone who cares more about herself than about her students. She was not the teacher you would hope to get from Central Casting.

Unfortunately, this sort of talk often drowns out important discussions of teacher working conditions. Barnett Berry hits the nail on the head:

Investing in research and pilot projects so that we can do a better job of identifying effective teachers makes sense — using rigorous measures and tools that keep a tight focus on the critical dimensions of student learning.

But judging teacher performance without paying attention to the conditions under which qualified teachers can teach effectively will ...

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