Sunday, June 26, 2011

All charters are not equal

In the debate over how to improve the nation's educational system, there is typically no middle ground on the value of charter schools. You're either for them or against them. But in their fervor, both sides are missing a more fundamental question: Which charters work, and why?

Charters — publicly financed schools run by private entities with flexibility on curriculum, teacher pay and dismissals — can make valuable contributions, but not always.

Enough charters (more than 5,000) have been tried in enough places for enough years to start drawing some conclusions. One has to do with the way failing students are treated. In traditional public schools, that's considered the student's problem. At successful charters, teachers are expected to find ways to reach them and move them forward. That's one common denominator economist Margaret Raymond has found in her research of charters for Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes.

Effective charters also are usually organized around a single guiding principle. At High Tech High, which opened in San Diego in 2000 and is now part of a growing network, the principle is that students learn best by being engaged in projects. The culture at KIPP (the Knowledge is Power Program) schools, a 99-school network with remarkable results, is built around motivating students to work long, hard hours with college as the prize. KIPP extends the time students spend in class through longer days, twice-monthly Saturday classes and summer school. To engage parents, a KIPP teacher visits each student's home and works on a "learning pledge," which is signed by the teacher, the student and the parents.

Still, KIPP and other high-performing charters are not the norm. Raymond's 2009 study of charters in 15 states and Washington, D.C., found that just 17% of charters were providing superior education opportunities for their students, half were no different from traditional schools and a third delivered results that were worse than public schools.

For anyone interested in reform, the Stanford study provided plenty to chew on, but few educators took a bite. Only a handful of states contacted the author for data that identified the schools and their performance. Most states and localities seemed utterly uninterested in facts that might shake their preconceptions.

A few districts took a more sensible approach. New York City contracted for its own study, and Raymond found some brighter news: More than half of charters delivered better outcomes in math than traditional schools. A non-profit educational group in New Orleans commissioned a study, too, and is using the data to award grants to effective schools.

New York and New Orleans are unafraid to close ineffective charters — something that was supposed to be central to the charter experiment. In exchange for taxpayer funds and freedom to operate outside the traditional school format, charters would be highly accountable. Somewhere along the way, accountability got lost. It's as tough to close a bad charter as a traditional failing school. Yet shutting down bad charters is as important as learning from successful ones.

As debate swirls around charters in Georgia, Indiana, New York City and other locales, there's no reason that the successful models shouldn't own a larger share of the education marketplace.

All that stands in the way are school boards afraid to close failing charters, and misplaced battles that pit charters against traditional schools.


Union Apologists: Why Keep School Seniority? Older Teachers Have Mortgages!

Some people can find an excuse for anything, including the ridiculous practice of “last in, first out,” which protects veteran teachers during periods of layoff in public schools.

We’ve heard unions complain that seniority must be maintained so that “administrators can’t discriminate against certain individuals (based on their age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, for example) or play favorites…”

Further, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers theorized that efforts to dump the LIFO policy are “an effort to pit union members against each other, to get us sniping and backstabbing to keep our jobs.”

Perhaps the Philadelphia school board is simply interested in retaining the best teachers, regardless of seniority? Nah, that couldn’t be it.

Now consider this doozy from a Michigan newspaper reporter-acting-as-columnist, William F. Ast III:

“What's wrong with observing seniority when forced to lay off some employees?

“Employees with seniority are more likely to be established in the community. They are more likely to be paying mortgages. They are more likely to have children, with all the expenses and responsibilities associated with parenthood. Surely that's worth some consideration, and I'm a little tired of those who say loyal workers deserve no loyalty from the top.”

So teachers with mortgages deserve special job protections. They could be completely worthless at their job – a negative influence, in fact – but they have obligations they must meet. That means taxpayers and parents must tolerate their incompetence to make sure they don’t lose their house, right? Never mind the fact that children aren’t learning.

Unions have also claimed that seniority systems prevent school boards from laying off the highest paid teachers first.

This all, of course, runs contrary to common sense. School leaders want the best teachers, regardless of age, sex or race. Parents and students deserve no less. A seniority-based system is one of the greatest injustices in American public schools. It was adopted from auto companies and has no place in education.

With America’s academic performance in decline, we must make sure we have the best possible educators in every classroom. If that means a lesser teacher with a home mortgage loses their job, so be it.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and Ast once again prove that the fight in America’s public schools really is about adult issues, not students.


Exam results in Wales plummet after school league tables are abolished

Another failure of "progressive" education

Schoolchildren have dropped an average of two grades in their GCSEs as a result of a decision to abolish league tables. It is one of a number of disturbing failings in Wales’s education system revealed in a shocking new Radio 4 programme recorded by John Humphrys.

SATs tests have also been ditched and a controversial new approach to the teaching of three to seven-year-olds – the Foundation Phase – has been introduced. The current generation of Welsh 15-year-olds, the first to have been educated under the new system, have been outperformed by pupils in every region in England, including the North East, Yorkshire and Humberside, similar economically and socially to Wales.

In Testing Times, Today presenter Mr Humphrys looks at the measures introduced by the Welsh Assembly in the field of education over the past decade. Because performance figures in Wales are not published, the BBC used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain statistics for the first time in ten years.

Meanwhile, the latest report from PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment, which looks at education systems worldwide, states that Wales has slipped well below the average for the developed world for reading and is even worse for maths.

While making the programme, to be broadcast today at 1.30pm, Mr Humphrys returned to the Welsh primary school where he was taught 60 years ago – and was shocked by what he found. He said: ‘There’s no sitting in regimented rows with the teacher at the front. The Foundation Phase means very roughly that children learn through their own experiences.

‘According to the jargon, it focuses on ‘‘experiential learning and active involvement’’. What it means in practice is that children learn by playing or doing rather than being taught in any conventional sense.’

PISA says the abolition of SATs has also had a negative impact. Children in England are tested at seven, 11 and 14, but in Wales the tests for seven-year-olds were dropped in 2001 and the others were axed in 2004.

The head of PISA, Andreas Schleicher, told Mr Humphrys: ‘Whether abandoning those kinds of assessments was the right thing is up for debate.’

The programme reveals the most damaging change has been the abolition of school league tables.

Professor Simon Burgess, of Bristol University, told the radio presenter: ‘The removal of league tables in Wales led to a serious decline in exam performance. This was of really quite a sizeable magnitude of around two GCSE grades per student. So that’s like getting a D grade rather than a B.

‘Obviously parents want lots of things from a school. The league tables give them a way of working out which would be the best schools for their child. If you remove that information there’s less pressure on schools to perform well.’

And according to the BBC’s education correspondent, Ciaran Jenkins, who contributed to the programme, parents in Wales are being denied information about their country’s failing schools.

Mr Jenkins said: ‘If you’re a parent in England you log on to the Department for Education’s website or the BBC and there’s a wealth of information about every school’s performance. In Wales there is nothing at all.’


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