LEV Event with the Ed Reformers

It was interesting to say the least and I can honestly say I learned something and walked away better informed. The auditorium at MOHAI was filled (and not just the usual suspects). I saw Councilman Tim Burgess as well as Board President Michael DeBell. (And Councilman Burgess was introduced as the brains behind this event. The Councilman has decided to step into Seattle education. Welcome, Tim.)

So the moderator, Adam Porsch, works for the Gates Foundation and used to work in the D.C. district (but he didn't reference Rhee so I don't know if he worked with her). With him were Richard Barth, CEO of the KIPP Foundation; Timothy Daly, President of the The New Teacher Project; and Steve Barr, Founder and Emeritus Chair, Green Dot Public Schools.

The discussion was organized around the guests giving a overview of their group's work, a few central questions and then questions from the audience. (Just as an aside, and I don't mean this badly, but there they were, just 4 white middle-aged guys talking about ed reform. They all looked like they had the same suit and shoes on (although Mr. Barr went a little wild with an orange tie).

I think Mr. Daly was a bit out of his element as he didn't clearly explain what his group did and so it wasn't easy to understand where his group came into the picture of ed reform. His Project is similar to Teach for America except it provides many other services (for a fee, of course) to districts to help train HR and principals on how to look for good teachers.

Mr. Barth continued what his KIPP website does, namely, not saying KIPP is a charter organization until they got to discussing charters in specific. He claims that 87% of kids who finish 8th grade at KIPP go onto college (most KIPP schools are 5th-8th). This is probably true but there is a low rate of retention at KIPP schools for all the reasons you see in traditional schools (people move, student doesn't like school) but they also have issues around parents/students not liking the longer school day or KIPP wanting them to repeat a grade). So it's like looking at a graduation number - what was the actual number coming in at 9th grade versus how many are in the graduating class 4 years later.

Steve Barr turned out to be a pleasant - and funny - surprise. He has about 12 Green Dot schools in Los Angeles (serving some very tough areas) with one on tap for the South Bronx. What is interesting about Green Dot is that they formed their own teachers union ( to the fury of the existing one) and the American Federation of Teachers union is helping with the creation of the school in the South Bronx. (I may do a separate thread on this teachers union as it's an interesting topic.)


Mr. Daly was asked about teachers. His group published a report called The Widget Effect which delineates how (because of the teachers union) teachers become all the same widget because of the lack of real differentiation in teaching ability. He said (and I'll bet this is true at many districts) that sometimes a district won't find a good teacher because of their own hiring policies like late timelines, late teacher registration, etc.

Mr. Barth of KIPP did mention not only looking for teacher effectiveness but also principal effectiveness. He did mention that KIPP is trying to help low-income students and more special ed and ELL students. He said that 30% of KIPP's teachers are TFA alums (which begs the question of how many are TFA teachers).

Mr. Barr was funny in discussing looking for teachers for his new schools, saying "Pardon my french but it was a big FU to the teachers union." He said for the first school they had 800 applications for 80 positions. He said they used to be very high on younger teachers but are now hiring older teachers who previously did not want to work at a school that might turn over quickly (should it fail as a charter) and/or didn't like "at will" schools.

It was pointed out that KIPP pays teachers about 10% than the nation average but they work many more hours (it's a 9 1/2 school day plus they have to be on-call until 10 p.m.). Green Dot pays somewhere between 10-20% more depending on the teacher.

Mr. Daly said that HR departments have to be more about finding excellent teachers than filling a position.

School Choice and Competition. Do parents have the right to pick their child's school and can we increase school choice?

Mr. Barr said that parents absolutely do have a right to pick their child's school (but then told us that his child goes to a public school in LA that is so go that the value of his house is about $100k more because of it). He said it wasn't about creating gimmicks but getting schools to start trying to emulate the best schools.

Mr. Barth said that competition isn't improving all schools as exhibited by the Milwaukee school district and the use of vouchers in that city.

Mr. Daly said not only should parents have school choice but should have the right to say no to the class your child is placed in. (I'm thinking he never had his kids in public schools.)

The next question was about charters - pro and con.

Mr. Barr said that charters are the R&D for public education. He said the most important thing is that charters tend to believe that other people's kids can learn.

Mr. Barth was a little more aggressive in his answer. He said of course there are a lot of built-in arguments against charters - they don't do better overall than traditional public schools, many have been failures, there tends to be more in and out at charters than traditional schools. BUT, he said that we should do it because there have been break-thru charter performers and any charter law should be written to protect against the bad ones coming into being and allow the good ones to flourish.

The next question was if Washington State got a charter law, what would it take for you to care?

Mr. Green Dot said "money; lots and lots of money." Very funny. He also said he was "intrigued" by Washington and the new teachers contract in Seattle. He also said his union's teacher contract was only 34 pages, no tenure but just cause, teachers have to agree to work an extended day and that the teachers as assessors are very hard on each other.

KIPP - He said it would depend on the law. There are staffing issues, curriculum, 10% charge in some cases for central adm help, need for facilities funding and, in some states, the charter law is in name only.

Mr. Daly said that the federal government needs to get back to original purpose of equity and not try to get local control over education. (Not a bad idea because if anyone thinks that local control will go away, let me introduce you to a little state we call Texas. They will secede before they give up their control.) He said RTTT is government money to be "creative." (This reminds me to go read up on some of the proposals from the winning states and see how "creative and innovative" they are.)

The moderator asked about what would make it work for Washington State (my writing is so bad - didn't have my laptop - so I think that was the question based on the answers I wrote down).

Green Dot - look for cities where conditions are right with just a Superintendent and School Board (you don't want those pesky City Councils or Mayors around).

KIPP - He said that at KIPP pay for performance "isn't an issue" (which I thought was odd). He talked about individual classrooms with individual schools for individual kids. That would be quite a school system.

My takeaway:
  • They all lamented the inability for many people to see the complexities of education and how many people wanted a "sound bite" answer (and New Teacher guy admitted that sometimes that's what it came down to for all of them).
  • The model seems to be smaller, cheaper, scalable and accessible for this group. Both KIPP and Green Dot operate on about a 500 kid school model. In a semi-perfect world, yes. But economies of scale will tell you that we need bigger schools because of the size of some urban areas AND because of the programs that larger schools can offer.
  • I have heard this over and over and I agree (to some degree): kids have to know and believe that their teacher(s) believe in them. The community around that school has to feel that the teachers and staff at that school believe in the kids they are teaching. This is one big push that KIPP, Green Dot and Teach for America have for all their students.
  • I think it was Green Dot guy who said, "We are accountable to those we serve." That is an interesting statement because if a charter school has no School Board or Superintendent to be accountable to, then that accountability is only as good as the charter law written.
  • The two charter operators were somewhat straightforward on charter issues. But the claim seems to be that charters have been around, lessons learned, the good ones know what they are doing. That's good to hear BUT charters still have a profound effect on districts and I'm not sure either man either knows or cares what that effect is.
I came away believing that these are men who care about public education. Two of them are running charter operations that definitely have a bottom line. I think all three groups have firmly lined up with ed reformers, seeing that as the star to hitch their wagons to for success.

I would have to think long and hard about charters in Washington. I don't actually believe we need them in Seattle if we had a Superintendent and Board who listened. But I don't know about small districts or rural districts. And it's worth asking that question before we say no just for Seattle.

I think the issue of innovation is much more about administration resistance (at least here in Seattle) far more than anything the teachers' union is doing. Seattle is ripe pickings for charters because of our large numbers of empty buildings just waiting for them. (I would almost believe that Rainier View and Viewlands are being renovated not because there is that much pick up of population in those areas but so they would be ready to go on-line if charter law were passed.)

But I would have to see the most rigid, strict charter law bill ever written before I would say yes. I really doubt that would happen at this stage of the game. There is too much lining up among companies/foundations/groups of ed reformers to allow a very narrow charter for Washington State.


seattle said…
Thank you Melissa. I agree with you. And I learned a lot too.

I expected to see three, greedy, one tracked, ed reformers trying to force charter schools on Washington. But what I saw was three pretty candid, well informed guys, who seemed to care deeply about education. And, they were willing to talk openly and honestly about the successes and failures of their charters.

Though I don't think we need charters in Washington, I also don't think we should shut the door and lock it. I think we should always look at our options with open minds, and pay careful attention to what is happening with charters in other urban districts.
Unknown said…
Thanks for such an informative post. I really appreciate your reporting.
LouiseM said…
Thanks for the report Melissa. Very informative and objective.
seattle citizen said…
Melissa, you wrote, "Mr. Barth [of KIPP]said...we should do it [change WA law to allow charters] because there have been break-thru charter performers"

Actually, he was much more arrogant - he claims that charters are THE breakthrough schools, which is what frustrates me most about the reform movement, it assumes that nothing good is happening in publics, that no child is breaking through, that only some split from the public system can create "breakthrough performance. Of course, this also begs the question, how is performance measured in a charter, or any school for that matter. Test scores? The two charter guys both mentioned college entrance/graduation, but this is notoriously difficult to track. What OTHER methods are there? No one knows, it's all about the test scores. Here is what he said, exactly, about it is THE charters [not publics] that do the "breakthrough performance" thing:

On "Why should Washington change the law to allow charters," Richard Barth, of KIPP, said that "the communities that have embraced charters, the reason for it is that The schools that have universally created breakthrough performance across the country, there are two hundred, maybe around three hundred of them, that are doing the most in that regard,and are charters. The schools that are producing the greatest breakthrough performance for the kids facing the greatest challenges in America, by and large are charters. Not all charters, but a subset...

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