Monday, May 22, 2006

Don't Think of a Charter School

In preparing to begin a dissertation with charter schools as part of the focus I welcome having to explain the most basic of questions to all kinds of people. People inevitably ask, "So what exactly is a charter school?" I've been honing my response, the answer, but I admit I don't have it perfectly. "It's a public school." A fine beginning, not entirely correct all the time, but reflective of an ideology at least. "They vary greatly from state to state." Ambiguity from the start; not so good. "The charter authority is responsible for the charter for the charter school." The what? "You know to grant a charter, hence the name charter school." Blank stares, or a supportive but vexed "ohhh." "And don't forget accountability." Right.

Basically I spend a lot of time telling people that charter schools look entirely different from school to school but they reflect a vision as stated in the contract or charter of the school upon founding.

Thanks to Andy for keeping some of these lower flying cessnas on the radar and for help in the title of this diddy. Ted Kolderie, Senior Associate at the Center for Policy Studies at Hamline University blogs today over at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools sorts some of this out nicely. He writes:

For these reasons, we have to stop treating "charter" as an adjective; a "charter school" is not a kind of school. A charter is a permission to start a school; is an empty organizational structure much as a building is an empty physical structure. Kids don't learn anything from charters: They learn from the teachers and the curriculum and the pedagogy and the books, materials and technology its organizers put into the school.

The idea can and should be further condensed. Charters describe a method for instantiating a school and a course for how the school will run. Everything else is perspiration, the building, the curriculum, the teaching, the learning, the values, the methods, the outcomes.

Harlem's Children Get Paid

CBS 60 minutes reported last week on Harlem's Children (mp3) and Geoffrey Canada's efforts to create a "Children's Zone" including about 6o blocks in Harlem. Geoffrey Canada's charter school, The Promise Academy is the flagship of Canada's Children's Zone. Serious funding, approximately $16,000 a student; a 6 to 1 student faculty ratio; extended hours and school year; and health care characterize the charter school. A lottery with odds that diminish with the increasing success of the school also marks the school.

Most notable about Canada's charter school according to the 60 Minutes'report are incentives for students. The Promise Academy model supports academic performance goals and attendance goals with cash disbursements to its students--up to $150 a month for high schoolers. And green Andrew Jacksons await elementary students with perfect attendance. Canada's methods are not unique. KIPP schools (Knowledge is Power Program) also use rewards and incentives to promote a culture of commitment among their students.

And what is so strange about incentivizing school anyway? How many things worth doing in life don't come with rewards? We all work for a reward in a paycheck; some of us are lucky enough to work for more than just a monetary reward: pride, a sense of contribution, and personal betterment come with some of the best jobs. These rewards are similar to the rewards of doing well in school. We tell children all the time that education is its own reward. But in a market economy, where capitalism is the ruling Ism, we might misrepresent the way this country works by not providing a tangible incentive to these students. There is probably a worthwhile and testable (quasi-experimental) thesis in there someplace. Incentives are not a perversion of schooling. And to a child faced with the choice between a thousand dollars a month from dealing and no money from school versus a thousand dollars a month from dealing and a much safer $150 a month from going to school the school incentive might actually make a difference. I'd like to see more data on this. I'm open to the idea. I'm not convinced, but I am open to possibilities school incentives might present.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Jay Matthews, Newsweek, and the Use of Language in Myth Building

Jay Matthews and Newsweek get picked on for sure in this NYT edu-op-ed by Michael Winerip. The gist here is that Mr. Matthews, famed and beloved Washington Post columnist, created a ranking system for his 1998 book "Class Struggle" and has found it to be a cash cow. He said of the ranking system, "It's meant to be narrow so people will understand what I'm measuring and can decide if it makes sense. Even if most people disagree, I'm delighted we are having this debate." Matthews, for his part, has decided.

The debate we're having so far isn't much of a debate, well at least not until Newsweek started cashing in on the ratings paranoia haunting the better judgment of everyone from college deans (education school deans included, uh hem), to professors (education school professors included, cough), to the overindulgent, nail driving, misinformed parental hoi polloi. The debate WE ARE HAVING is about what it means to rank high schools and rank them on only one criterion: a ratio of AP tests over graduates. The debate is just beginning really, now that people are taking notice.

The NYT piece highlights some of the more cogent arguments: that ranking schools on the number of AP tests students take without regard to their success on said tests seems absurd; that states using multiple criteria like subgroup achievement and dropout information often assign a middling rank to the very same schools that make the Newsweek top 1000; and, here's the kicker, the language used to describe the list, "Best High Schools in America" is imprecise at best, and at worst insidiously misleading.

Winerip's closer bites without breaking a sweat. Winerip quotes Matthews, "I would have preferred we call the list the most challenging schools, the schools trying to reach as many kids as possible. But I will defend 'Best.' 'Best' is a very elastic term in our society." The promotion and promulgation of "truthiness" continues, ad hominem.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Public School [and Student] Accountabilty Act

Old equity rears its head again. There is a level-headed argument in a California judge's ruling in a case affecting whether or not 10 percent of the 12th graders in the state will graduate. The Mercury News reports that because of a ruling from Judge Robert B. Freedman, California seniors may not be barred from graduating even if they fail to pass the state exit exam. The exam has existed for six years, but this is the first year the test is a true exit exam is a barrier test.

In response to the ruling, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell issued a statement calling the exam a cornerstone of California's school accountability system. O'Connell said he would rebuff any ruling with an appeal.

Policy makers must consider why barrier tests exist in the first place. If California' s exit exam is truly a cornerstone of California's school accountability system like the Superintendent says it is, then perhaps the Public School Accountability Act (PSAA) should be renamed the Public School Student Accountability Act. Policy makers will have to be careful here. Judge Freedman has basically ruled on this nuanced, but significant difference--school versus student accountability. Who is PSAA holding accountable? The schools or the kids? Clearly both types of accountability are at work, but it seems student accountability only comes into the pitcure significantly at the end of school with this exit exam.

Not insignificant, most parents understand that at the end of the day it is their kids who are held responsible, especially when their children could be barred from receiving the ultimate educational prize: the diploma. After all it is not difficult to understand that test scores are a mark of individual achievement. Ultimately the basis of accountability rests on the test and the test taker. Most, if not all of the rhetoric we hear about accountability in general places the burden squarely with the teachers and the schools. Viewed this way the exit exam is a whopper, a sucker punch that shows up at the end, the most important part, symbolic of all a student's and a school's cumulative effort. State and federal elites would do well to be more transparent in their rhetoric or edu-speak. School accountability systems are also student accountability systems. We may have moved a long way from holding schools harmless for the progress of their students, but we have not moved as far as some might like or think. The exit exam is a perfect example of this struggle about with whom the buck stops.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

1750 Schools Miss AYP for Fourth Consecutive Year

Looks like another career is going to begin to take off: restructuring specialists. According to A.P. (here we go again) nearly 1750 schools failed to meet NCLB Adequate Yearly Progress for the fourth straight year and consequently face restructuring. For a list of the order of sanctions see Stateline. The frustration at schools like these must be beginning to feel overwhelming. A great research project would be to chronicle the different school responses to the restructuring the schools undertake. There is a wealth of qualitative data in there that would give a voice to frustration, atonement, denial, rejection, and anger.

Three options for the inevitable train wreck: 1. change course by redefining sanctions 2. pump incredible resources into the schools including outstanding teachers equiped with all the support they need and solid leadership 3. change the way students are assessed to include classroom assessments as part of the formula 4. create a climate of support for teachers as change agents and field experts with the help of communities dedicated to the systematic improvement of student learning. Frankley I'm partial to all of the above, but we're going to need more than "things will sort themselves out, just let the sanctions run their course" to get through the next eight years.

I love the coment at the end of the article: "Education Department officials caution that the current numbers are still being verified. " Better be cautious, these numbers could go higher? Or better be cautious, these numbers could go lower? These possibilities are almost irrelevant by the time schools in the thousands begin to face restructuring.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Moma Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Pychometricians

It looks like the eponymous educator is in the wrong field, slightly. I literally have seen the writing on the wall so I have no excuse. I remember several times stopping in front a bulletin board dedicated to evaluation and statistics at my school. There, jobs were posted with starting salaries way beyond what I have long since resigned myself to. What kind of jobs? Psychometrics jobs. The NYTimes writes today about the increasing demand among test making and test efficacy specialists. It's a small group. The Times reports that nationally only 50 Ph.D.s graduate yearly in the field. With so much emphasis on testing, much to the chagrin of some of my more philosophically minded professors, and increasing concern about testing errors (see here and here), psychometrics is becoming a popular topic among wonks and lay people alike. For more on what we as a nation can do to remedy this 5 year-old cart-before-the-horse approach check out Education Sector's take (pdf).

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The NEA, Eduwonk, and the paradox of promoting oneself selflessly

I don't generally refer to other blogsite posts, but this one from Eduwonk caught my attention. In reference to an ECS forum in Delaware on teacher quality, an NEA representative's blunder made at least one other person in attendance blush. And clearly this guffaw has incensed the Eduwonk some. I guess I have a somewhat different response to this NEA member's comment of "the reason teacher salaries are so low in this country is that the NEA spent the last thirty years focusing mostly on student achievement. " Yes this sounds terrible but I would have liked to hear it in context. My guess is that this person who works on teacher pay for the NEA was trying to encapsulate the dedication and selflessness that characterize many of our teachers. To be fair, focusing on student achievement is a cause worth mentioning, and he did. But he did it in a very backhanded manner that made the sacrifice of many teachers sound like buyer's remorse.

There is an interesting question in there that I believe was glossed over in dismay: the role teachers play in their own compensation and recognition. Is it really in bad taste to remind people now and again of the hard work and sacrifice of so many teachers? Being on message is key. And clearly there are better ways to self advocate. However, one bad comment should never pigeonhole an entire profession.
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