Tide Seems to be Turning Against Charters

by Christopher Paslay

The state’s forced reassessment of charter school performance data indicates the charter school movement may be losing its momentum.   

After the Pa. Department of Education was forced to reassess the performance rates of charter schools on standardized tests, dropping the controversial calculation method it used last fall, the number of charters making adequate yearly progress across the state in 2011-12 went from 49 percent to 28 percent. All that math and science and literature parents thought their children knew, well, now they apparently don’t know it.

Or so says the new calibration of the testing data.

The whole notion that such a large portion of the state’s charter school students can go from smart to not-so-smart, or vice versa, with one punch of the calculator is disturbing.  Those who oppose the expansion of charters are undoubtedly delighted by this new information, and will highlight the fact that charters indeed play by their own rules.

Not so much anymore.  The tide seems to be turning against charters, especially here in Philadelphia. City Council recently approved a nonbinding resolution calling for a one-year moratorium on the closings of 37 public schools, some of which could be replaced by charters.  The newly formed Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS) is now fighting to stop the expansion of all charters in the city that are not proven to be educationally innovative and superior.

Even Philadelphia School District Superintendent William Hite understands that charters may be at a natural saturation point in the city. “We have to rethink using charter seats that may not be adding value,” he said in a recent interview, “and how we re-craft those charter seats into something different.”

The crazy part is how things in education can change so quickly.  As recent as three years ago, with the release of the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” charters were the answer to all of our nation’s educational woes.  Remember the Harlem Children’s Zone and Jeffrey Canada’s plan to revitalize poor neighborhoods through a holistic system of charter schools?  Remember the praise charters received from people like Oprah Winfrey and noted education scholar Diane Ravitch and the editorial boards of our local newspapers?

Well, forget all that now.  The new word on the street is that charters are bogus, just like their test scores.  They play by their own rules, fail to serve an adequate number of English language learners and special needs students, and take away valuable resources from struggling neighborhood schools.  But most of all, they are moving in on other people’s political capital.

That’s what the recent local uprising against charters, and the forced recalculation of their performance data, is really about: politics.  It’s a flat out turf war, and the education of our city’s children is caught up in the mix.  On one side you have charters, capitalists, and “school choice” conservatives looking to set-up shop in enemy territory. On the other side you have neighborhood public schools, teachers unions, and the traditional liberal urban education establishment fighting to hold on to their own.

In between you have the 55,500 students attending city charter schools because they are safer and cleaner and in many cases, have a higher level of parental involvement.  You also have the 149,500 students attending traditional neighborhood schools, kids who are often robbed of resources at the hands of charters, kids who are forced to attend classes with violent and unruly students because the Philadelphia School District’s discipline policies have no teeth, and because the rights of the wayward few outweigh the rights of the hard working many.

As for the quality of education students receive in charters as opposed to neighborhood schools?  This depends on which politician is requiring which test, and on how that politician decides to calculate—or recalculate—the performance data.

Advertisements

The end of public education in Philadelphia

If the School Reform Commission and Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen have their way, we may witness the end of public education in Philadelphia. A five-year plan proposed by Philadelphia School District officials calls for the overhaul of virtually every element of the system — from finances to academics to central management. These drastic changes suggest to many that the district is intent on expediting the privatization of its schools, despite its promises to stay the traditional route and invest in neighborhoods and communities. . . .

This is an excerpt from Lisa Haver’s commentary in today’s Philadelphia Daily News, “The end of public education in Philadelphia.”  Please click here to read the entire article.  It is an adaption of the piece she wrote for Chalk and Talk on April 25th headlined, “Is the End of Public Education in Philadelphia Near?”  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for Reading.

City schools need reform, not revolution

Like Veterans Stadium and the Spectrum, the Philadelphia School District is about to be blown up. The School Reform Commission announced plans last week to close 40 schools next year and two dozen more by 2017. It also plans to allow outside organizations to make proposals to run groups of schools.

The idea of breaking the district into smaller, more manageable chunks is not new. Former schools chief David Hornbeck broke the system into “clusters” in the 1990s. Unfortunately, that created all kinds of unintended bureaucracy, which is why the next schools CEO phased them out.

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “City schools need reform, not revolution.”  Please click here to read the entire article.  It serves as a brief counterpoint to School Reform Commission chairman Pedro A. Ramos’ commentary in yesterday’s Inquirer headlined “Phila. children deserve better.”  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

Is the End of Public Education in Philadelphia Near?

by Lisa Haver

The five year plan proposed by School District officials may mark the end of democratically run neighborhood schools.     

The end of public education in Philadelphia seems to be upon us.  A five-year school reform plan proposed by Philadelphia School District officials calls for massive overhauls in virtually every aspect of the school system—from finances, to academics, to central management.  These drastic changes suggest to many that the District is intent on expediting the privatization of its schools, despite its promise to stay the traditional route and invest in neighborhoods and communities.

Here are some changes the District proposed at a news conference Tuesday:

  • The closing of 40 “low-performing” and underused schools next year, and six more each additional year until 2017.
  • The movement of thousands of students from traditional neighborhood schools to charters.  The district estimates that 40 percent of public school students will attend charters at the completion of the five-year plan.  This comes as a result of the School Reform Commission’s signing of the “Great Schools Compact” as outlined by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
  • “Modernizing” custodial, transportation, and maintenance services by threatening district workers with layoffs if they don’t agree to accept LESS than what the outsourcers are asking.
  • District officials have also proposed a major transformation in the management of the school system.  The current structure would be completely scrapped and replaced by “achievement networks,” each overseeing groups of about 25 schools. These networks could be made up of school district personnel, a charter management organization, or an education management organization (such as Edison or Universal). A bidding process would determine who controls these networks. Most school services—presumably curricula, discipline, staffing and supplies—would be controlled by each network.  The District has not explained how this new system would save money.  This would spell a return to the patronage system which plagued Philadelphia schools just a few generations ago.

How, pray tell, have we arrived at a point where the public school system can be auctioned off to the highest bidder? 

Those who have followed the actions of the current SRC shouldn’t be surprised by the announcement of this draconian plan.  The SRC members, while billing themselves as more transparent and open to the public, have conducted business in a way that observers have come to realize is, on many occasions, just the opposite.

I was in attendance when the SRC voted on November 23, 2011—the day before Thanksgiving—to take part in the Great Schools Compact. I asked the Commissioners why they were voting on a matter that would have major implications for the future of the District without any opportunity for the public to adequately read, comprehend, and discuss the agreement.  I was assured that this was only a preliminary vote and that there would be many occasions for Philadelphians to have their say.

Since then the SRC, along with other city officials, have made clear their intentions to make any change necessary (in management, teacher evaluations, and in the number of additional charters), in order to comply with the Compact.  However, the issue has not been on the agenda of any of the five subsequent formal meetings.  There has been virtually no opportunity for parents, teachers, or anyone in the community to make any contribution on this issue, let alone hear the SRC discuss their reasons for signing on.  (One informal SRC meeting, which was billed as a forum to find out about the details of the Compact, was actually a discussion on the merits of charter schools).

The truth is, the District’s adoption of the Compact was a decision based on finances, not academics.  Bill and Melinda Gates do not bestow grants; they issue a contract.  If you don’t comply, you don’t get their money.

This SRC has also changed its schedule for formal meetings (those with an agenda which includes resolutions to be voted on) from once a week to once a month.  Those in attendance have seen meetings last until 11:30 p.m., with a speakers list exceeding 80 people.  At February’s meeting, I objected when the commissioners proceeded to vote on their list of resolutions after most people had left.  There was no way for those in attendance to know what was being voted on, since the five pages of resolutions had not previously been distributed or discussed.

What is the point of speaking on a resolution which has already been passed? I was assured by Chairman Pedro Ramos that the Commission would take steps to rectify the problem.  They have not.  The self-described transparency of this SRC is a sham.  It is an insult to all of the parents, teachers, students and members of the community who are involved in trying to make this school system better.

So what is the answer?

Organized opposition.

Last year, school district nurses organized themselves when threatened with layoffs.  They have held rallies every Wednesday (some in the rain and snow) on the steps of 440 since December in an effort to truly involve all of the people—parents, teachers, students, community members—in trying to save our schools.  I have been at most of these rallies.  I go because I know that the School District sees a group of educators and community members who will not give up.

This five-year plan, which could spell the demise of public education in this city, must be challenged by the people.  We must do everything we can to speak out against it.

Lisa Haver is an education activist and retired teacher.

The Romney Education Plan: ‘Get the teacher unions out’

by Christopher Paslay

Mitt Romney’s school reform plan calls for confronting unions, ignoring class size, and discounting teacher experience.    

Mitt Romney’s new message on the education front is his pledge to take on teachers unions in an effort to—cue the Michelle Rhee drum roll—put students first!  “We have got to put the kids first and put these teachers unions behind,” Romney said recently on Fox News Sunday.  “. . . I want there to be action taken to get the teacher unions out and to get the kids once again receiving the education they need.” 

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Romney had just finished watching Waiting for Superman.  His belief that teachers unions are stopping public school children from receiving proper educations scores a “10” on the cliché meter and shows just how lazy he’s been when it comes to rolling up his sleeves and doing some real, evidence-based research into the many challenges facing America’s public schools. 

Teachers Unions: The Root of All Evil?

Since Romney deals in clichés (and fails to acknowledge all the good things teachers unions have done over the past 150 years, like improve conditions in schools, upgrade curriculum and teacher credentials, and make it so every child can learn to read and write, regardless of race, social class, and gender) let’s analyze the three most fashionable criticisms of teachers unions: that they give bad teachers a lifetime appointment in the classroom; that they receive cushy contracts from politicians in exchange for political support; and that they stand in the way of progress.               

As I’ve written about before (see “Ending the Myth That Tenure Protects Bad Teachers,” 3/20/12), public schools are self-regulating: teacher turnover is costing America over $7 billion annually; 17 percent of all of public school teachers quit every year; 56 percent of America’s new teachers quit within five years; and over one-quarter of America’s public school teachers have five years experience or less.  Where is the “lifetime appointment”?      

Here are the numbers behind the “cushy contracts” garnered by unions: the median salary of kindergarten teachers in 2011 was $31,500; for elementary school teachers it was $49,200; and for high school teachers it was $52,700.  As for benefits, most public school employees contribute to their pensions and medical insurance (teachers in Pennsylvania contribute 7.5 percent of every check to their pension).  This can hardly be considered “cushy”.               

As for standing in the way of progress, teachers unions opposed No Child Left Behind (but this didn’t stop it from being passed), a school reform bill that has been criticized by educational policy experts across the political spectrum for it’s over reliance on flawed test data and the narrowing of school curriculum; Romney himself said it needs to be significantly changed and reauthorized.  NCLB has been in place since 2002—over a decade—and the racial achievement gap hasn’t changed, nor has the achievement gap between the rich and the poor; the wealth gap has gotten bigger.

Teachers unions also oppose taking public tax dollars and putting them into privately operated charter schools (but this hasn’t stopped every state in America from doing it), a practice that has gotten mixed results at best. Charter schools perform no better academically than traditional schools, yet have the luxury of removing failing or disruptive students.  Financial mismanagement and lack of oversight are recurring problems for charters, and growing research is showing they are not equitable—English language learners, special needs students, and minorities are being weeded out.

Is this the “progress” critics of unions are talking about?   

 Teacher Pay: Old vs. New

Romney wants to pay new teachers more.  “We should pay our beginning teachers more,” Romney said at a recent campaign stop in Illinois. “The national unions are too interested in benefits for the older teachers.”

By “older teachers” does Romney mean the ones with the most skills and experience?  The ones that have dedicated their entire careers to their students and survived the poorest neighborhoods with the least amount of resources?  The ones that have for years paid out of their own pocket for classroom materials, endured the insanity of misguided school reform, forged lasting relationships with their students, and saved the lives of some of America’s most troubled youth?  Those “older teachers”?             

By “beginning teachers” does Romney mean the ones with less than five years experience?  The ones that studies show are still learning their craft and struggle with instruction and classroom management?  By “beginning teachers” does Romney mean the ones who enter the profession through Teach for America, over half of which quit in two years?  Or those who enter the field via the traditional route, over half of which quit in five years?    

 Class Size

Romney doesn’t think class size matters.  In other words, he doesn’t feel the need to increase educational funding, or worry about per pupil spending.  “I studied [class size],” Romney said in Illinois.  “There was no relationship between classroom size and how the kids did.” 

Really?  So there’s no difference between teaching a class of 33 or 23?  No difference in classroom management?  No difference in the amount of time for individualized instruction?  No difference in time for grading papers and contacting parents?  Or the money needed for resources and supplies?  Money for paper?  Books?  Laptops?  Field trips?  No difference between 23 and 33, huh?             

There is, of course, plenty of research that says class size does matter, like the U.S. Department of Education’s report analyzing the multitude of benefits achieved via Bill Clinton’s National Class Size Reduction Program.  And then there’s the State of Tennessee’s STAR report.    

From his recent remarks on the campaign trail it’s become obvious that Mitt Romney has limited knowledge of public education in America, and is simply using talking points to pander to his base.  Either way, he’s alienating millions of hard working school teachers across the country, and putting politics ahead of the educational interest of our nation’s children.

Why Charter Schools Exist Mainly Among Urban Poor

by Christopher Paslay

Outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, charter schools in Pennsylvania are virtually nonexistent.  One reason is that socioeconomically disadvantaged children and their families are easier to manipulate.      

Here are some basic facts about charter schools in the state of Pennsylvania.  In 2011, only 54.7 percent made AYP under the No Child Left Behind Law.  Stanford University’s CREDO report, which examined the performance of Pennsylvania charter schools from 2007 to 2010, concluded:

“Overall, charter school performance in Pennsylvania lagged in growth compared to traditional public schools. . . . Performance at cyber charter schools was substantially lower than the performance at brick and mortar charters with 100% of cyber charters performing significantly worse than their traditional public school counterparts in both reading and math. . . . Charter schools of all ages in Pennsylvania on average perform worse than traditional public schools, and charter school students grow at lower rates compared to their traditional public school peers in their first 3 years in charter schools, although the gap shrinks considerably in math and disappears entirely in reading by the third year of attendance.”

There are 3,096 public schools in Pennsylvania, yet only 142 of them—one half of one percent—are charters.  Of these 142 charters, 80 of them (56 percent) are in Philadelphia, another 15 are in the Pittsburgh/Allegheny area, and the remaining 47 are sparsely scattered throughout the rest of the state.  Outside of poor urban areas, charter schools are practically nonexistent.             

If charters are the new fix for “failing” public schools, why haven’t they caught on in the suburbs?  Why haven’t they caught on in rural areas or mountain regions?  The answer is because charters are not better than traditional public schools, and there are heaps of data to prove this.  Most families outside of urban areas understand this reality, which is why charters and their enterprising operators have been unable to successfully set-up shop there.  Suburbanites don’t want charters, they don’t want business people with limited educational experience messing with their children and controlling their school resources (the head of the Philadelphia Parking Authority recently proposed opening a charter, if you can believe that).  Why, then, are charters so widely accepted in Philadelphia?        

One reason might be that 80.6 percent of families of public school children in Philadelphia are economically disadvantaged, and they are easier to take advantage of.  Yes, they are being taken advantage of, and here’s how. 

First, charters falsely advertise they are superior academically, despite all the research showing otherwise.  Many urban poor are not in a position to access research on charter school performance, so they simply believe what they hear or are told; the propagandistic film Waiting for Superman is a case in point.  In short, the urban poor are being misled.    

Second, charter schools discriminate and play by their own rules.  It is a documented fact that charter schools fail to serve the neediest population of children.  KIPP charters (Knowledge Is Power Program) are a prime example.  Because KIPP schools have extended school days and hold classes on weekends, the student turnover rate is extremely high for Black males—over 40 percent dropout between grades 6 – 8.  As a result, these students are sent back to neighborhood schools.  In addition, KIPP is criticized for not serving more English Language Learners and students with disabilities.

Although there’s yet to be any noteworthy litigation in Pennsylvania against charter operators (the key word is yet), parents of school children in Louisiana have filed a class-action lawsuit against the New Orleans school system, arguing that their charters exclude special-needs students.  The Miami Herald recently wrote a series titled “Cashing In on Kids” which highlighted the fact that South Florida charter operators are getting rich on “school choice” by admitting very few special needs children and minorities into their schools.  This discrimination is widespread and very real.  I’ve personally met numerous parents whose children are on waiting lists to get into a charter—or have been removed from a charter—because they couldn’t pass the muster.                 

Third, charters take money away from struggling neighborhood schools.  Interestingly, it’s not academics that attracts many urban parents to charter schools.  The lure of charters seems to be the fact that many are cleaner, safer, and smaller than big, decaying neighborhood schools.  This is true in some cases, but there’s a reason: charters weed out dysfunctional children and their struggling families, and siphon money away from traditional neighborhood schools that could be used for upgrade and repair.

This is a clear civil rights violation, and sets in motion a cycle of 21st century school segregation.  As time goes on, as charters continue to expand, there will be more and more separation between charters and traditional schools, until the neediest 30 – 40 percent (made up of primarily English Language Learners, the disabled, and those children with social, emotional, and behavioral disorders) are left completely behind.  In other words, despite the big promises, charters by their very nature will never help a large population of the urban poor.                           

And many socioeconomically disadvantaged parents don’t understand this.  They view clean, neat, nifty new charters as a lottery ticket, and jump at it.  Little do they know that there’s a good chance that their child won’t get into that school, that their son or daughter will be left behind in the forgotten neighborhood school, which has been further weaken by the existence of the charter. Sure, those lucky enough to get into a charter may have a cleaner, safer, more appropriate learning environment, but this is only achieved at the expense of the neediest 30 – 40 percent of children plagued with disorders who are weeded out and left behind.  This might be acceptable in a private school using private funds, but it’s unconstitutional when it’s being done with public tax dollars.   

If only urban parents could see that making a commitment to their neighborhood school—like parents do in most other parts of the state—would be a better solution in the long run.  If only they could team up with elected officials to generate the resources needed to complete building renovations and repairs, upgrade materials, and invest in technology.  If only they could convince educational policy makers to revamp curriculum to make it more individualized and authentic, and expand alternative schools and programs to remediate troubled youth.  If only they could convince local leaders to invest in families and communities in order to create a culture of learning available to all children within the bounds of a neighborhood, instead of running away.                             

Although charters in Pennsylvania don’t outperform traditional neighborhood schools academically, they do turn a large profit.  Privatization of public schools (and tax dollars) is a big business, and unlike the more advantaged populations of Pennsylvania, the urban poor are prime real estate.

Test your knowledge of Pennsylvania’s charter schools!

1.  What percentage of public schools in PA are charters?

A)  11.3%

B)  18.4%

C)  0.45%

 

2.  What percentage of PA charters made AYP in 2011?

A)  73.1%

B)  89.0%

C)  55.6%

 

3.  What percentage of PA’s 142 charters are in Philadelphia?

A)  22.4%

B)  41.4%

C)  56.3%

 

4.  What percentage of Philadelphia’s charters made AYP in 2011?

A)  78.0%

B)  92.9%

C)  54.7%

 

5.  After the Philadelphia School Reform Commission signed the “Great Schools Compact” in an effort to win grant money from Bill Gates, what percentage of Philly schools will be charters by 2017?

A)  15.5%

B)  33.3%

C)  43.1%

 

ANSWERS:   

1.  The answer is C.  There are 3,096 public schools in PA, and 142 are charters (one half of one percent). 

2.  The answer is C.  Only 79 of PA’s 142 charters made AYP in 2011.

3.  The Answer is C.  There are 80 charters in Philadelphia in 2012. 

4.  The answer is C.  Only 40 out of Philadelphia’s 73 charters made AYP in 2011.

5.  The answer is C.  The Compact calls for turning around the District’s lowest 25 percent of schools into charters by 2017.  There are currently 249 traditional public schools in the District (.25 x 249 = 62.5).  Add 62 charters to the 80 already in existence, and you get 142.  This number (142) is 43.1 percent of 329 (80 charters + 249 traditional schools).

(Data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s website.)

Former Teach For America Recruiter Tells College Grads to ‘Teach for Someone Else’

by Christopher Paslay   

Gary Rubinstein, a TFA corps member and former recruiter, explains how TFA spawned leaders are ‘destructive’ to public education, and how current TFA teachers are ‘mostly harmful’ to students. 

Michelle Rhee, former D.C. schools chancellor who is on a political crusade to save America’s “best teachers” by ending seniority and “last in, first out” laws, needs to have talk with Gary Rubinstein, a Teach for America corps member and former recruiter.  Rubinstein, like Rhee, was part of TFA in the early 1990s when the organization was still in its beginning stages.  But unlike Rhee, Rubinstein has come to terms with the fact that TFA has become a public relations machine responsible for spawning a number of destructive leaders, and acknowledges the fact that the majority of TFA teachers are a far cry from America’s “best”. 

Here are some highlights from Rubinstein’s powerful blog post titled “Why I did TFA, and why you shouldn’t.”  (Click here to read it in its entirety.)          

. . . When I joined TFA twenty years ago, I did it because I believed that poor kids deserved to have someone like me helping battle education inequity in this country. At the time, there were massive teacher shortages in high need areas. . . . If not for us, our students, most likely, would be taught by a different substitute each day. Even if we were bad permanent teachers, we WERE permanent teachers and for kids who had little in life they can call permanent, it was something. The motto for TFA back then could have been ‘Hey, we’re better than nothing.’

. . . Unfortunately, the landscape in education has changed a lot in the past twenty years. Instead of facing teacher shortages, we have teacher surpluses. There are regions where experienced teachers are being laid off to make room for incoming TFA corps members because the district has signed a contract with TFA, promising to hire their new people. In situations like this, it is hard to say with confidence that these under trained new teachers are really doing less harm than good.

As TFA tried to grow and gain private and federal money, they had to develop a public relations machine. . . . TFA has highlighted their few successes so much that many politicians actually believe that first year TFA teachers are effective. They believe that there are lazy veteran teachers who are not ‘accountable’ to their students and who are making a lot of money so we’re better off firing those older teachers and replacing them with these young go-getters.

Some TFA alums have become leaders of school systems in various cities and states. In New York City, several of the deputy chancellors are from TFA. I already mentioned ex-chancellor Michelle Rhee who now runs StudentsFirst. . . . TFA and the destructive TFA spawned leaders suffer a type of arrogance and overconfidence where they completely ignore any evidence that their beliefs are flawed.  The leaders TFA has spawned are, to say this in the kindest way possible, ‘lacking wisdom.’

. . . And the very worst thing that the TFA alum turned into education ‘reformers’ advocate is strong ‘accountability’ by measuring a teacher’s ‘value added’ through standardized test scores. It might be hard for someone who is not a teacher yet to believe that this is not a cop out by lazy teachers. The fact is that even the companies that do the measurements say that these calculations are very inaccurate. Over a third of the time, they misidentify effective teachers as ineffective and vice versa, in certain models. ‘Value added’ is in its infancy, and certainly not ready to be rolled out yet. But ALL the TFA reformers I’ve followed are strong supporters of this kind of evaluation.

So TFA has participated in building a group of ‘leaders’ who, in my opinion, are assisting in the destruction of public education. If this continues, there will soon be, again, a large shortage of teachers as nobody in their right mind would enter this profession for the long haul knowing they can be fired because of an inaccurate evaluation process. And then, of course, TFA can grow more since they will be needed to fill those shortages that the leaders they supported caused.

So if you’re about to graduate college and you want to ‘make a positive difference’ the way I wanted to twenty years ago, you should not do what I did and join TFA. . . . I know that this was not the idea of TFA, but I do think that when people teach for two years and then leave, it contributes to the instability of the schools that need the most stability.

. . . But if you truly feel that TFA is really the ONLY way that you have a chance to ‘give back’ to the society that has provided you such opportunities, I suppose that you can apply, but there are some things you should demand before accepting their offer.

First, you should refuse to be placed in a region that is currently suffering teacher layoffs. In those places, you will be replacing someone who, most likely, would have done a better job than you. Why would you want to live with that guilt?  I was horrible my first year, but I was better than the rotating group of subs I replaced.

Second, you should refuse to go to a charter school. Though there are some charter schools that are not corrupt, I believe that most are. They NEED those test scores and they do anything they can to get them. This often means ‘counseling out’ the kids that TFA was created to serve.

Third, you need to demand that you get an authentic training experience. TFA signs contracts with districts where they promise to train you properly. But team teaching with three other teachers for twelve days with classes with as few as 4 kids is not fair to you and it is really not fair to the kids that you will teach. They deserve someone who is trained properly. 

Fourth, you should commit to teaching for four years instead of two.  America let you practice on their kids for your first year — you’ve got to give back three good years to make up it.

. . . . I’m hoping that one day I’ll be able, again, to sing the praises of TFA and advise people who want to make a positive difference for kids to become a member.  For this to happen, though, TFA will have to make some changes.  Primarily, they will have to break the alliance they currently have with the so-called reform movement.  It’s not working and it never will work.  Pretending it is, like pretending that all the first year corps members are succeeding because a few outliers are, or that all alumni run charter schools are succeeding because a few outliers are.  All this proves is that in a large enough data set there will, inevitably,  be outliers.

If I were ‘America’ I would have this to say to TFA:  While I appreciate your offer to ‘teach’ for me, I’ve already got enough untrained teachers for my poorest kids.  And if teaching is just a stepping stone, for you, on the path to becoming an influential education ‘leader,’ thanks, but no thanks to that too.  I don’t need the kind of leaders you spawn — leaders who think education ‘reform’ is done by threats of school closings and teacher firings.  These leaders celebrate school closings rather than see them as their own failures to help them.  These leaders deny any proof that their reforms are failing and instead continue to use P.R. to inflate their own claims of success.  We’re having enough trouble swatting the number of that type of leader you’ve already given us.  If you want to think of a new way to harness the brain power and energy of the ‘best and brightest,’ please do, but if you’re just going to give us a scaled up version of the program that tries to fill a need that no longer exists, please go and teach for someone else.

SRC Rushes to Pass ‘Great Schools Compact,’ Despite Questionable Track Record of City Charters

by Lisa Haver

Hungry for Bill Gates’ money, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission passes a compact that agrees to turn up to 25 percent of its schools into charters by 2017.   

On November 23rd, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission passed the “Great School Compact,” an initiative sponsored by Bill Gates to help ease resistance to building new charters in the city.  The SRC did so, at least in part, to be eligible to receive money from Gates.  The compact signed by the SRC calls for an overhaul of the poorest performing quartile in the system (approximately 50,000 seats) with “high quality alternatives” by 2016-17.

In the subsection of the Compact titled Facilities, it reads, “We will coordinate planning and policies to ensure that vacant or underutilized building facilities are made available to facilitate growth of high quality schools consistent with the principles of the Compact, while ensuring that facility transactions support the need of the District to right-size its facilities inventory.”

Allow me to translate this for you: After we underfund and understaff the already struggling schools in poor neighborhoods, we will make the buildings of the schools we will close available to charter operators.  Of course, the students who are not admitted to these replacement schools will have to travel out of their neighborhoods to attend another public school. 

Although announced verbally at the end of the previous week’s SRC meeting, the press release confirming the November 23rd meeting was dated November 22nd. It stated that one purpose of the meeting was “to consider the Great Schools Compact.”  There was no indication that there would be a vote; in fact, the SRC votes only at Action Meetings, not Planning Meetings. 

But a vote was taken and the Compact was approved, despite the fact that only three of the four appointed SRC members were present and the room was only half full.  There was no opportunity for any serious community discussion.  There was not even any substantive SRC discussion of the issue. 

For these reasons, I asked the commissioners to table the vote until the next meeting, which would not be held the day before a major holiday (Thanksgiving) and would give the community time to read this compact, discuss it, and weigh the many issues presented in it before taking what amounted to a drive-by voting. 

What was the rush to get the Compact passed?  Philadelphia’s district schools have been struggling under the weight of funding cuts, overcrowded classrooms, failed experimental curricula, incompetent superintendents with their own personal and political agendas, and rising poverty in the communities they serve.  Was passing this compact going to rectify all of this overnight?

The SRC maintains that this vote is only the first of many concerning the Compact and that this action had to be taken in order to apply for the Gates funding (ironically, as of 12/7/11, the district’s current version of the Compact was rejected by Gates because it lacked “detail and rigor”).

Those affiliated with charter schools, including representatives from Boys Latin and Nueva Espreanza, had no problem with the SRC’s liberal attitude regarding school choice, however.  They took advantage of the SRC’s new policy of entertaining questions from the audience in order to put forth a number of requests. One asked that the cap on student attendance in his school be lifted.  Another asked that charters not be restricted by “bureaucratic” procedures presently imposed by the district.

These requests were made despite that fact that charters are in many cases a poor alternative to failing schools, especially when they are failing themselves.  The data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education website shows that only 54.7 percent of charters in the city reached AYP last year; several have failed to achieve AYP in the last five years, including Nueva Esperanza Academy; interestingly, GreatSchools.org assigned Nueva Esperanza a rating of only 3 out of 10.  Is this school’s leadership asking to expand its enrollment so that the district can send more students to a failing school?  

Obviously, the SRC needs to read the data from the PA Dept. of Ed. before it passes any proposal to increase the number of Philadelphia charter schools or expand enrollment.  The commissioners must make more time available for students, parents, teachers and community members to read and comment on any compact which closes neighborhood schools. They must take seriously the testimony of the families whose children would be forced to go elsewhere.

In other words, they must demonstrate that their promises of more transparency and community involvement are not empty ones.

Lisa Haver is an education activist and retired teacher.

School Choice is Twenty-First Century Segregation

by Christopher Paslay

Charter schools do not serve the neediest children—they weed them out.

Generally speaking, there are two ways to deal with a public school that is struggling to succeed.  One—you could provide that school with the proper supports, such as doing building renovations and repairs, upgrading materials, and investing in technology.  You could revamp curriculum to make it more individualized and authentic, treat teachers with respect and trust in their expertise, and expand alternative schools and programs to remediate troubled youth.  In other words, you could invest in families and communities, and create a culture of learning available to all children within the bounds of a neighborhood.

Or two—you could deem the school a failure and turn your back on it.  Throw up your hands and say, “This school isn’t worth saving.”  You could do so by pinning all the complex challenges facing students in struggling neighborhoods solely on “lousy” teachers and “good-for-naught” principals, opting to take your resources elsewhere and start over by building a brand new school.  Yes, you could funnel tax dollars away from the school you deemed “failing” and build a charter.  You could hire new teachers (although many would come from the same pool of “lousy” teachers whose schools were shut down), you could set-up your admissions process so only students with educated parents could navigate the paperwork, and you could throw out those children who don’t follow your rules and send them back to the “failing” neighborhood school to rot with the rest of the children who couldn’t get into your charter.         

You could deal with a struggling school by doing one of those two things.  Fighting the good fight, or turning and running away.  The school choice folks, those obsessed with charters, like to run.  It’s easier that way.  Finding alternative ways to educate America’s bottom third is no easy task.  America’s bottom third is quite the pain in the butt, to put it bluntly.  They are the ones with the family issues, and the health issues, and the addition problems.  They’ve been exposed to domestic violence and often can’t manage their anger or peacefully solve problems.  And charters, which have limited space and stricter rules, keep these students out.            

KIPP charters (Knowledge Is Power Program) are a prime example.  Touted as working wonders for poor and minority children, KIPP schools are indeed achieving good results on standardized tests.  However, because KIPP schools have extended school days and hold classes on weekends, the student turnover rate is extremely high for Black males—over 40 percent dropout between grades 6 – 8.  In addition, KIPP is criticized for not serving more English Language Learners and students with disabilities.

The real kicker is that despite the added advantage of weeding out struggling students, as a whole, charters still aren’t performing any better than traditional public schools.  The CREDO study proves this reality point blank, as does the fact that in Philadelphia, only 54.7 percent of charters are making AYP under the No Child Left Behind guidelines.

This is most likely due to the fact that up to 60 percent of student achievement is based on nonschool factors.  Noted education historian Diane Ravitch wrote about this reality in a review of the film Waiting for Superman that she published in The New York Review of Books:  

“. . . teacher quality accounts for about 7.5–10 percent of student test score gains. Several other high-quality analyses echo this finding, and while estimates vary a bit, there is a relative consensus: teachers statistically account for around 10–20 percent of achievement outcomes. Teachers are the most important factor within schools.

But the same body of research shows that nonschool factors matter even more than teachers. According to University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber, about 60 percent of achievement is explained by nonschool factors, such as family income.”

So while the quality of a teacher and school are important, if the educational issues stemming from nonschool variables aren’t properly addressed—and most charters do not address them—academic progress and student achievement will be limited.               

Tragically, school choice isn’t doing much to improve achievement.  It is, however, giving parents a legal means of separating their children from the unwanted bottom third, and allowing school reformers and entrepreneurs to turn a profit at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised.