Monday, July 05, 2010

Charter schools spread across Texas with goal of newer, better teaching

More than 120 charter schools in North Texas are part of a national explosion, fueled by a recent surge in political, philanthropic and parental support.

Fifteen years into the Texas charter school experiment, some charters have brought impressive innovation to public education, saved dropouts and posted enviable test scores. But on other campuses, kids have languished in poorly run classrooms and taxpayer money has been squandered on shady operations.

Despite the wildly varied results, the national charter school movement has gained serious steam over the past year. The forces include strong local political support, backing from philanthropic giants like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ambitious charter school management groups, private investors, fed-up urban parents – and even President Barack Obama.

"We're not an experiment anymore," said David Dunn, executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association. "We're a small but crucial piece of the overall public education system in this state."

Charter schools are public schools that are privately run and free of many state laws governing traditional schools. The theory is that, freed of red tape, charter schools can forge new and creative approaches to help kids learn. Sometimes that has happened; other times it hasn't.

Take two of Texas' earliest charter schools, Renaissance Charter Academy and North Hills School. Both opened in Irving, Renaissance in 1996 and North Hills a year later.

The group that operates North Hills, Uplift Education, now runs 15 charter schools in North Texas and plans to open two more this fall. North Hills has been rated mostly "exemplary" or "recognized" each year. Renaissance, meanwhile, shut down after about five years, owing the state nearly $3 million, mostly because it inflated attendance figures, which determine state funding. The school earned average to low state ratings.

"What we know is that charter schools vary tremendously. There are some charter schools that have very good results, and some that have very poor results," said Marisa Cannata, associate director of the National Center on School Choice at Vanderbilt University.

Texas limits charter school districts to 215, though a single district may operate multiple campuses. The State Board of Education has granted approval for 211 charter districts – and 28 groups have applied for the four remaining spots.

Texas has the third-highest number of charter schools, after California and Arizona. Despite the cap, the number of charter campuses grows every year. Five new campuses will open in the Dallas area this school year. About a third of the local charter schools are less than 3 years old.

Most of the recent arrivals are run by groups experienced in the business, such as Uplift. The charter operation will open two more schools in Dallas this fall – Heights Preparatory in West Dallas and Laureate Preparatory downtown.

Life School, a charter group that stresses character education at its five North Texas campuses, will open a sixth this fall in Cedar Hill. A postcard promoting the new campus declares it has "no tuition," presenting itself as an alternative to traditional schools without private school costs. And Responsive Education Solutions, based in Lewisville, opened its 35th campus this spring in McKinney and plans for several more around Texas this fall.

A Dallas Morning News analysis of charter schools shows that Texas charter schools are most popular in urban areas, such as Dallas and Houston. About 10 percent of children living in the Dallas Independent School District opt for a charter school.

Charters draw larger shares from some low-rated, high-poverty suburban school districts. For example, Lancaster ISD and North Forest ISD near Houston carry the state's lowest academic rating of "unacceptable." In both cases, more than 15 percent of students living in the district attend a charter school, The News found.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank in Austin, estimates that more than 40,000 children across the state are on charter school waiting lists.

While demand is fueling the growth of charter schools, so is money. Obama has called for the expansion of good charter schools. His administration is awarding more than $4 billion in competitive grants to improve education, with priority given to states that relax or eliminate caps on the number of charter schools they allow.

Traditional school districts, which stand to lose students and money to charter schools, are following the new charter-friendly emphasis now placed on federal education dollars. DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa recently announced that the district would partner with Uplift Education and apply for a $5 million federal grant to create teacher training academies, an odd partnership that surprised many.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, and Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation have given tens of millions of dollars to support charter schools. Last year, the Gates Foundation said it would guarantee $30 million in bonds to help Houston-based charter group KIPP expand.

Private investors are also taking interest. Unlike traditional schools, charter schools don't receive public funds to build schools. They often must pay higher interest rates on their loans because they lack lengthy financial track records.

Then there's parent demand. Dallas parent Shaniqua Childs chose Life School in east Oak Cliff for her son and daughter. "This school is phenomenal," she said. "The teachers really care about the students." She also likes that the school requires parents to earn "parenting points" by attending seminars and observing classrooms.

State Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said legislators should respond to parent demand and lift the "arbitrary" state cap.

"You've got 40,000 students waiting in line to go to a charter school. Tell me another school in the state of Texas that has that type of demand," said Shapiro, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.


Poor British state schools should stop hiding behind excuses, says private school headmaster

A headmaster who left a grammar to lead a top independent school has spelled out what is wrong with state eduction

The news recently has been far from heartening for parents. Ofsted has revealed that half of state schools are struggling to provide a good education, new research has found that middle-class families are being priced out of the independent sector by fee hikes and the solution being touted by the new Government is for parents to take on the Herculean task of setting up their own schools.

But one headmaster with a unique perspective on the education landscape in England is optimistic that improvements can be made if councils are cut out of the equation and teaching and learning, not social engineering, become, once again the focus of schools.

Rod MacKinnon was the head teacher of Bexley Grammar School, in Kent, for 13 years before he made the move to the private sector. He has been at the helm of Bristol Grammar School, a £9,000 a year day school founded in 1532, since September 2008.

He knew it was the right time to make the change when the local education authority he operated under decided it needed to appoint a £60,000 a year "cluster coordinator" to help local schools work together. "I thought 'what on earth is going on here'. Just give me the money and I can get my class sizes down," said the head. "These advisors and bureaucrats - what are they doing? Local authorities watch schools flounder and fail and then get in the way of successful schools."

As well as the desire for a new challenge, it was this obvious frustration at the deadening hand of town hall officialdom that gave Mr MacKinnon the impetus to make the switch.

And the same driver is prompting hundreds of state schools to apply for the Government's extension of academy [charter] status to all outstanding secondaries and primaries. With academy status comes a more flexible curriculum, control over budgets, pay and appointments and the freedom to make decisions as and when. Mr MacKinnon thinks it just might work.

"Local authorities as a mechanism for improvement was never going to work," he said. "The academy movement is at least going in the right direction. Local authorities want you to get in your box. "Their response to good ideas is 'we don't do things that way'. They want heads who are going to do what they are told and that is disastrous, because you need leaders."

So, for outstanding schools which can make the move to academy status, the news is good. For parents with children in bog standard comprehensives, however, the path to improvement is less clear.

According to Mr MacKinnon, three elements would make a difference; the trend for ever bigger schools needs to be halted, poor schools need to stop making excuses for their failure and the Government must accept that schools can not solve the ills of society.

"The push for good schools and also some bad schools to get bigger and bigger is a serious mistake," he said. "It is militating against a sustainable quality of education. "You need a school where children are walking down the corridor and teachers are saying 'David, have you done that piece of work?'.

"A good response is not going to be forthcoming from 'Oy, you', especially from the average teenager. This is followed quickly by teachers thinking 'I won't say anything because I'll get abuse'. "Children need to belong to an identifiable community. In big schools the ethos is harder to maintain. Pupils and teachers can hide in the thicket of not being accountable."

Schools that are performing badly are often full of excuses, the headmaster claims, an attitude propagated by a Labour Government which encouraged them to focus on children's backgrounds and engage is social engineering.

"One of the biggest pitfalls in schools that are struggling is hiding behind excuses, a lack of ambition of how you can change these children's life chances," said the head. "We need to shine a light on success. I believe in prize giving. It means some children won't get prizes but I am sorry, achievement matters. We are kidding ourselves if we pretend it doesn't.

"We can educate children, help them grow in confidence, give them a sense of self-worth, reinforce moral values, teach them about Shakespeare and Boyle's law but we can't replace the family, or bring down teenage pregnancy or cut knife crime. "And the idea that we can is a hostage to fortune. It condemns schools to fail. It is disastrous.

"It might be well intentioned but if we really wanted that, we would not employ physics graduates to teach, we would employ highly skilled social workers.

"What you have to say is within these walls, we are going to focus on physics and maths and achievement and if you are successful in that, it will build your self-worth. "It may not solve all your problems, but it is something we can do that will make a difference."

He takes the change of title at the Department for Children, Schools and Families to the streamlined Department for Education - one of Michael Gove's first actions as education secretary - as a very good sign. The ambition for every head should be simple, and limited, to providing a good education.

Mr MacKinnon's forthright comments will infuriate teachers in the state sector, coming, as they do from the former head of a grammar school, which could cream off the brightest, who is now in the privileged position of leading one of the top 100 independent schools in the country.

Even more controversial is his take on the pay deal for teachers in the state sector. In 2008, the Government agreed a three year settlement which will see teachers salaries rise by 2.3 per cent this year, a deal that is unjustifiable in a recession, according to the head. "We have to look at, I'm afraid, at the 2.3 per cent pay rise for teachers," he said. "I am staggered that it was agreed two years in advance.

"We all know that teachers are not paid enough but in the current financial climate, the idea that we can set up a system that it is going to see a rise regardless, is staggering. In the commercial world, parents are losing jobs. "Pay is being cut. Yet teachers pay, in the state sector is automatically expected to go up.

"If it doesn't get changed it's a lot of money. For the country I would rather that we had some reductions in pay and keep the staff. The reality is that if schools have budget cuts they will have to lose staff."

In the light of a report published last week by the Institute for Fiscal Studies which found that private schools fees have rocketed three time faster than incomes, Mr MacKinnon's remarks might invite criticism.

He acknowledges that schools have to keep their fees down in the current climate - Bristol Grammar has held the rise at 2.5 per cent - and said that he has been surprised by the increase at some schools.

Ultimately though, independent school parents can vote with their feet. "The biggest difference moving from the state to the private sector was the genuine feeling of accountability," he said. "Parental choice is talked about a lot in the state sector but in reality there is very little choice. In the independent sector, if you don't like the service, you will walk away. That concentrates the mind."

One of the unfortunate similarities between the sectors has been the growing avalanche of regulation that has tied heads up in red tape.

Again, Mr MacKinnon is hopeful, along with other private school heads, that the Coalition Government will streamline the burdensome processes. "Inspectors now focus on legal requirements - right down to how many wash basins you should have," he said. "You don't' need a school inspector for that, you need a clerk with a clipboard. "These inspectors, with a wealth of experience, who should be focusing on what happens in the classroom, are counting the toilets. It's just nuts."

Despite this, independent schools still have the freedom to strive for success in the best way they see fit, a luxury not afforded to many state schools.

Unlike Vicky Tuck, the head of Cheltenham Ladies College, who last week decried the "hostility" she believes is directed at independent schools, Mr MacKinnon is bullish about what the sector has and can achieve.

"We don't need to adopt this defensive posture," he said. "I was proud of working in the state sector and I'm proud of working in the private sector. We don't need a siege mentality, we need to keep celebrating our success, which speaks for itself."


Leftists are criticizing academically selective schooling in Australia too

Bright children should be allowed to fulfil their potential without being dragged down by being placed among dummies -- but that's not how the envious Left see it. They want to drag everyone down to an "equal" low level. They don't give a damn about the individual gifted kid. It is only abstractions about groups that interest them

NSW is creating a "social and academic apartheid" in education with private and selective schools prospering at the expense of comprehensive public schools, says one of the state's top educators.

Chris Bonnor, a former president of the Secondary Principals Council and former principal of Asquith Boys High, said Australia had established a tiered education system that was segregating students by income level and academic performance.

"We are separating our schools for the academic elite," he said. "Schools which can do so are hunting out bright kids through tests, scholarships and interviews with parents and avoiding kids with learning difficulties," he said.

"There is also a worsening social class division with low-income children increasingly going to public schools and the richer kids going to private and selective schools. "There is an increasing separation of kids along academic and social lines and, to some extent, along religious and cultural lines and nobody in government departments or government wants to talk about it."

Richard Teese, a specialist in school systems at the University of Melbourne, said the expansion of selective schooling in NSW - there are now 17 fully and 28 partly selective high schools - was creating "engines of high academic success", but at a significant cost.

"It's a very inequitable policy because it takes away cultural and academic resources from many sites and concentrates them into a few," Professor Teese said. "By operating schools like these you drain talent from many other comprehensive schools, which need what the French call pilot students - that is, model students who provide a really good example.

"The aim should be high standards everywhere. It doesn't make sense to have half a system that works and half a system that doesn't," he said.

Mr Bonnor, co-author of the book The Stupid Country: How Australia is Dismantling Public Education, said when two selective schools were established in the Hornsby area 15 years ago, surrounding schools were told this would provide more choice.

The schools made selective, Normanhurst Boys and Hornsby Girls, dramatically increased their share of high achievers, but the nine surrounding comprehensive schools and the low-fee private schools "lost out".

But the principals of those schools are in effect silenced about losing their best academic talent for fear of exacerbating the situation. "I didn't say it when I was principal at Asquith Boys High. It has the danger of increasing the loss of the remaining high achievers from the school," Mr Bonnor said.

"We also now have an outbreak of pseudo-selective schools - both private and public - each setting tests to gather a disproportionate share of the able, the engaged and the anxious. This is especially taking place across northern Sydney."

The principal of one selective high school, who did not want to be named, told the Herald that selective schools had been a disaster for comprehensive schools. "My own view is if I were to wave a wand and start again, I would not have any selective schools or independent schools or private schools or public schools. I think the model I'd like to go for is your local community school. But that's 150 years too late. We've moved on so that's no longer possible."

The government increased the number of selective school places by 600 to 4133 this year to help stem the drift from public to private schools.

The move will also increase the ranking achieved in the HSC results by the top selective high schools. James Ruse Agricultural High School has topped the Herald's HSC performance list for 14 consecutive years.

Last year, government selective high schools took out four of the top five positions. The first comprehensive government high schools to appear on the Herald's list were Killara High School in 54th position and Cherrybrook Technology High School in 59th.

Mr Bonnor said the Department of Education "pretends this problem does not exist". "The department is avoiding the issue and no one wants to know that by offering opportunities for some kids, this is reducing opportunities for others," he said.


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