Sunday Short Takes

A few interesting reads and listens from last week.

The New York Times Magazine’s education edition included a long, very interesting look at education in Michigan where they gambled on charter schools and “Its Children Lost”. It’s a story of lax regulation and oversight, coupled with a concerted effort to privatize public schools, led by the current federal Secretary of Education.

Two podcast episodes that explain in clear language why a do-nothing Congress can actually harm people. Planet Money has three examples our legislators risking the American economy by failing to pass a budget and risking the good credit of the country by playing chicken with the debt ceiling. The third segment addresses immigration and DACA, as does a short edition of DecodeDC, in which they fact check Jeff Sessions. Spoiler: he’s mostly wrong.

In-between watching continuous coverage of Hurricane Irma, read about the men and women who fly aircraft into the middle of those storms to gather crucial information for scientists and forecasters. We often take all this for granted but collecting that data is tricky, dangerous, and very necessary work.

Related to that, the BBC programme (British spelling :-) More or Less explains why the phrase “one in 500 year storm”, used so frequently during the coverage of Hurricane Harvey, has very little meaning. By the way, More or Less does a very good job of explaining those kind of statistical measures used by the media, in a short and very interesting weekly podcast.

With all the stories about data security this week, Motherboard explains why you should never post pictures of your airline tickets or even house keys on social media. Their warning should also extend to any documents that include numbers or barcodes that contain identifying information. If you teach, you may want to explain this to your students as well.

Finally, National Geographic offered a couple of interesting pieces this week, complete with great images, of course. One is a photographic essay of abandoned, decayed resorts in Pennsylvania and New York, side-by-side with post cards of the same scenes. Very creepy. The other profiles a small city in China (where a population of 1.2 million is “small”) that produces “60 percent of the worlds cheap consumable goods”.

The Fallacy of School Choice

With the new administration pushing the privatization of public schools, headed by a Secretary of Education even less qualified than me, you hear from a lot of advocates for “school choice”.

They tell you that if all parents had the option to send their children to any school of their choice – charter, private, or public – all would be well with American education. Or at least scores on the NAEP and PISA tests would skyrocket, which is about the only way most school reformers understand learning and student “achievement”.

The Secretary and her friends in the charter school industry maintain that picking a school should be like any other purchase in the free market. After all you have lots of options when it comes to buying a car and many places to buy one. Why not offer at least a few choices when it comes to something even more important?

There are some major issues with a “free market” system for something that should be a public good, more than enough for several long posts. However, the specific concept of “choosing” as school for a child includes a big problem I haven’t seen discussed much.

Unlike finding a new minivan, the vast majority of parents don’t have enough information about the complexities of school to make a real, informed choice. And many, if not most, don’t have the resources, expertise, or time to become sufficiently informed. That’s not a criticism of most parents. Unless you’re as rich as DeVos, parents don’t have a lot of time to spend on research.

But schools, private or not, also don’t make it easy to comparison shop. Some work very hard to hide any meaningful data on their programs, outcomes, and finances. Public schools have been known to fudge the numbers. And the information provided by most private schools and charters often comes in the form of marketing brochures. Material that’s more about recruiting than transparency.

In addition to having enough information is providing it in a form that can actually be compared. When you research that new car, most of the basic metrics have common units and language that can be lined up in columns. You also have some relatively independent organizations that test drive vehicles and speak a common language about the vehicles.

No one “test drives” schools. There are few common metrics between all schools. Much of the common language – world-class, mindset, high tech, innovation, STEM – is at best vaguely defined. Test scores can’t be compared because not all schools use the same evaluations and students in charters are often not required to take them. Even graduation rates are not measured in the same way.

So, the goal is to allow every parent in the US to decide where their children will receive the basic education that will impact the rest of their lives. How do we provide them with the necessary, relevant, and comparable data to do that? Something more than websites and flyers with pictures of happy kids and competent-looking teachers, mixed with important sounding educational jargon.

That’s a serious question. One that I rarely hear the advocates of school choice address. Because without sufficient, understandable information, how does anyone make a critical decision about something as important as a child’s education?

Hey, here’s a radical idea! How about if we spend more time and resources on improving pubic schools for all children everywhere in this country? That too is a serious question.

Debating Charters, Intelligently

The concept of debate has been severely corrupted in the age of 24-hour talking head television. Boxing up two to six people on a TV screen and letting them yell opinions over each other for five minutes may make for higher ratings but it certainly doesn’t provide any context for whatever the topic is.

A more interesting approach is a public radio series called Intelligence Squared US (IQ2US), the American branch of a fifteen year old UK organization founded with the “goal of raising the level of public discourse” on important current issues. I’ve listened to a number of their programs over the years and most are a nice learning experience. More than a few found me yelling back at the speaker while driving.

The format uses what they call the “Oxford” style of debate1 in which two people on each side present their arguments for or against a specific resolution. The debate begins with each person in turn given a fixed amount of time to present their case. In part 2, the moderator and audience members get to ask questions and the participants can interact with each other, dealing only with information, not opinion. Finally each person gets a couple of minutes to present a closing argument.

Each debate does declare a winner, based on votes from the audience. Before starting, they vote for or against the resolution, or declare themselves undecided. The same vote is taken at the end. The winner is the team that has the largest percentage change to their side. The organization also takes pre and post votes on the website but it’s not clear if those numbers are included.

Last week I discovered that IQ2U events are being streamed on YouTube and I got the chance to actually watch the debate proceedings live. It’s very different from the podcast, which is only audio and obviously edited from a much longer discussion.

This particular debate (embedded below) was of particular interest since the resolution being address was “Charter Schools Are Overrated”.

I’m not going to try and summarize more than 90 minutes of discussion but I do have a few observations.

On the side opposed to the resolution was the founder of an organization that promotes school choice and a former Florida commissioner of education. They didn’t seem like they had spoken at all before coming on stage and were reciting their own list of talking points, with lots of anecdotes and very little evidence.

I thought the two college professors and researchers on the supporting side did a better job but also had some communications issues. Both brought plenty of data to the table but should have spent more time prior to the debate boiling it down to a few, very relevant points.

The moderator does get a little involved in the proceedings, while staying pretty neutral, and that’s a good thing. I liked that he challenged speakers on both sides to restrict their statements to evidence and not try to their opinion as fact. The people on the “news” channels could learn something.

Finally, there’s the proposal itself. As with many, even most, of the topics on this series, the statement is far too broad. It’s also not the most important issue when it comes to charter schools. We should be debating whether charters are a good format for the overall improvement of public education. But this was a good start.

Anyway, go watch the whole thing (I won’t spoil the ending by saying which side won), although you may want to do it in private. If you’re like me, you may feel like very vocally joining the debate.

With Charters, Everyone Wins. Almost.

We now have a Secretary of Education who believes charter and private schools are the solution to “failing” public schools. Despite plenty of data, from her home state and elsewhere, demonstrating that’s pretty much crap. And the fact that many, if not most, public schools are

Propublica logo

doing a good job with completing their somewhat outdated mission.2

A great investigation by ProPublica provides a great deal of evidence of just how bad charters can be by looking at “alternative” charter schools in Florida, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. They found that many of these schools are simply being used to improve the accountability ratings of public schools, and the bottom line of charter corporations.

The Orlando schools illustrate a national pattern. Alternative schools have long served as placements for students who violated disciplinary codes. But since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 refashioned the yardstick for judging schools, alternative education has taken on another role: A silent release valve for high schools like Olympia that are straining under the pressure of accountability reform.

As a result, alternative schools at times become warehouses where regular schools stow poor performers to avoid being held accountable. Traditional high schools in many states are free to use alternative programs to rid themselves of weak students whose test scores, truancy and risk of dropping out threaten their standing, a ProPublica survey of state policies found.

In the case of the Florida charter schools, students who dropped out were coded as “leaving for adult education”, which means that the public school they were transferred from did not have to count them on their dropout records. Their score remains high, the charter gets paid for the enrollment, and everybody wins.

Except the student, of course, most of whom are minority children, often with limited English skills or disabilities.

No Child Left Behind was supposed to improve educational outcomes for students long overlooked — including those who were black, Hispanic and low-income. Yet as the pressure ramped up, ProPublica’s analysis found, those students were precisely the ones overrepresented in alternative classrooms — where many found a second-tier education awaiting them.

Barbara Fedders, a law professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said alternative schools too frequently fail to halt students’ downward trajectory, simply isolating them, instead.

“They create little islands of segregation,” Fedders said. “If they aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do, it’s unclear why we have them at all.”

Actually it’s very clear. They are supposed to warehouse students who likely will not pass the standardized tests. And to earn a profit for the companies who run them.

While the ProPublica researchers focus their story on Florida, take a look at the map of Michigan, where the new Secretary of Education has invested a lot of her money and time into charter corporations. It shows a “steep rise in the alternative school population”, largely due to charter schools. Something being repeated in other states, and that the Secretary would like to expand nationwide.

Although the whole piece is rather long, it’s well worth your time. In addition to lots of data, they also include some compelling data stories about victims of these “alternative” programs, which are little more than holding cells for students who don’t fit into the narrow “accountability” culture that’s been forced on American public schools over the past almost two decades.

The False Promise of Charters

When it comes to charter schools, you would be hard pressed to find a bigger cheerleader in the press than Jay Mathews. Especially if the school has the letters KIPP on the front door.

After all, Mathews has visited “more than 50 great charters” (out of about 7,000 in the US), and, based on his observations, declares the concept to be good.

Ignoring, of course, the financial and management problems, not to mention outright fraud, found in many of the companies running charters (especially the online variety), along with study after study showing that most charter schools provide no better learning outcomes than the public schools in the same area. 

In his Post column today, Mathews tries to find common ground on the topic with education writer, historian, and vocal charter critic Diane Ravitch. Someone who actually understands that very few charters have lived up to their glowing promises and should be reigned in.

“I would call a moratorium for all new charters,” Ravitch said. “All charters would be required to be financially and academically transparent.” She would ban for-profit charters. Charters would have to fill all empty seats each year, she said, so average test scores would not rise just because low-performing students had left. Charters would have to have the same demographics as regular schools in their neighborhoods, she said, with the same portion of students with disabilities and students learning English.

Ravitch also would require characteristics that the best charters already have: collaboration with public schools, charter boards made of local community members and racially diverse student bodies.

Imagine that. Charter schools, which use public money, should be required to serve all of their communities and students first, rather than simply providing profits for their investors.

Mathews, condescending as always, deems Ravitch’s ideas “worth discussing”. He’s worried that those “great charters” (aka KIPP) will also have to fall under the same requirements.

Although the theory of charter schools – innovative educators finding new and better ways to help students independent of state and district bureaucracy – is a compelling one. Here in the real world, it just hasn’t worked.

Going beyond the incompetence and corruptions most often in the news, there is little new about the vast majority of charters. Most use very traditional curriculum and standard teacher-directed pedagogy – adding “innovations” like extended class time, “personalized” learning systems, and student regimentation. And being very selective about which students they will accept and retain.

Unfortunately, too many people leading this country are anxious to privatize public education, and make some money on the deal. As a result, Mathews will likely get his way and charters will continue to expand, likely in the same current ratio of “great” to poor. And continuing to exclude those children most in need of a great public education.