Wednesday, June 29, 2016

After 25 Years, What's Next For Charter Schools?

The major advocacy group for charter schools is meeting this week in Nashville, and there's lots to celebrate.

What began with a single state law in Minnesota has spread to a national movement of nearly 6,800 schools, serving just under 3 million students.

But at it's annual meeting, the National National Alliance for Public Charter Schools is also using the moment to call for a fresh look at how these innovative public schools are managed and how they're held accountable.

Among the concerns is whether the failure rate of online charter schools is hurting the credibility of the movement in general.

Others inside the movement say charters "have hit a wall" — that too many are operating like traditional public schools, with unimpressive results because they've done little or nothing to innovate and adopt the most promising classroom practices.

Which makes it a good time to talk with Ted Kolderie, one of the architects of the nation's first charter school law in 1991. In his new book, The Split Screen Strategy: Innovation and Improvement, Kolderie argues that public education is cursed by the notion of the "one best way to do education better." The problem, he says, is that it's impossible to generate a political consensus for radical change.

The Split Screen Strategy: How to Turn Education Into a Self-Improving System, published September 2015, by Ted Kolderie.
Ted Kolderie/Education Evolving

So are you saying school reform and the charter school movement in particular are at an impasse?

I'm trying to say that you have lots of people [in conventional schools] who aren't ready for the "radically different." The way to get innovation is to ask people to do things they've never done before, but nobody is forced to move from the traditional to the new and different. So you have a dual system, with innovations gradually spreading and at the same time a traditional model improving. This is the way successful systems work. Why not education?

So you're saying you can innovate and make dramatic changes without ramming it down people's throats. Eventually, they too will adopt these changes but at their own pace. That's what you call a "split screen strategy." Can you give an example of how or where this has worked?

In New Hampshire, you'll see the state pushing competency-based education. Students get credit for as much as they can learn, as rapidly as they can learn. It's not a complete break with the old traditional "age grading," but it's a start in that direction. There's also personalized learning, greatly assisted by digital electronics that make it possible for students to work individually. Project-based learning asks the student, 'What are you most interested in?' Then, working with the student and parents, teachers design a program of learning for the year, built around the student's interests. It's a curriculum built around kids' interests.

Your book also poses this question: Does the country go on working to improve performance in existing schools? Or are the problems of performance the result of a fundamentally flawed school design?

If students don't want to learn, you can't make them. So any effort to improve learning must begin with improving student motivation. I challenge people to explain how a conventional school is designed to maximize student motivation. They can't. Organizing, grouping students by age with a different teacher every year, these [policies] are set in concrete and they're very difficult to change. People need to try different things. Which is why the charter sector is so important.

The fascinating thing about chartering was that it didn't tell anybody what kind of a school they had to create, how to organize it or how to teach. It was created to be an open system so people could make those decisions by themselves for themselves.

Some worry though that more and more charter schools are operating like conventional public schools and not doing anything different or better. Many charters are run by large organizations with their own centralized bureaucracies, top-down management and little or no innovation.

Along with that centralization comes standardization, which suppresses innovation. We tell [schools] what to do, check to see if they've done it and then whack them if they haven't done it. We've been doing this for 20 to 40 years and it hasn't dramatically improved performance. It hasn't solved the achievement-gap problem. And it hasn't produced any real change in the design of schools or teaching and learning.

So if standardization is the enemy of innovation, hasn't the federal government contributed to that in its efforts to hold schools accountable, including charters?

The job of the top leadership is to build and develop a climate that encourages innovation. So I would go to the federal government and say: You don't own the schools, you don't run the schools, you don't even enact education laws. Your job is to create, in states and districts, a climate for innovation. Just that simple.


The Federal Student Loan Disaster

According to the U.S. Treasury Department, the federal government has borrowed over $1.036 trillion to loan money to U.S. college students through the Federal Direct student loan program through April 2016, with over 86% of that amount having been added since January 2009.

David Jesse of the Detroit Free Press reports that for the over $605 billion of federal student loans that have come due for payment, all is not going well with respect to former students paying back the money they borrowed from Uncle Sam:

Twenty percent of all federal loan borrowers have defaulted on their loans, according to new data released by the federal government last week,” the Free Press reports. “That translates into $121 billion of loans in default. That same data show 40 percent of all borrowers are not making any payments, and are in some sort of forbearance, delinquency or default.

For students who have fallen behind on their student loan payments, or who are in default, the decision to borrow money from the U.S. government to go to college is looking more and more like an extremely poor choice.

For U.S. policy makers, the exceptionally high rates of payment delinquencies and defaults mean their best intentions have backfired, with the result of harming the people they intended to help the most. The Wall Street Journal‘s Josh Mitchell writes about how what was supposed to be an investment in “human capital” has instead turned toxic:

The U.S. government over the last 15 years made a trillion-dollar investment to improve the nation’s workforce, productivity and economy. A big portion of that investment has now turned toxic, with echoes of the housing crisis.

The investment was in “human capital,” or, more specifically, higher education. The government helped finance tens of millions of tuitions as enrollment in U.S. colleges and graduate schools soared 24% from 2002 to 2012, rivaling the higher-education boom of the 1970s. Millions of others attended trade schools that award career certificates....

New research shows a significant chunk of that investment backfired, with millions of students worse off for having gone to school. Many never learned new skills because they dropped out—and now carry debt they are unwilling or unable to repay. Policy makers worry that without a bigger intervention, those borrowers will become trapped for years and will ultimately hurt, rather than help, the nation’s economy.

The article indicates that some 7 million Americans have defaulted on their federal student loans, which for $121 billion worth of student loans in default, puts the average value of a student loan in default at $17,285.

A monthly payment for a federal student loan with the current interest rate of 4.29% for undergraduates over a typical 10 year term is $177.39 according to the Student Loan Calculator at, or $2,128.68 per year.

Because the money is owed to the federal government, Americans who are chronically unable to make the monthly payments on their on their student loans are not able to have the debt discharged through bankruptcy.

Instead, many of these former students will find themselves placed on the federal government’s Income Based Repayment plan that will instead take up to 10% of their discretionary income out of their pay each month for the next 20 years. The amount of discretionary income that can be subjected to an Income Based Repayment plan depends upon things like how many people are in the household of the student loan borrower.

In practice, except for expiring after a 20 year period, the federal government’s Income Based Repayment plan for student loans is no different from the income tax. Until that period expires, it should be considered to be an additional income tax – one that is specifically imposed on poor and lower middle class Americans.

Just like many of the 7 million Americans who could not afford to continue making an average $177.39 per month payment on their student loans and are now in default upon them. Just like an additional 7 million Americans who have fallen behind on their student loan payments.


Vanderbilt, Stanford Rape Cases Show Need for New Approach to Campus Sexual Assault

On June 20, 2016, a jury convicted Vanderbilt University football player Brandon Vandenburg of rape after just 4 1/2 hours. He was found guilty on eight counts, meaning he could get 15-20 years in prison. Many are comparing the Vanderbilt case to the Stanford University rape case, where former collegiate swimmer Brock Turner was convicted of sexual assault with attempt to rape. But this is a mistake. The two cases are very different, and the implications for campus sexual assault policy are significant.

I’ve spent the last three years researching and writing a book on campus sexual assault, Unsafe on Any Campus? College Sexual Assault and What We Can Do About It, and it’s slated for official release on July 28th. This problem is enormously complex, and two important observations (among many others) became very apparent : 1) not all rapists are the same, and 2) the criminal justice system is poorly suited to address campus sexual assault.

The Vanderbilt and Stanford cases have several similarities: They occurred at what many would call elite universities,* they involved athletes, alcohol played a crucial role, and the victims were unconscious (or near unconscious) when they were attacked. One other factor puts these cases in a league of their own: the defendants were convicted of the underlying crime of sexual assault and rape. This happens in fewer than 10% of cases brought to prosecutors, a startling statistic I unpack in my book.

Here is where the similarities stop, and the implications for campus assault policy begin. The Vanderbilt case is a slam dunk for significant prison time. The jury agreed that Brandon Vandenburg raped his victim and orchestrated a gang rape that involved multiple levels of humiliation, degradation, and sexual assault. On an emotional level, the fact he did this to his girlfriend is hard for most people (including me) to comprehend. This case, from what I’ve read, has the marks of a predator. While I am not a therapist, the fact Vandenburg appeared so disinterested and removed from the welfare of the woman with whom he appeared to be emotionally and physically intimate at her most vulnerable state makes him appear sociopathic.

The case of Brock Turner, which I discussed in a previous article, is different. The trauma to the victim was severe—just read her victim impact statement. She describes the emotional and psychological anguish that many victims of rape and sexual assault experience (and is central to Chapters 2 and 3 in my book). While convicted of sexual assault with intent to rape, Turner was legally drunk, and his act was solo. His behavior and actions appear to be more characteristics of a naive, possibly entitled, freshman unable to differentiate between what was socially acceptable and what was not in the confusing world of today’s college campuses. While its still unclear whether he understands the gravity of the trauma he inflicted on his victim (based on his statement to the court), he has shown remorse to the court and taken responsibility for his actions. Turner’s assault, equally worthy of criminal conviction and its consequences, appears less intentional and more opportunistic. The difference is important.

In Unsafe on Any Campus?, I present an alternative way of looking at rapists and their impact on community welfare (Figure 12, page 125). I argue that campus sexual assault policy should recognize that rapists vary significantly in type and impact on the community. Predator rapists such as Vandenburg pose the most threat to individuals, their actions are the most destructive to community, are their cases are the most suitable for prosecution in the criminal justice system. They may well require isolation through incarceration to contain their impact.

On the other end of the spectrum are what I call “negligent” rapists. These are the teenagers who drink too much, don’t understand the practical meaning of consent, and make poor decisions that harm others (many seriously). The harm they inflict is unintentional, and a byproduct of other activities such as heavy partying. In between these ends of the spectrum are rapists impulsively motivated by anger and opportunity rapists who troll environments like bars and fraternity parties for naive targets. Each rapist need to be dealt with in different ways, although all need to be held accountable for the social and personal consequences of their actions.

Unfortunately, the legal system is incapable of differentiating between these types and what is necessary to prevent sexual assault and rape from recurring. The same adversarial criminal justice system is applied in all cases, regardless of whether the offender poses a threat to society. The potential consequences are also the same, irrespective of the circumstances and personalities involved. Turner could have been sentenced to up to 14 years in prison for one count of sexual assault with intent to rape. Vandenburg is facing 15-25 years for orchestrating a gang rape for eight counts including rape. Most observers want both defendants to receive the maximum sentence.

Few people, however, are asking the bigger question: what punishment is necessary to prevent sexual assault and rape from happening again? Incarceration presumes that the convicted offender is a continuing menace to society, a predator, a sociopath, unable to control physical urges. The only way to stop them is to isolate them from society.

It’s unclear that Turner fits this profile. Although recent evidence suggests he lied to the court about his background, lying is perjury and doesn’t qualify as sociopathic or lacks remorse for his actions. Based on the probation officer’s report and his own statements, he appears unlikely to commit sexual assault or rape again and realizes gravity of his actions (at least in terms of the law). While Turner should be held accountable for his actions, the benefit of jail time is unclear to him or the community. (If he becomes active in raising awareness about the trauma and human consequences of sexual assault, his work outside prison might be beneficial.)

Vandenburg’s case is more complex and alarming. The magnitude of his crimes and actions suggest he may well be a continuing threat to society. Almost certainly a “not guilty” verdict—the result of most sexual assault and rape trials—would have contributed to a sense of entitlement and trivialized the trauma he (and his peers) imposed.

Clamors for incarceration and lengthy jail sentences are often a reflection of frustration with a poorly functioning criminal justice system, anger at the human costs of sexual assault and rape, and a belief that harsh and severe punishment is the most effective solution to the problem. But this isn’t always the case.

For alternatives, perhaps we should look to the victim’s themselves. In the Brock Turner case, the victim said she didn’t want Turner to “rot in jail.” She wanted him to “get it.” Indeed, all indicators are that if Brock Turner “got it,” he would no longer be a threat. That’s the real goal, and it’s time to start looking for alternatives to the Incarceration State to achieve it and focusing the criminal justice system on the ongoing menaces to society.


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