US Education Policy is Screwed Up

To back that blanket statement, consider these two pieces of evidence found on the interwebs just today.

First we have a new report showing that “fraudulent charter operators in 15 states are responsible for losing, misusing or wasting over $100 million in taxpayer money”.

We found, as stated in the introduction, that at least $100 million in public tax dollars has been lost due to fraud, waste, and abuse. These instances of fraud and mismanagement, which are catalogued in appendixes A-F, fall into six basic categories:

  • Charter operators using public funds illegally for personal gain;
  • School revenue used to illegally support other charter operator businesses;
  • Mismanagement that puts children in actual or potential danger;
  • Charters illegally requesting public dollars for services not provided;
  • Charter operators illegally inflating enrollment to boost revenues; and,
  • Charter operators mismanaging public funds and schools.

Charter schools, of course, are the cornerstone of many school reform plans, including those from the current federal administration, many states, and billionaire education “experts” like the Gates and Walton Foundations.

This report is on top of other studies showing that student learning at charters is no better, and often worse, than the districts from which they are taking students and money. And, contrary to the claims of supporters that the competition provided by charters will improve schools for all kids, are actually undermining public education.

With all this data to review, what’s a politician to do? Why, push for more charters, of course.

A bipartisan group of senators plans to introduce a bill Wednesday meant to encourage the growth of charter schools across the country, mirroring legislation expected to be taken up in the House later this week.

Building on the “success of charter schools”, according to one Senator.

Congress critters must not use the same set of web-based tubes that I do.

Then there’s the matter of how to assess the quality of teachers.

Many states and districts have begun using some variation on the Value-Add Model, about which I’ve ranted recently, that assesses teachers based in part on the increase in student learning (aka standardized test scores) over time. In other words, how much value did the teacher add.

Some teachers in Florida objected to the system used in that state in which they would be “evaluated on the scores of students they haven’t taught and on subjects they don’t teach”. Seems like an unfair process, one that might even violate “the Equal Protection and Due Process Clause of the Constitution”. And a District Judge agreed that the process is ridiculous.

However, he also said it was legal.

“This case, however, is not about the fairness of the evaluation system,” Walker wrote. “The standard of review is not whether the evaluation policies are good or bad, wise or unwise; but whether the evaluation policies are rational within the meaning of the law. The legal standard for invalidating legislative acts on substantive due process and equal protection grounds looks only to whether there is a conceivable rational basis to support them,” even though this basis might be “unsupported by evidence or empirical data.”

Obviously I’m not qualified to be a judge because I cannot see how an unfair system can have a “conceivable rational basis” to support it.

Anyway, bottom line, the political posturing represented by these examples, not to mention the tens of millions wasted, does nothing to help students get a better education.

Nothing.

Charter Schools Are a Great Idea

In the original concept of charter schools, a few innovative educators would be enabled to organize their own school and experiment with new ideas for reforming the old model and improving student learning, all under the auspices of, and using funds from, the surrounding public system. The ideas that worked could be incorporated into “regular” schools. The ones that didn’t would also provide a learning experience.

That’s the theory, anyway. The reality has been far different.

Two different articles that landed near each other in my Instapaper queue over winter break offer plenty of evidence showing that charter schools in the US, with few exceptions, provide lousy instruction and worse results, and are undermining public education.

Possibly the biggest problem is that nearly half of charter students are enrolled in schools being run by corporations,1 often supported by grants from large, well-funded philanthropic organizations with a political agenda like the Walton Foundation. And their schools are rarely held to the same accountability standards (instructional or financial) as public schools.

Beyond serious questions about who are running these schools (more business people, fewer educators), is the fact that study after study shows they produce “mixed results” at best.

A 2009 national study of charter school performance by CREDO, a research unit at Stanford University that supports charter “reform,” found that only about one in five charter schools had better test scores than comparable public schools and more than twice as many had lower ones. Earlier this year, CREDO released an updated study that looked at charters in 27 states, and little had changed. As the National Education Policy Center explained, “The bottom line appears to be that, once again, it has been found that, in aggregate, charter schools are basically indistinguishable from traditional public schools in terms of their impact on academic test performance.”

However, there is an equally fundamental problem with the way the charter concept has been applied that goes back to the original idea: very few charters are not doing anything innovative.

Most are structured around the traditional teacher information delivery model, with students required to learn the same material, in the same order, often using the same resources as has been standard in public schools for decades (if not centuries). And then demonstrate their learning on programmed standardized tests.

Some charters make a big deal out of requiring longer days, Saturday school, and more regimentation (KIPP), others substitute computer-delivered instruction for human teachers (Rocketship). Certainly these changes may work for some students under some circumstances, but as test cases that might be more broadly applied, they are generally worthless. For many public schools, these ideas could be classified as “been there, done that”.

Even with all these problems, what I’ve covered here only scratches the surface of why the charter school movement (pushed by many high profile education “reformers”) are doing nothing to improve American public education and are probably detrimental.

Spend some time and read the two articles, along with some of the many supporting citations they link to, for a much fuller picture of why the theory of the charter concept is a great idea, while the reality of charter schools in this country is a crappy mess.

Not Transferable

From the book A Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work by Scott Berkun:

A great fallacy born from the failure to study culture is the assumption that you can take a practice from one culture and jam it into another and expect similar results.

His context is replicating the success of one tech company by simply copying their approach to business. But you could make the same statement about schools, classrooms and teachers.

Too many education reformers declare we can solve all our education problems by simply finding “what works”, those “best practices”, and duplicate them in every school.

Completely ignoring the many variables found in different groups of children, their schools, and the cultures of the communities in which they live.

Creating a Model-T School

I know this segment from the PBS News Hour is pretty old in web time (posted all the way back in December 2012), but if you haven’t seen the piece, it’s worth ten minutes of your time.

There is so much wrong with both this school concept and this report, starting with the fact that anyone considers this to be an example of education “reform”.

In the introduction to the profile of one Rocketship school, the reporter implicitly compares education to the auto industry and tells us that that no one has figured out how to do the same for schools.

He’s totally wrong. Most schools in the US already use an assembly line format, a system that is little changed from when it was created at the birth of compulsory education in the late 19th century, and one that was designed to meet the needs of an exploding industrial economy.

In 2013, that industrial society is all but gone and kids need a whole different set of skills than what they’ll learn from the indoctrination (the only word to describe what I saw in the video) approach at the heart of the Rocketship model. Unless, of course, they’ll spend their working life taking standardized tests.

The narrator ends the report by saying that “Rocketship could become the Model-T of education”.

The Model-T was certainly the right vehicle for it’s time, but that period was a century ago.

The same vintage as this educational reform concept.

What I Learned This Year: Section 2

Continuing with my final exams begun in the previous post

The year now winding up here in our overly-large school district has been jammed full of new and change, at least when it comes to technology available to teachers. Possibly too much new and change. It’s as if we saved up all the stuff we should have been doing over the past four or five years and unleashed it all at one time.

The project that I had the highest hopes for was the somewhat radical (for our very traditional administration) change in policy that allows and even encourages students to bring their own devices to school (BYOD)* and use them openly. As opposed to what kids have been doing all along but having to keep things hidden.

Although a few of our schools have embraced the concept and are very positive about making the concept work, most seem to be moving into it much more tentatively. Some made no progress at all, and too many of the people I talk to seem very much afraid of both the kids and the technology.

However, it’s a start. Maybe not as much of an impact as I was hoping for but still a start.

Maybe, after this year of discussing the idea and gaining a little experience, more teachers and administrators will be more willing to consider how they can make instructional use all those smartphones, tablets and laptops that don’t look like the computer equipment in the lab down the hall. And are not under their total control.

I still believe that this approach to technology use in schools is inevitable and eventually we’ll all wonder why anyone made such a big fuss over it. But I learned this school year that around here, significant progress is going to a little longer than I would like.

I’m just not sure I’m learning to be any more patient about it.


* Some of our schools elected to use the phrase “personally owned devices” (PODs) instead due to the negative connotation of the traditional BYO meaning.