Thursday, September 30, 2010

Big Bucks for Under-performing Charters

Some Louisiana charter schools seem to be enjoying favored treatment by both state and federal education authorities even if their performance using accountability measures is very poor. A recent federal grant to some charter schools in the Baton Rouge area is especially notable. The State Department of Education announced this week that the five charter schools managed by the Advance Baton Rouge organization have been approved for a 13.3 million dollar federal grant to be distributed over a 5 year period. The announced purpose of the grant is to implement the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP). This program rewards some teachers with higher status positions and salary increases based on student gains in basic skills. The press release from the Department of Education announced that several school systems in Louisiana are to be awarded a total of 73 million dollars in federal grants for implementation of the TAP program. The money is to come from a 1.2 billion dollar federal grant designed to attract teachers to hard-to-staff schools. Apparently all of the federal money for this project in Louisiana will be funneled through the Milken Foundation's National Institute for Excellence in Teaching which is a private non-profit organization that sponsors the TAP program in many school systems across the nation. This program seems to fit neatly into the U.S. Education Department's push for teacher merit pay based on student achievement.

I have two major concerns about the part of the grant that was approved for the Advance Baton Rouge organization:

  1. By all accountability measures Advance Baton Rouge's performance in managing these five schools has been a complete disaster. The performance of these schools has regressed significantly since the takeover by the charter school group. Only one of the 5 schools has shown a slight improvement in student high stakes scores. The composite scores of the 5 schools has changed as follows since the takeover: English/Language Arts performance has dropped from 33% basic or above before the takeover to only 23% basic or above in Spring 2010. Math has dropped from 29% basic or above to only 24% in 2010 and Science has dropped from 17% basic or above to only 12%. In comparison the state average for each of these three subject areas are ELA: 66% basic or above, Math: 65% basic or above and Science: 59% basic or above. How can such a huge commitment of our tax dollars be made to an organization that has shown no competence in running the schools entrusted to it?
  2. The size of the grant to this group is totally out of proportion to other school systems receiving similar grants. For example, one school system serving over 4,000 students will be getting a grant of 7.2 million to implement the same TAP program while the Advance Baton Rouge group will receive 13.3 million dollars to serve only 1,600 students. This amounts to over $8,000 per student. It is over 4 times as much per student as the regular school system will receive.
When the charter school program was approved in Louisiana, citizens and taxpayers were assured that all charter schools would be held to strict accountability for performance. Superintendent Pastorek has repeatedly pledged that failing charter schools would be either closed down or taken over by new management. It seems to me that some charters in Louisiana are favored and provided with massive funding whether they perform or not.

Monday, September 27, 2010

An Opportunity to Really Improve Public Education

The new documentary movie on public education in the U.S., Waiting For Superman, is seen by many educators as inaccurate in many of its assumptions about the problems and possible solutions for education. (See the article in the Washington Post pointing out  inaccuracies in Superman)The biggest legitimate criticism of the documentary is that it incorrectly seems to offer charter schools as a magic solution to all the ills of public education. I believe that if we allow politicians and education policy makers to swallow this blatant misconception whole, public education could suffer irreparable harm. In addition, the recent "discovery" by the media that approximately one third of all U.S. students do not graduate from high school and that a relatively small percentage of our students pursue higher education, have combined with the hype over the Superman documentary to make education reform a bigger issue than ever before. The NBC networks are devoting this entire week to special news programs titled Education Nation promoting various ideas about improving our schools. With all this attention, education reform is going to happen for better or for worse whether educators are involved or not.

Both the federal government and state legislatures seem ready to adopt massive reforms which include major expansions of charter school programs whether proven or untested, a major overhaul to firing procedures for teachers and principals, and changes that put even more emphasis on student test scores.

Almost everything about public education is under attack. Some believe our colleges of education have been made irrelevant by the introduction of Teach for America wiz kids from Harvard and other high status universities who are moving into teaching positions with barely 6 weeks of education training and who quickly move on to manage charter schools. (The truth is that most of these young people quit teaching before their 2 year commitment expires) Others advocate for the abolition of all teacher tenure, with establishment of instant firing power in the hands of school principals who themselves would be subject to dismissal based on student scores. In addition, our State Department of Education is pushing for site based budgeting on the theory that if principals get more flexibility in budgeting they can produce better results in student test scores.

While we all can agree that there are many pitfalls to this latest education reform movement, educators would be well advised to try to chanel this increased public awareness to make real improvements in public education. First of all we need to make sure that the truth about public education is told and acted upon rationally. For example, it needs to be pointed out that the biggest advances in school performance in the past several years in Louisiana have occurred in traditional public schools (see my analyisis and letter to BESE comparing regular public schools to the Recovery District) run under the direction of experienced superintendents and governed by local school boards. It has also been shown that in almost all public schools, students who are serious about and engaged in their education are succeeding no matter what public school they attend. The top U.S. students are quite competitive with the top students from other industrialized countries. Teachers who seem to be failures when they teach in high poverty schools somehow miraculously become great teachers when they move to schools serving more advantaged students.

The truth is that the main reason for failing schools is that we have failing communities both urban and rural where children are not prepared for school with the proper guidance and motivation from a healthy home environment. I have yet to see convincing evidence that schools can compensate for lack of positive parental support. Many of the schools serving impoverished or crime and drug affected communities also experience problems with class disruptions caused by unruly students. School principals and even classroom teachers must be given the authority to remove disruptive students from the regular classroom when they are interfering with the educational process. Like it or not, we must invest the necessary resources to prevent a few students from denying a good educational environment to the students who want to learn.

In summary, we can beat up on teachers and principals who are assigned to struggling schools until they are convinced to change to another profession or we can give them the support and even financial rewards for the extra work that is needed in difficult schools. If we really care about improving student performance we need longer school days and a longer school year. But most of all, we need to have parents become more accountable for the positive educational involvement of their children. No teacher can effectively teach students who skip school or who show up without sufficient sleep or who never read a book or who never do homework. It is up to the true practitioners of education to set the record straight and demand that everyone be accountable for education. Educators must utilize the increased awareness of education issues in our country to inform the public about what reforms would really make a positive difference in our schools. We must then take the lead with concrete proposals to make those necessary reforms.