About Andrea’s Blog

Welcome to my periodic musings on the state of American education, business, journalism, the consumer experience, women and food—how it is grown, cooked and eaten. A systems thinker since I wrote my first book, The Man Who Discovered Quality by W. Edwards Deming, most of my ideas and writing are informed by a systems view of the world.

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Inside Success Academy: Nose Pressed to the Window Pane

A tour of Success Academy Bronx 1 included almost exclusively charter school leaders (photo via @SuccessAcademy)

A tour of Success Academy Bronx 1 included almost exclusively charter school leaders (photo via @SuccessAcademy)

On Monday, 28 educators gathered in the Bronx, for one of the hottest tickets in town, a tour of a Success Academy school. I was supposed to be there, having received an email notifying me that I was among the lucky few who had been selected to join the tour at Success Academy Bronx 1 and that there was “an EXTENSIVE waiting list” of those who had not been chosen.

I checked the subway map for the school’s address on Morris Avenue, got out my metro card and loaded my recorder with fresh triple-A batteries. In short, I was all dressed up.

And then, suddenly, I had nowhere to go. Three days after securing my golden ticket, Success Academy disinvited me.

Luckily, I knew at least one other person who had gotten on the tour, and she agreed to give me a thorough briefing. More on her report below.

Now, there was a rich irony to both the invitation and disinvitation. When I had received the surprise Success acceptance, I had with great reluctance, and some embarrassment, cancelled an invitation to visit another charter school—one that I had long been looking forward to visiting.

Even, as I crafted an email asking to postpone my other visit, I felt my beloved late mother wagging her finger at me: “Andrea,” she would have said, her thick Hungarian accent placing the emphasis on the first syllable, “Dat is sooo rood.”

I would have tried to explain to Mom that I could not turn down an invitation to Success Academy, in large part because it is at the center of many of the most important debates about charter schools and education reform. Its political clout has made the chain the advance guard for those who wish to dismantle traditional public schools and their unions and replace them with a competitive marketplace of publicly funded, independently run and lightly regulated institutions. Indeed, where it has co-located in existing public-school buildings—Bronx 1 shares the Morris Avenue building with several public schools—there are constant complaints of the Success Academy schools grabbing prime real estate to the detriment of the children in traditional public schools.

Success Academy is known for producing high test scores. But it also has long battled accusations of creaming the most desirable students and families, an argument that gained traction recently when one of a Success Academy principal admitted to keeping a “got to go” list of students he wanted to cut from the rolls.  While Eva Moskowitz, Success’s combative founder, insists that the got-to-go list was an anomaly, the practice of charter-school “creaming” has been pretty well established by even pro-charter researchers and advocates; see here and here. And then there are the legions of unhappy former Success teachers and parents whose travails are well documented on Diane Ravitch’s blog.

I am not “anti- charter”; I have written positively about KIPP here, and even my more critical stories, here and here, have referenced the charters that distinguish themselves by making an effort to integrate, to offer varied educational experiences for their students and/or to include teacher voice. But I have written little about Success Academy itself. And, as I complete work on my new book on education reform, I continue to wrestle with what the role of charter schools should be in improving American schools.

I felt that it was time to heed those pro-charter advocates, ranging from one of Success Academy’s chief financial backers to Jonathan Alter, the columnist (and my former classmate), who have long encouraged me to visit.

So, I was dismayed when, on December 4, three days after my original acceptance arrived, Jaclyn Leffel, the director of New York City Collaborates, which was helping to organize the tour, rescinded my invitation. “In reviewing our guest list, I did see that you are currently not leading a NYC public school. This workshop is specifically designed for people in elementary school education. Unfortunately this event is only available to principals at this time. Thanks so much for your interest!” wrote Ms. Leffel.

The only problem was that to register for the event, you had to include your title and affiliation, which in my case is the Bloomberg Chair of Business Journalism at Baruch College/CUNY. It was crystal clear from my affiliation that I was not a New York City principal. Moreover, I knew that not everyone on the tour was a current principal.

So I responded to Leffel, pointing out these discrepancies, and asked that she reconsider. She responded that she would not. I followed up with a request that she include me in another tour. Again, she responded cordially to let me know that another tour would be organized in February, but has not yet responded to my request for more information about the date and location.

All this is especially puzzling since New York Collaborates is an organization that seeks to “encourage public conversation and on-the-ground partnerships between district and charter schools.” (emphasis added by me.) Nor is this the first tour organized by New York Collaborates; previous tours also have included non-principals.

Clearly, the “public conversation” at Bronx 1 was not intended to include anyone who might be the least bit critical of the charter sector. Incidentally, New York Collaborates is “spearheaded” by the New York City Charter School Center and New York City Department of Education, and receives funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Nor was there much partnering between district and charter schools at the Bronx 1 tour. All but one of the educators on the tour was from the charter sector. Via email, I asked Ms. Leffel about this and she responded: “We had a 50/50 signup.”

If half the registrants were from public-school, this of course raises the question: Why was the guest list for this collaborative opportunity so heavily stacked in favor of charter schools?

This is a shame, because public schools would have a lot to learn from the Success Academy tour. “Overall, I was really impressed,” said my source, an experienced, long-time educator with inside knowledge of both public- and charter-schools. The school had “extraordinarily strong systems and structures” and, most surprisingly, “few work sheets” and “strong student voice.”

What follows is a recounting of the Success Tour, mostly via my anonymous educator source.

It all began with instructions, emailed to all accepted participants, including me, before the tour and before my invitation was rescinded.
We were to read The Camel Dances, a one-page fable, and “come having jotted down a main idea.” Participants were also expected to prepare “short responses to the following questions:

1. What does the camel do to achieve her dream of becoming a ballet dancer?

2. How does the audience react when the Camel’s dance is over?

In keeping with Success’s penchant for secrecy though, the one-page fable, which is produced by PBS and is widely available on the internet here and here, came with instructions: “Do not Duplicate. For internal use only.”

The day began with a light breakfast at 7:15 a.m. and visits to Kindergarten and first-to-third grade classrooms. Class sizes are large—28 to 31 students in each classroom. The students are virtually all black or brown; the vast majority of the teachers are white.

Every classroom has two teachers—a “lead teacher” and an associate in training, the team constituting a kind of “apprenticeship model.” Significantly, the principal focuses almost exclusively on instruction and is in each classroom almost every day; a business manager handles virtually all non-instructional business.

Of the assistant teachers, my source says: “The ones I observed doing small groups knew exactly what they were doing.”

She also noted: “There was no time wasted. There was a sense of urgency you don’t see in all schools.”

Every classroom also was “well provisioned” with a rich array of art supplies and books—though the books and curricula of many traditional public schools are “more reflective” of the racial backgrounds of students. Classrooms all had smart boards. The principal, Elizabeth Vandlik explained that Success Academy schools get extra funding for their first three years; thereafter, they have to live “within the parameters of student funding.”

The school, which is over six years old, boasts a large, and again, well-stocked “blocks” room with some “interesting constructions in a corner.” There were also baskets of figures—people and animals–on top of the blocks. However, it was unclear how much time the kindergarteners spend playing in that room; during the tour, there was a group doing academic work in the blocks room.

Indeed, the kindergarteners, on this morning, were focusing on phonics. In contrast to traditional public-school kindergarten classrooms, which would typically have an array of play centers–a kitchen here, water and sand stations there, perhaps an area with computers. “I didn’t see that at all,” said my source.

The playground, which Bronx 1 shares with at least three other public schools that serve mostly middle- and upper-school students, has no equipment designed for elementary school children.

But the school does seem to do a lot with “project-based” learning. For example, the second grade class does a unit on bridges, which includes building bridges, field trips to bridges and writing about bridges.

Bronx 1 offers science and a “special”, such as art, every day, which allows the grade-room teachers to have two preps a day. Dismissal is at 3:30 p.m., except on Wednesdays when students go home at 12:30 p.m., giving the faculty an afternoon for professional development and meetings. There is no Saturday school. And homework is confined to spelling and math facts, and a half-hour of reading every night, which parents are required to keep track of via a reading log.

For teachers, the official day begins at 7:15 a.m., but many are there at 6:30 a.m. when the building opens. The faculty go home at 5:00 p.m., but typically take work home with them. Despite the grueling hours, the principal, Elizabeth Vandlik, claims she lost no teachers last year.

The school backfills in the first grade, when students leave following Kindergarten. The large class sizes suggest that the school has had relatively little attrition after kindergarten. However, there was evidence that the demographics of the student body are not the same as those of most inner-city public schools.

The visit included a stop at two ICT (integrated co-teaching) classes, which combine regular students with those who have disabilities and so-called IEPs (Individual Education Plans.) “In most ICT classes you can identify at least a few kids that have IEPs, either because of their behavior or the way they respond or don’t respond,” explained my source. “You may see some looking out the window. Their response time is usually longer.”

But, in the Success Academy ICT class there were none of those behaviors, she added, suggesting that the disabilities of the students with ICT’s were relatively mild. This conforms with an analysis of the demographic disparities among public- and charter-school students that I did about a year ago, using New York City Department of Education data. The analysis, which focused on schools in East Harlem, where close to a quarter of all children attend charter schools, found that traditional public schools had two-to-three times the number of children with disabilities and higher economic need than neighboring schools.

EastHarlemSouthIEP%

EastHarlemNorthIEP%

Success Academy and other charter schools in East Harlem have a fraction of the special-education students as nearby public schools.

During the course of the tour, one of the participants asked about discipline problems. Vandlik, the principal, said: “We do have them” and referenced a child who was “weighted with bear.”

Overall, the classrooms my source visited were noticeably devoid of “fidgets.” Students sat straight and tracked the teachers with their eyes. They answered questions in full sentences with sentence starters, such as “I would like to support so-and-so’s argument” or “I disagree with so-and-so.” And if they failed to do so, they were gently prompted to rephrase their answers.

The school uniforms were also all in perfect order, down to the dark socks for boys and brown shoes. Boys all wore orange polo shirts. The girls all wore plaid skirts. Even the teachers, most of them white and female, all wore skirts.

There was no discernable curricular focus on “civics” or grit.

Of course, the class tours were very short—five minutes per class (see class schedule below). Also, the tours took place at the start of the school day when children are most likely to be alert.

Success Academy doc 2

After an hour of class visits, the visitors attended the first-grade’s “shared-text planning meeting,” which focused on the teaching of The Camel Dances, the text distributed to the tour participants last week. The meeting came with a detailed, almost minute-by-minute agenda, for what would be discussed. (See illustration) The grade-level review was Exhibit A for what my source saw as the school’s strong structures.

Success Academy doc 1

This particular meeting was designed to figure out what questions the teachers would ask the children and “strategically, how they would get kids to share their thinking about their responses” to the story. The teachers sought to “anticipate” the responses of the students, including where they might have problems. To check their conclusions, the teachers regularly bring students into their meetings to try out an idea and to see how they will react. This approach struck my source as both creative and as one she hasn’t seen tried at other schools.

One key goal of this grade-level meeting is to promote “flexibility in thinking.” That goal was born out of a realization, following the grade’s most recent assessment, that students’ answers were too scripted, that their answers were “getting to be formulaic,” answering questions in a certain way with just two details.

Another goal was to focus on reading comprehension and thinking, but not on context. In response to a question about context, the principal acknowledged that kids might not have the kind of background knowledge they need for a story about a dancing camel, but noted: “We believe that it serves them better to work with the text and not spend a lot of time on context.”

The Camel Dances is about a camel who is so determined to become a ballerina she practices every day. Yet, she is not, ultimately, successful by conventional standards. As a member of the audience says, following one of the camel’s performances: “You are lumpy and humpy. You are baggy and bumpy… You are not, and never will be a dancer!”

It is also an advanced text—replete with multi-syllable, and even foreign, words like “pirouettes”, “releves” and “aarabesques.” So, the teachers read to the students, while the kids follow along with their own texts. Two things struck my source: First, that the goals of the reading assignment were to focus exclusively on the text, not on context. Second, the depth and detail of the planning meeting.

My source also noted that the text itself has a highly ambiguous message. The moral of the story is: Satisfaction will come to those who please themselves.

Explained Vandlik: “We say, if you work hard, you will succeed. This camel doesn’t. One reason we chose it, is we want to raise this with kids, this ambiguity, and have them consider it.”

Most conventional public schools, notes my source, would pick a far-less ambiguous fable, such as The Tortoise and The Hare.

Success Academy conducts assessments every six weeks. But they are not multiple choice. And, the school claims they do no test prep at all. “Giving tests all the time is a waste of instructional time,” said Vandlik. “We see ourselves as aligned with the progressive school movement.”

Progressive educators would no doubt recoil at the school’s focus on behavioral conformity and the lack of diversity among Success Academy children. However, my source clearly thought there was merit in many of the school’s approaches to teaching.

How should this brief glimpse of a Success Academy school influence our understanding of the role of charters within the framework of a traditional public school system? Bronx 1 clearly has an instructional approach and a culture from which other schools could learn. Yet, it is also clear that the style and expectations of the school, of both kids and parents, will not work for every child or family—or even, perhaps, a preponderance of inner-city children. Nor is it clear whether the model is scalable in terms of funding and pedagogy.

This leaves us with the central question for those who would replace a significant portion of public schools with charter schools that neither pro-charter advocates nor policy makers have yet to answer: What is the tipping point at which the charter sector gets so large that it turns nearby public schools into dumping schools for the most troubled children? What is the cost to those children, and to society, of essentially writing off the bottom 20 to 30 percent of poor children?

And, more important, is there a way to return to the original conception of charter schools—as islands of experimentation that might nurture real collaboration with, and improvement among, traditional public schools?

Let’s accept that Bronx 1 is a model school, and not a Potemkin tour. Neither Success Academy nor such highly selective tours begin to meet the promise, and obligation, of publicly funded charters–especially such large, powerful and well-funded charters as Success Academy–to serve as collaborative laboratories for public-school improvement.

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One More Time, NYC Charters Don’t Outperform Publics

Gary Rubinstein, an education blogger and math teacher at New York City’s Stuyvesant high school, has just posted a terrific analysis of Big Apple charter-school and public-school performance, showing once again that charters do not outperform publics–with one exception, which I’ll get to later. His analysis is based on test scores for the 2015 3-8 common core tests in math and ELA, which the city released in August. The Daily News reported that in the public schools, 34.2% of students met the math standards while 30.4% met the ELA standards, which was up by 1% and 2% respectively from the 2014 tests.

Rubinstein writes:

On the 2015 state tests, charter schools outperformed public schools in math with 44.2% meeting the standards while also doing worse than the public schools in reading with 29.3% meeting the standards.

To put these numbers into context, I crunched the numbers and summarized the results in a graph.  For each school I took the average of their math and ELA scores.  Then I took the most recent numbers for the school’s ‘Economic Need Index’ which includes the free lunch percent along with some other factors.

With graphs relating percent of free lunch to test score proficiency, there is always a strong negative correlation, as most people know.  The thing I wanted to see was if the charter schools had a higher percentage of ‘outliers’ than public schools.  In a sense, this is a bit like the coveted ‘value added’ measure that reformers like so much.  A school that is above the trend line would be a school with a greater than average value added.

Rubinstein finds that the vast majority of charter schools are not outperforming the public schools; about half of of the charters are above the trend line and half below.  Importantly, according to his calculations, most of the charters have an economic need index between .7 and .9 while there are a significant number of public schools that have an economic need index above .9.

The one exception is Success Academy, prompting Rubinstein to quip: “I can’t understand why charter supporters who are so focused on test scores are not out there insisting that all charter school resources be sent to expand Success Academy and the ‘yesterday’s news’ charters like KIPP, Democracy Prep, Harlem Children’s Zone, The Equity Project, etc. get shut down for poor performance.”

In this post, I showed how Success Academy schools cherry picks students who are less needy economically and have far fewer special needs students and English Language Learners than nearby public schools.

But, I also noticed that in Rubinstein’s graph, at least five public schools with comparable economic-need statistics performed as well, if not better, than the Success Academy schools. Several more performed nearly as well, with much higher levels of economic need.

A recent post by charter advocate Richard Whitmire is stunningly in sync with Rubinstein’s analysis. Whitmire concedes that of 6,440 charter schools, only 1,200 hundred are living up to their promise of outperforming public schools–i.e. less than 20 percent. Whitmire’s suggestion is to close 1,000 charter schools immediately. I guess its easy to experiment with other people’s children…

Given the decidedly unmiraculous performance of charter schools overall, and the high performance of many outlier public schools, wouldn’t it be more prudent to focus on learning from the outliers–both publics and a small number of experimental charters–how to improve public schools, rather than jettisoning the public system for a decidedly iffy alternative?

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First Ever Deming Education Conference

As regular readers of this blog know, my first book, The Man Who Discovered Quality, was about W. Edwards Deming, the management guru who helped transform Japanese industry after World War II–the Toyota Production System was developed in collaboration with Deming–and later helped “rescue” U.S. manufacturers after they were battered by Japanese competitors.

Deming, I believe, is (and was) one of the most under-appreciated management thinkers of the 20th century. Ever since learning about his work in the 1980s, his ideas about systems thinking have influenced my outlook on just about everything, including business and education.

Deming’s breakthrough–one that applies to all organizations, not just manufacturers–was in combining an understanding of how science, in particular statistical theory, can be used to achieve meaningful systems improvement with what had heretofore been seen as touchy feely, unscientific approaches to empowerment. He used statistical theory to demonstrate how employees, properly trained, can serve as a key resource for identifying organizational problems, solutions and opportunities for improvement. Importantly, he believed that employees can only meet this challenge if they work in an atmosphere that is collaborative and free of fear.

He also believed that because only management can control the larger systemic factors that impact quality—everything from purchasing to hiring to organizational culture—the onus for creating the underlying conditions for quality improvement rests with management. Thus, Deming’s mantra, thundered again and again in his basso profundo: The responsibility for quality rests with senior management.

In the years leading up to his death, in 1993, Deming began turning his interest to education. He believed that the same principles he advocated for companies—systems thinking, collaborative improvement, understanding statistical variation, creating organizational cultures free of fear and conducive to creative problem-solving—could also transform schools. In Japan, Deming’s ideas greatly influenced “Japanese Lesson Study.”

American education reformers believe that education has much to learn from management. Deming would agree. But  he also would be appalled by much of what passes for education reform today.

Deming’s family runs the Deming Institute, a non-profit that aims to keep the legacy of his quality management ideas alive. In November, the Deming Institute is holding its first ever conference on education in Seattle. For more information please see:

https://www.deming.org/node/1452

To learn more about Deming’s work and what education reformers could learn from it, please see this post:

http://andreagabor.com/2014/11/15/lessons-for-education-reformers-from-w-edwards-deming-americas-leading-management-thinker/

 

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Why Jon Alter Needs To Do More Homework on Charters

First, let’s savor the irony: Two former (private) school chums duke it out over charter schools.

Last Monday, Jonathan Alter published an article in the Daily Beast that was at least partly a response to my New York Times OpEd, “The Myth of the New Orleans Charter School Makeover.” Alter’s piece is entitled “Why Liberals Should Learn to Love Charter Schools.”

Alter begins by reassuring us that the Obama administration and “left-leaning groups” like Democrats for Education Reform are pro-charter. The fact that there is no daylight between Republicans and Democrats on the subject of education reform and privatization is small comfort. In politics, when everyone agrees on the One Right Way, there’s a good chance it will lead to a dead end.

Alter’s biggest mistake is that he fails to see public school systems as, well, systems. Even if he’s right that the “top quintile” of charter schools perform very well, that’s virtually meaningless from the perspective of creating a better system. There are good public schools as well as good charters, after all. A 20-percent success rate is meaningful only if you can show a path to scaling that success in a practical way.

The two questions we should be asking are: A) What is the best method by which to improve all schools? B) If, as in New Orleans, charter schools are used as Trojan horses for turning public schools into dumping grounds for the weakest students and, eventually, eliminating public schools altogether, what is the cost of doing so—to kids and to our society?

There is growing evidence that the market model of large-scale public-school replacement by charter schools—one based on a competitive race for limited philanthropic funding for whoever produces the highest test scores—is a zero-sum game that can only work by sidelining the most vulnerable kids.

The evidence from New Orleans, after a decade-long experiment with other people’s children, is not encouraging. Even as Alter accuses Diane Ravitch and her “acolytes” of cherry picking statistics, he chooses to ignore a host of serious problems with the charter-for-all model a la New Orleans:

–Alter relies on a completely false statistic about New Orleans charter-school success rates that is touted by Paul Vallas, but not by credible educators now in New Orleans, i.e. that only 6 percent of charter schools are failing; the implication is that 94 percent of New Orleans charters are successful. (Vallas also mendaciously asserts that the New Orleans model has proceeded “with no displacement of children.”) Based on the grades given every school in New Orleans by the Louisiana Department of Education, fully 40 percent of the schools that were taken over by the state following Hurricane Katrina received grades of “F”, “D” or “T” in the 2013-2014 school year; the latter are schools so bad–they received “F” grades for at least three years–that they have been recently “taken over” by a new charter operator with their “F’s” converted to “T’s” for takeover. (Presumably, the only way to get to 6 percent is by including in the denominator, the mostly selective Orleans Parish schools, which were never taken over by the state and to which most poor Black kids in New Orleans have no access, and excluding from the numerator both D- and T-rated schools from your definition of “failure”.)

–Alter ignores growing evidence that New Orleans charters push out the most vulnerable students. See my latest NYT OpEd and Owen Davis’s “The Uncounted”

–He brushes aside the searing indictment of the New Orleans model by its erstwhile champions in the black community. Andre Perry, who was one of the few black charter-school leaders in New Orleans, said recently: “There were some pretty nefarious things done in the pursuit of academic gain,” including “suspensions, pushouts, skimming, counseling out, and not handling special needs kids well.”

Alter asserts that charter schools are public schools. No; they are private enterprises that use public funding, but with little oversight—which is how those New Orleans charters got away with those “nefarious” practices. Pedro Noguera, an education professor at the University of California Los Angeles, was spot on when he called the charter sector “stunningly opaque, more black boxes than transparent laboratories for education.”

Finally, Alter, like the billionaires who support DFER, is a scathing opponent of teacher’s unions. In Waiting for Superman¸ Alter called teachers’ unions “a menace and an impediment to reform.” Yet, if we take test scores as the key measure of success, Alter should be wildly pro-union because the best test results have been achieved in blue states with strong teachers’ unions. Think Massachusetts. Meanwhile, anti-union states like Louisiana continue to produce the lowest test scores. Then, too, the test-based reform and accountability lauded in Superman led to cheating scandals in both Washington, D.C. ,  Atlanta and beyond.

All this should not deflect attention from the serious work that public schools and school systems must do to focus on meaningful, collaborative long-term improvement. There is a rich body of knowledge on how such efforts can be realized in a range of institutions, including schools—though they have been virtually ignored by mainstream reformers. As part of such efforts, bloated district bureaucracies will need to be downsized. And teachers’ unions will need to move away from the industrial-era model of unionism with its strict work rules and seniority system.

But as Richard Kahlenberg has pointed out in his gripping biography of Albert Shanker and in his new book, A Smarter Charter, authored with Halley Potter, unions can be an important force for reform. (A key takeaway from the latter is that the best charters are those that give teacher’s a meaningful voice in school improvement.)

An important reminder on this week of Labor Day: At a time when real wages are declining and the lowest-paid Americans have seen their pay checks shrink the most, any American who is concerned about growing income inequality and the difficulty that Americans today have of climbing to, and staying in, the middle class should find ways to support—and improve—unions, not undermine them. (Elementary and high school teachers have suffered a 3 percent decline in real wages between 2009 and 2014, while the wages of special-education teachers has dropped 9 percent, according to a new study by the National Employment Law Project.)

In New Orleans, privatization has meant sky-high teacher turnover and legions of inexperienced teachers—including, Alter’s beloved TFAers, toting books by the much-praised Doug Lemov. But so many of these “innovations”—the hiring of college kids with a mere five weeks of teacher training and Lemov’s “taxonomy” with its hand gestures and “common vocabulary” and the relentless focus on behavior—are used by many charters to replace professional teachers with temporary workers and canned curricula.

The sad truth is that the no-excuses model has become widespread not because it’s the best educational model for kids, but because it helps inexperienced teachers control their classrooms. It’s a model that, I’m confident, neither Alter nor I would select for our own children. [And it’s in direct opposition to the progressive model of education of which we were the beneficiaries at the Francis W. Parker School in Chicago. (Jon transferred to Phillips Academy for high school.)]

Anthony Recasner co-founded New Orleans’s first charter school, New Orleans Charter Middle School, in the 1990s—a progressive school that bares little resemblance to today’s no-excuses charters—and is one of the city’s most respected educators. He is also one of the only leading education reformers in New Orleans who grew up as poor and disadvantaged as the kids whom the local charter industry purports to serve. “Education should be a higher-order exploration,” Recasner told me three years ago, adding: The typical charter school in New Orleans “is not sustainable for the adults, not fun for kids.”

The fact that leading Black educators, including Recasner, Howard Fuller and Andre Perry, are increasingly critical of the New Orleans charter success narrative—critics who can hardly be called Ravitch acolytes—should give Alter pause about the direction of the modern-day charter industry, the mainstream education-reform movement as well as what’s best for kids.

Alter would be on much firmer ground if he were to advocate for a return to the original mission of charter schools, which was to serve as small-scale experiments in innovation and flexibility designed to improve public schools—a mission that has been abandoned by today’s charter advocates. Sadly, there is little learning or sharing in either direction even though there is much that the best schools—both public and charter—could learn from each other.

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More on New Orleans Charter Schools: The Graduation and College-for-All Myths

Since publishing my OpEd in the New York Times last Sunday, several other articles and research projects have shed much-needed light, during this week marking the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, on the kids who are falling between the cracks of the New Orleans charter experiment. I’m posting some of these below.

It bares repeating that while there are many children who are doing well in New Orleans charter schools and many charter operators who are doing their best to provide a quality education, the system—or really non-system—has a major Achilles heel that, thus far, has gone unacknowledged by the charter industry’s chief promoters, i.e.: Applying unforgiving market economics to education, in which test scores are the key measurement tool used to determine which schools survive—and get much needed philanthropic funding—and which schools are closed or taken over, works against the neediest children. Under this “system”, schools have an incentive to edge out kids who don’t test well—perhaps because they have learning problems, or behavioral problems, or because they live in a home environment bereft of the food, sleep or the support that children need to thrive. Moreover, in a city where virtually every charter is its own district, responsible for providing all services to all kids, many charters struggle to achieve the economies of scale needed to provide adequate services for the neediest kids. At the same time, there is little regulation or oversight of schools.

One stock response of charter promoters to such criticism is that both graduation rates and college-entry rates have risen in New Orleans since before the storm. The following three articles also cast doubt on these assertions.

An excellent International Business Times article, “The Uncounted,” by Owen Davis, explains how New Orleans uses so called “exit codes” to boost graduation rates and mask the number of kids who are dropping out of the system. The exit-code data was compiled by Research on Reform, which had to sue the Louisiana Department of Education to obtain data the state was selectively doling out to pro-charter researchers.

Owen writes in part:

Official graduation rates in the RSD surged from just under 50 percent for the class of 2009 to 68 percent in 2012, before receding back to around 60 percent in 2014.

But as with so much else in New Orleans, graduation rates aren’t what they seem:

A New Orleans public school graduate from a “rough neighborhood,” Baldwin says he joined the RSD in 2009 to bring a local voice to data-driven conversations often dominated by white newcomers. “I wanted to be the person that kept the charters connected to the community,” Baldwin says.

Peering into enrollments over time, he made a disturbing discovery: Schools seemed to be hiding their true dropout figures.

Each student who leaves a Louisiana public school receives a so-called exit code. Some are dropouts. Others, labeled “legitimate leavers,” don’t count against graduation rates. The state could verify most legitimate leavers, like children who move a town over. But it couldn’t check transfers out of Louisiana. There arose a perverse incentive to designate students who disappeared with Exit Code 10: Transferred Out of State.

“It was well-known within the data circles,” Baldwin says.

Other data managers in the RSD recall how missing students received Exit Code 10. “If they said that the child went out of state, it was an easy way out,” says Dena Robateau, who worked at the RSD from 2007 to 2010. “That was the easiest thing to do.”

Christina Long, who was a data manager from 2007 to 2011, says the problem was acute at charter schools. Auditors had direct access to publicly run schools, but charter data were self-reported. “We had no way of knowing their enrollment counts,” says Long, who labels the data from charters as “tainted.”

Former assistant principal Shawon Bernard says it came down to self-preservation: Low performance scores could get a school shuttered. “Part of your grade is based on your dropout rate, so you need to make sure those numbers are good numbers,” says Bernard, who stewarded data at her school.  

Exit Code 10, Bernard says, provided cover. “Those were the children who disappeared.”

Baldwin’s analysis confirmed the data managers’ concerns. He promptly alerted his superiors. “I was one of the people shouting from the rooftops,” Baldwin recalls. “It was a disservice for our population to have charter schools come in, collect money in October, then discard the student for the remainder of the year.” 

Baldwin is reluctant to cry foul on particular schools, saying the practice wasn’t universal. But he demanded in private that the state take up the issue. (In an email, RSD deputy chief of staff Laura Hawkins told International Business Times, “No one from this administration was here in 2010 so we can’t know whether or not that happened.”)

The Education Department issued new guidance for exit codes in 2013, reinstituting audits that had been abandoned in 2008.

The issue was still evident for the class of 2013. For that group, the state audited a random sampling of exit codes throughout Louisiana. In the RSD’s New Orleans schools, all 14 records plucked for review lacked verification — a failure rate of 100 percent, the highest of any district.

Among freshmen entering RSD high schools in 2006, 8 percent were marked as out-of-state transfers over four years, the report says. For students who entered two years later, that proportion nearly doubled. More than 15 percent of students were marked as moving to different states.

For comparison, in the Orleans Parish district — which includes selective schools with higher socioeconomic profiles and lower mobility rates — Exit Code 10 held steady at around 5 percent.

Absent a complete audit, it’s impossible to know exactly how many of the students who left high schools between 2006 and 2012 were legitimate out-of-state transfers and how many had actually dropped out. But the numbers are significant. If half of the Code 10 exits in 2011-2012 were truly dropouts, RSD graduation numbers would be depressed by roughly 7 percent.

“I’m not a bleeding heart, but I’d like to know what has happened to these kids?” says Charles Hatfield, the retired district administrator who analyzed the data.

 See more of Research on Reforms latest data on dropouts and exit-code manipulation here .

Separately, Mercedes Schneider, a Louisiana teacher and blogger, shines a spotlight on the likely magnitude of the drop-out rate by looking at the surprisingly low number of seniors in New Orleans RSD schools–just 1,065 in a district with 30,448 students–who took the ACT. She does this by using a search engine developed by Jessica Williams of Nola.com and published in July.

Schneider writes in part:

Using the LDOE district enrollment counts for February 2015 and Williams’ ACT-related search engine, I was able to conduct some comparisons of RSD total enrollment vs. number of seniors to those of other Louisiana districts.

For example, Livingston Parish has 25,539 students; 1,451 Class of 2015 seniors took the ACT. (57.9 percent scored 20+; 73.3 percent scored 18+).  Livingston has several thousand fewer students overall, yet it has several hundred more Class of 2015 seniors taking the ACT.

Another example: Ascension Parish has 21,562 students; 1,364 Class of 2015 seniors took the ACT. (56.4 percent scored 20+; 72.8 percent scored 18+). Ascension has almost one-third fewer students than RSD, yet it has 300 more Class of 2015 seniors taking the ACT.

A third example: St. Tammany Parish has 37, 699 students; 2,323 Class of 2015 seniors took the ACT. (63.6 percent scored 20+; 78.1 percent scored 18+). Though it is certainly not more than twice the size of RSD, St. Tammany had well over twice as many seniors taking the ACT.

Finally, another article, “A Ticket Out” in Education Week, by Arianna Prothero, offers a window on the reality behind the charter-industry’s assertion that more New Orleans kids are going to college than ever before. What the charter promoters aren’t saying is that many, if not most, of those college-bound kids are unlikely to ever graduate. And since the ACT scores of most kids in the RSD don’t meet the minimum needed for a scholarship to a state school, they are taking on debt to go to college.

Coincidentally, Prothero’s article provides a heartbreaking coda to the story of one of the young men I profiled in a 2013 Newsweek investigation of charter schools, which focused on Sci Academy–then the city’s leading “miracle school.” I focused on three students who characterized the trajectory of New Orleans charter-school students. These students included:

— Lawrence, the child of a drug addict who has severe behavioral and cognitive problems and who, as a middle-schooler, was the victim of a drive-by shooting; after bouncing around over half-a-dozen RSD schools, Lawrence never completed Sci Academy and is now serving a 10-year prison sentence for armed robbery.

— Trevon, who worked hard, but whose ACT scores were too low to win him a scholarship to a state school; while he once thought he’d enlist in the army, Sci Academy persuaded him to enroll at the Southern University of New Orleans, which has graduation rates in the single digits.

–Eddie, a star Sci Academy student, had the best chance to succeed, I argued, because he had drive, a very supportive mom and because he had thrived in the no-excuses environment at Sci; Eddie did so well, he won a scholarship to Middlebury College in Vermont.

Prothero’s article focuses on J’remi, Eddie’s younger brother, who also attends Sci Academy and who is about to go to another elite college, Grinnell in Iowa. Toward the end of her article, Prothero tells us that Eddie left Middlebury without graduating.

Prothero writes in part:

J’Remi’s also realistic about how tough the transition will be, a lesson he knows from his brother’s experience at Middlebury. He knows the rigors of college might really test him. The workload will be more demanding than high school. He’s worried his little brothers won’t do their homework without him there to prod them. And there will be no week off for Mardi Gras.

J’Remi hears his mom pull into the driveway and shoots up off the couch to help her carry his 4-week-old nephew into the house. Eddie Barnes, J’Remi’s older brother, is the baby’s father. Eddie, who graduated from Sci Academy in 2012, had moved to Vermont to attend Middlebury College on scholarship. But overcome with homesickness, he didn’t last there for long, J’Remi says.

Now, Eddie is working two jobs and living with J’Remi, their mother, and two younger brothers, ages 10 and 13. They don’t see much of their father, even though he lives in New Orleans. Once competitors to be the ‘it’ guy at Sci Academy, the two older brothers have been having a lot of heart-to-hearts lately as J’Remi prepares to leave for Grinnell.

“Yeah, he told me to take advantage of support systems out there,” J’Remi says. “He’s like making mistakes for me. I’m learning from his things. … He’s like, ‘Don’t get me wrong, I love my son, but don’t do what I did.’ ”

If J’Remi makes it at Grinnell, he will be defying the odds painted by national statistics: only about 10 percent of low-income, first-generation college students earn a degree.

Instead of repeating increasingly hollow assertions about graduation and college-entry successes, the New Orleans charter industry should focus on fixing the charter-industry’s structural problems. And, instead of its college-for-all focus, it should work on developing vocational opportunities for kids who are not suited for college, as well as providing better supports for the kids who do go to college.

 

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The Myth of the New Orleans School Makeover Revisited

Last Sunday, The New York Times ran my OpEd “The Myth of the New Orleans School Makeover” in which I acknowledge some of the accomplishments of the city’s education reforms, but also cautioned that the charter revolution is not all that it seems. Specifically, the OpEd argues that while the reforms have benefited some students, they have put the neediest kids at a disadvantage. For outsiders, I argue, the biggest lesson of New Orleans is that it may be wiser to invest in improving existing education systems than to start from scratch.

While the OpEd won cudos in many circles, it came under almost immediate attack. Some members of the New Orleans charter establishment impugned both my research and integrity. Because charters and privatization are at the center of important education policy debates throughout the country, I thought it would be useful to detail some of my research and related materials. Note of caution: Please read the OpEd first; what follows won’t make much sense unless you do!

First a little background: I’ve spent months in New Orleans over the past several years researching New Orleans charter schools and published a lengthy investigation, “Post-Katrina, the Great New Orleans Charter Tryout” in Newsweek in 2013. I’m also working on a book on education reform, including a chapter on New Orleans. However, much of the impetus for the OpEd came from what I heard and saw at The Urban Education Future conference, held by the Educational Research Alliance at Tulane University this June. It included a Who’s Who of experts on New Orleans and education reform as well as leading local educators and community leaders; I attended because I suspected, rightly, that it would be a unique opportunity to talk to key people—some of whom hadn’t returned my earlier calls.

At the conference, ERA offered a sneak preview of research it has just started to publish and that many education-reformers point to as evidence of the city’s positive results. However, it is important to know that most of the ERA data covers the years before 2012, i.e. the period during which the worst charter excesses, including creaming, special-education abuses, and sky high suspension and expulsion rates took place. More than one of the ERA conference panelists in June noted that it’s questionable whether the numbers would look as good as they do if it hadn’t been for those practices.

This was also the period before adoption of common core-aligned curricula was supposed to increase standards, so the elementary and middle-school test results presented by ERA, as several experts at the conference noted, were based on Louisiana’s older, very low-level standards.

For years, the ed-reform establishment claimed there were no abuses—no creaming, no special-education abuses—in New Orleans. Now, they are saying: In 2012 we fixed all that, so it’s not fair to reference the problems. Except that we don’t yet have evidence of if/how the new safeguards are working.

Here’s what we do know:

1) There are major governance/oversight problem in New Orleans. In 2013, a report by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor found that the “LDOE no longer conducts on-site audits or reviews that help ensure the electronic data in its systems is accurate.” The audit also found significant discrepancies in the data on attendance, dropout rates and graduation rates reported by the charters.

2) Louisiana Department of Education doles out data selectively, mostly to charter-friendly researchers

Last spring, a Louisiana appeals court ruled that the State of Louisiana, which had given a trove of student data to CREDO, but withheld it from other researchers, had violated public-records laws. So much for transparency.

Here is my critique of CREDO’s analysis in which I found major flaws in its analysis of charter school performance, especially in New Orleans. Here is CREDO’s acknowledgement of some of those problems.

Anyone interested in understanding how Louisiana data is manipulated may wish to take a look at the work of three intrepid Louisiana bloggers, Mike Deshotel, Jason France aka Crazy Crawfish and Mercedes Schneider. Deshotel and France each wrote recent posts on how Louisiana manipulates education data. Here Deshotel notes how Lousiana test scores are manipulated: “the number of correct answers required for a passing score (or a level of basic) was significantly reduced for three out of four categories.” Here France shows a number of other problems.

3) Kids are falling between the cracks. Because of the aforementioned oversight problems and lack of transparency, the data is all over the map regarding the number of drop outs. That’s one reason I used the report from Measure of America, a project of the Social Science Research Council, which was based on Census Bureau survey data from 2013, as a proxy in my OpEd. However, as is evident from several webcasts at the ERA conference, almost everyone except Paul Vallas acknowledges that kids are falling between the cracks, including Dana Peterson who was representing the Recovery School District at the conference.

I had the opportunity to ask several experts at the ERA conference questions about governance/oversight problems in New Orleans and about the kids who “slip between the cracks”. The exchanges were captured on the webcasts below.

To see the startling discussion about governance/oversight problems and the impact on kids during the panel discussion of the “Role of Communities in Schools” go to the 1-hour-and-12-minute mark of the following webcast and listen for three or four minutes: http://educationresearchalliancenola.org/sessions/2015/6/19/role-of-communities-in-schools

Some highlights:

Deirdre Burel, executive director of the Orleans Public Education Network and the panel moderator: “There’s common agreement, we know for a fact that kids have slipped through the cracks because of the (school) closures.”

When an audience member asks: “The RSD doesn’t know who’s in the system?”

 And again later: “Who’s responsible for the whole?”

Burel answers: “There is no whole. That’s a governance conversation. There is no single entity responsible for all children.”

I asked a similar question during a panel on “Test-Based Accountability Effects of School Closure” on school closings, their impacts on high school students, and received the response below from Dana Peterson of the RSD and Whitney Ruble, the ERA researcher who was presenting her findings on school closures. Two points of note: First, Ruble’s/ERA results on the effects of school closures said nothing about the impacts on high school kids who are most at risk of dropping out. You had to look and listen very carefully to realize that all the data was about elementary and middle-school effects. However, Ruble acknowledged that “A lot of students disappear from the data.”

This at about the 1-hour-two-minute mark of the following webcast:

http://educationresearchalliancenola.org/sessions/2015/6/20/test-based-accountabilty-effects-of-school-closuremost.

Dana Peterson of the RSD, a few minutes later: “We’re more worried at the high school level than the elementary level. Its true some kids do leave and fall out of the system.” That’s why, he said, the RSD started hiring couselors specifically for high school kids two years ago to try to make sure they didn’t disappear from the system.

When I asked whether he knew how many kids fall between the cracks, Peterson acknowledged: “I don’t know the total number. I don’t.”

After the panel, I asked whether there was anyone at the RSD who could get me that data. He said there was and he promised to get me the information. He never responded to subsequent emails and phone calls.

4) Young, white and mostly inexperienced teachers replaced thousands of mostly middle-aged black women educators.

Some critics, including John White, the Louisiana superintendent of education, have taken issue with my assertion that the mostly black teaching force was replaced by young idealistic (mostly white) educators. According to a new ERA report, “Significant Changes in the New Orleans Teacher Force,” the number of black teachers in New Orleans dropped from 71 percent before the storm to 49 percent in 2013/2014. White teachers, by contrast, made up just a little over 20 percent of the teachers in NOLA before the storm and were close to 50 percent in 2013/14. See p. 3 of the report.

The ERA report also notes that the number of local teachers has dropped substantially. And among new teachers in New Orleans, in 2013/14 the racial disparities are starker–57 percent of new teachers were white and 37 percent were black; whereas in 2003/04, 66 percent of new teachers were black and 29 percent were white.

In my Newsweek piece, I wrote that within the RSD, in 2011, 42 percent of teachers had less than three years of experience; 22 percent have spent just one year or less in the classroom.

I should note that I’ve visited over half-a-dozen charter schools in New Orleans. With two exceptions, I barely saw a single African-American face among any of the educators.

5) Leading black educators are surprisingly critical of how the reforms were implemented, a fact that none of the critics of my piece have been willing to acknowledge.

See the searing comments of Howard L. Fuller, a former Milwaukee superintendent and advocate of charters and vouchers, about how the New Orleans reforms were “done to black people, not with black people.” His comments begin at the 35-minute mark of this webcast: http://educationresearchalliancenola.org/sessions/2015/6/20/plenary-5-what-does-the-new-orleans-experience-mean-for-new-orleans-for-louisiana-for-everyone:

Here are the highlights:

“I do believe things are better for a large number of kids than before Katrina. But I don’t want to be put in the position of saying: pre-Katrina was all bad, post-Katrina is all good. When we set it up that way, we’re negating anything that was positive before Katrina. What that tends to negate is the capacity of black people to do anything of excellence.

 “The firing of those teachers is a wound that will never be closed, never be righted. I understand the issue of urgency. But a part of this quite frankly has to do with the fact that I do not believe that black people are respected. I don’t believe that our institutions are respected. And I don’t believe that our capacity to help our own people is respected…

 “Its hard for me, because I do support the reforms and think there are some great things that have happened. I do have to ask the same question as Randi (Weingarten)—at what cost?

 “Even if you talk to black people who drank the Kool-aide: The issue still is– this was done to us not with us. That feeling is deep. It can’t be ignored. It speaks to any type of long-term sustainability of what’s happening in New Orleans.

 “When black people came out of slavery, we came out with a clear understanding of the connection between education and liberation. Two groups of white people descended upon us—the missionaries and the industrialists. They both had their view of what type of education we needed to make our new-born freedom realized. During this period there’s an analogy—I’ve said this to all my friends in Kipp And TFA. During this period two groups of white people descended on us the industrialists and the missionaries. And each one of them have their own view of what kind of education we need.

 “What people have never grasped is that we want to be helped, we don’t want to be controlled. In this process, we wanted to be a critical part of defining what role education should play in our continuing struggle to truly realize freedom in America. That’s the thing that’s truly unsettled in my soul. How do I make that happen, when I’m swimming with sharks on the left and on the right. And trying to find an independent course that speaks to the pain that my people experience every single day.”

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First God Made Idiots…

“First God Made Idiots. That was for Practice. Then he made School Boards.”

–Mark Twain

Thus ends a new moving tribute, narrated by Sir Ian McKellen, the renowned Shakespearean actor, in support of Rafe Esquith, who has been called the “best teacher in America” for his work with fifth graders at Hobart Elementary, an innercity school in Los Angeles.

A few months ago, when I heard that Esquith was removed from his classroom for reading an excerpt from Mark Twain and making an off-color joke in class, I contacted McKellen’s agent in the hope of asking the actor what he thought of Esquith’s predicament. My interest was in more than just getting a celebrity quote.

The accusations against Esquith had most recently morphed into an investigation of his foundation, which helps support his Hobart Shakespeareans–the moniker applies to both the students who produce a professional-quality Shakespeare play as a culminating class project, as well as the foundation, which pays for everything from musical instruments to trips to the Oregon Shakespeare festival for Esquith’s students. Last fall, before what has now turned into a months-long investigation, I had the opportunity to visit Esquith’s classroom and meet the latest crop of Hobart Shakespeareans. I also interviewed several alums, college graduates all, who still call themselves Hobart Shakespeareans and count their experiences in Esquith’s class among their most formative. In earlier posts here and here I’ve recounted their experiences in his classroom and what they have to say about their former teacher.

But for all his good works, might not some of those funds have been misused? I thought that McKellen, as one of Esquith’s major supporters, would hold a key to that answer.

Neither his agent nor McKellen got back to me. But in this charming video I just unearthed via perdaily.com, MacLellan calls Esquith one of his “heros”, the work Esquith does in his classroom “miraculous” and his removal “unjust.” This short video, which includes testimonials by over a dozen students and parents and a cameo appearance by actor Hal Holbrook, provides a compelling answer to what happens to the money donated to the Hobart Shakespeareans. It also offers tantalizing clues as to why the Los Angeles Unified School District might consider Esquith an educational subversive whom they might wish to silence.

Indeed, the curious fact is that until the recent investigation, it  seems the LAUSD was just about the only institution completely uninterested in what was happening in Esquith’s classroom over the past 30-odd years in which his teaching methods have won international acclaim. (The day I visited there were 20 teachers from China sitting in on his class.) A reader of one of my earlier blog posts on Esquith, a man named Gerald, noted that the LAUSD is: “it seems, the only institution that hasn’t awarded or recognized his work- literally the only one! They never mention him in staff trainings or professional developments and they never refer to him as a model of good teaching- but they sure are working hard to investigate him!”

For more on Rafe Esquith teaching methods see this post.

 

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