Lots of Charter Talk

It’s back to school time in the US and that means lots of posts and articles about school reform. Including, of course, the love of politicians everywhere, charter schools.

One of the better pieces on the subject was this extended analysis by John Oliver on his Last Week Tonight program. Most of the time was dedicated to the somewhat shady business practices of many companies running charters, with little about the actual education value of the schools. But it’s still the kind of reporting you wish real news organizations would do and worth 18 minutes of your time.

It seems that Oliver’s video actually did strike a nerve with someone. The Center for Education Reform, a charter school advocacy group, seems to be pretty pissed. $100,000 worth of upset. That’s the amount they’ve offered to one of their member school that produces the best response explaining to Oliver “why making fun of charter schools is no laughing matter”.

Specifically, “Let viewers know why students chose your school over all the others. Help them understand the opportunities charters offer (and which wouldn’t exist without charters).” But don’t make the production values too good.

The video must be “home made” on a phone or tablet – slick production values are not allowed because that would just point to the idea that charters are high-profit businesses rather than schools. It can’t look like it cost $100,000 to make, because that would draw attention to the fact that charter folks have that kind of money to drop on PR stunts.

One talking point of charter advocates that might show up in the entries of those enterprising video producers is that charters are still public schools using the same public money. Except that the National Labor Relations board ruled last week that charters are actually private corporations.

In its recent decisions, both issued Aug. 24, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Hyde Leadership Charter School in Brooklyn and the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School are – like other government contractors – private corporations that receive taxpayer dollars. In the New York case, for example, the board found that even though state law describes charter schools as existing “within the public school system,” the schools were not directly established by a government entity and the people who administer them are not accountable to public officials or to voters.

Of course, this ruling only applies to the relationship between workers and charter companies. It says nothing about the poor management of those firms, and the mediocre education provided by many of them.

Finally, we heard once again from Arne Duncan, former US Secretary of Education and one of those cheerleaders for charter schools who probably still believes they are “public”. In an article for The Atlantic, Duncan says that there are no such things as “miracle” schools but that the charters he has visited are “restless institutions, committed to continuous improvement”.

In their first quarter-century, charter schools dramatically expanded parental choice and educational options in many cities. What was once a boutique movement of outsiders now includes more than 6,700 charter schools in 43 states, educating nearly 3 million children. But the most impressive accomplishment of the charter-school movement is not its rapid growth. Nevertheless, what stands out for me is that high-performing charter schools have convincingly demonstrated that low-income children can and do achieve at high levels—and can do so at scale.

Except Duncan’s high praise is not supported by actual research. Multiple studies over the past fifteen years show that charter schools in the US, with few exceptions, provide lousy instruction and worse results than public schools, and are undermining public education.

But that’s par for the course when it comes to Duncans and others who advocate for privatizing American education. Cherry pick the few charter schools that work and ignore the rest.

Duncan Appreciates Teachers (Who Keep Their Mouths Shut)

This being Teacher Appreciation Week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan felt obligated to say something nice about teachers and did so in a commentary piece for Education Week, a publication few teachers read (or even know exists).

More than a few educators responded online to his disingenuous mash of cliches and excuses with open letters of their own.

But the really low point of the week has to be when Duncan didn’t even bother to show up for the ceremony honoring the 2011 Teachers of the Year.

Probably because the educators attending, selected as the best in their states, had nothing good to say about the education reform agenda being championed by Duncan.

I love the part where one of the undersecretaries suggested the Department should rescind the award from one of the teachers who spoke. She was joking. Maybe.

Anyway, the bottom line here is that our Secretary of Education appreciates teachers in the abstract, but really doesn’t want to hear what even the best of them have to say on the subject.

Round Up The Usual Suspects

The foundation headed by former Republican governor of Florida Jeb Bush hosted an education conference this week in DC.

The keynote speaker was Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (who received a standing ovation).

Both agreed on many key issues of what they call “reform”, including the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind and that lots of charter schools will fix everything.

Even worse, the sponsors of the event included a long list of the usual suspects when it comes to advocating for educational malpractice:

  • The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • The Walton Family Foundation
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Apex Learning
  • Charter Schools USA

And other large corporation and foundations with lots of money to back up their simplistic, standardized, profit-driven solutions.

These are the people building a national learning program for the future using a Frankenstein patchwork of failed ideas from the past half-century.

Making the Factory Run Cheaper

Someone needs to check into Arne Duncan.  Reading this snippet from a speech he gave recently, might lead you to think his body had been possessed by someone advocating for genuine education reform.

The factory model of education is the wrong model for the 21st century. Today, our schools must prepare all students for college and careers–and do far more to personalize instruction and employ the smart use of technology. Teachers cannot be interchangeable widgets.

Of course, the official federal philosophy of learning, the one normally promoted by the Secretary, is exactly that factory model, complete with a narrow, regimented process, and lots of standardized “quality” control.

But don’t worry. Duncan hasn’t really had a change of heart.

Zooming out to see the context of his remarks reveals that his primary message in this lecture was not about improving education but in finding ways to make the factory cheaper to run.

Yet the legacy of the factory model of schooling is that tens of billions of dollars are tied up in unproductive use of time and technology, in underused school buildings, in antiquated compensation systems, and in inefficient school finance systems.

Rethinking policies around seat-time requirements, class size, compensating teachers based on their educational credentials, the use of technology in the classroom, inequitable school financing, the over placement of students in special education–almost all of these potentially transformative productivity gains are primarily state and local issues that have to be grappled with.

However, Duncan’s remark that really intrigued me was this one.

Districts currently pay about $8 billion each year to teachers because they have masters’ degrees, even though there is little evidence teachers with masters degrees improve student achievement more than other teachers–with the possible exception of teachers who earn masters in math and science.

Is he saying that a person, other than us special people with math or science degrees, needs no additional learning beyond that which was included in their undergraduate program to be a good teacher?

Or maybe he wants to drastically improve and target staff development programs so that it’s a continual, expected part of a teachers job to advance their own learning.

More likely it’s neither. Duncan just wants a less expensive factory.

Not Much Merit In These Pay Plans

In his Class Struggle column this week, Jay Mathews spotlights a study which concludes that districts don’t necessarily need to pay more in order to find and keep good teachers.

They just need to do a better job of selling the idea that teacher pay isn’t all that bad. Especially if you can get two teachers to marry. Or something like that.

A marketing campaign to show students that teachers made more than they thought they made “would induce a 7 percent increase in the number of top-third students entering teaching each year (or an equivalent nationally of 4,000 additional top third students above an estimated baseline of roughly 55,000 who enter today,)” the report [from McKinsey and Co., the giant management consulting firm] said.

Paid training increased the number going into teaching by 11 percent. A 20 percent performance bonus to the top-performing 10 percent of teachers would produce the same 11 percent gain in top-third students.

But providing training costs money, something that is usually the first thing to go when politicians start cutting school budgets.

And that idea of performance bonuses? It lost some credibility this week after the release of findings from the “first scientifically rigorous review of merit pay in the United States” showing that paying big money incentives “produced no discernible difference in academic performance”.

Which, of course, did nothing to slow the Secretary of Education from pushing the concept as a major part of the Race to the Top competition and, also this week, sending $442 million to a bunch of RTTT lottery-winning school districts so they can set up merit pay plans.

So, whatever happened to the idea of only paying for “researched-based” concepts that have been demonstrated to be effective in improving student learning?

You know, the concept that was one of the cornerstones of No Child Left Behind.

And which has been consistently ignored by politicians and education “experts” since long before the law’s inception, going back to W Bush’s “Texas miracle”, which also turned out to be based on gut feelings and no proof.