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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Not the Charter Fight

Melissa wrote a piece for the Washington Post about how Washington State has resisted a number of the more conventional elements of Education Reform, including charter schools.

Liv Finne wrote a response for the Washington Policy Center blog and Melissa has responded in turn.

My thinking on this continues to evolve. Right now I'm at a place where I have no interest in the question. The discussion follows predictable patterns:
I argue against charter schools saying: "There nothing that a charter school can do for students that a public school cannot do. Whatever wonderful thing that a charter school does could also be done in a public school."
The charter school advocate responds: "Perhaps. But the public schools don't do those things."
And I come right back with: "And neither do most charters. The vast majority of them operate no differently from traditional public schools."
Instead of looking for disagreement, we could look for common ground. There's plenty. Education activists and sincere Education Reformers (not the insincere ones who are just trying to bust unions and reduce their tax bills) agree that the real obstacles that keep schools from working better for students are not the students, the families or the teachers. The real obstacles to the change we need are administrators and bureaucrats in the principal's office, at district headquarters, and in state education agencies, who don't allow us to give students the support they need and a legislature that refuses to pay what it will really cost to give students the support they need. The charter school path is to bypass those obstacles by working outside of those bureaucracies and find private funding. The public school path is to reform those administrators, bureaucrats and regulatory agencies so they provide support instead of suppression and to demand full funding from the State. Both paths have merit, but the argument - whether to fix the problem or bypass it - is a silly distraction. We need to acknowledge the expediency of bypassing it. They need to face up to the ultimate need to fix it.

The ownership and governance of a school has almost nothing to do with what is happening in the classroom. We need to take the focus off the ownership and governance and put it on the classroom. I don't care about whether the school is private, charter, or public. I don't care if it is traditional or alternative. I only care if it is a good school.

I've posted this comment to the Washington Policy Center blog:



Po-tay-to Po-tah-to
Submitted by Charlie Mas on Monday, May 14, 2012.


When you look at the bigger picture - and I would really like it if people did look at the bigger picture - the whole Charter school debate is a silly distraction.


The ownership and the governance of the school has little, if anything, to do with the education in the classroom. I think it's time for us to stop arguing over whether we should have charter schools or not and turn our attention where it belongs: to the actions we need to take to have good schools.


I used to participate in the debate. I have contributed to the effort to keep charter schools out of Washington. I tell people all of the time that there is nothing that a charter school can do for students that a public school cannot do. That's certainly true. Of course, I would have to admit that the public schools often don't use their license to do the things that they should be doing. So they could be doing the things that the best charter schools do, but they don't. That's a sad fact, and it is the strongest argument that the charter school advocates have. Of course, it is also true for the charter schools; most of them don't operate much differently from traditional public schools. And that is the tragic flaw in the argument in favor of charter schools. So the ownership and governance of the school - public, private, or charter - is not any assurance that it will be a good school. It's hardly even an indicator.


I'm not interested in the charter school debate anymore. It's a distraction. I'm interested in putting the focus on the elements that define a good school and removing the obstacles that keep schools - all schools - from being good schools.


What's a good school?


A good school is one that sets and maintains high standards for all students. A good school believes that all students (except the few with cognitive disabilities) are capable of working at a developmentally appropriate grade level.


At a good school, students who are struggling to meet those standards are provided with the support they need to reach the standards. The struggle is typically due to factors outside the students' control. These are children; they don't control much. Some lack the necessary preparation, exposure to wider world, or stimulation. Some lack the necessary motivation. Some, however, lack food, healthcare, freedom from fear, or a suitable study space.


At a good school the students are seen as individuals, each with their own unique set of needed supports.


At a good school all students - whether they are working at, below, or beyond grade level - are taught at the frontier of their knowledge and skills.


Those are the hallmarks of a good school. The ownership and governance of the school doesn't determine whether it is a good school or not. The leadership does. The culture of the school does. The dedication and the strength of the community's belief does. And, let's not kid ourselves, the budget does as well. Providing students with the needed interventions costs money, real money.


I could jump into this fray and say snarky things - believe me, I could; I'm really good at it - but to join in this argument on either side would only serve to validate a worthless debate.


Ms Westbrook has, I believe, the most widely read education blog in the state. Thousands of people, including nearly all of the education activists around here, look to her for information and analysis. Wouldn't we all rather see her spending her resources to identify and remove the barriers (including budgetary obstacles) that keep each of Seattle's public schools from being good schools.


Ms Finne is a policy expert. She knows the state and political forces that shape it. Wouldn't we all rather see her working to get the state to provide the money, perspective, freedom, and accountability needed to create good schools?


Look. We all actually agree. The promise of charter schools is an escape from the counter-productive regulation of school districts and state education agencies. The bureaucrats at the district headquarters and the state education regulators are such an obstacle to making good schools that a lot of folks decided to just free themselves of those structures. And, if you were to ask Ms Westbrook, I'm pretty sure she would say that the real obstacles to making our public schools into good schools are among the administrators, not the teachers, students or families. Everyone already agrees on the problem in education. Ms Finne and the charter school advocates want to work around that obstacle. Ms Westbrook wants to fix the problem rather than bypass it. Both perspectives have merit. There's no point in duking it out over this question.


Our energy would be better spent talking about what is a good school and how we can make every school into one. Our energy would be better spent focusing on the real obstacle here. I don't see anyone working to create accountability for these bureaucrats and administrators with their six-figure salaries. Maybe Ms Finne could work on that as well.

28 comments:

Melissa Westbrook said...

Again, annoyingly, Charlie is right.

I will say that I have followed what Charlie says, namely, that regular schools - short of not hiring unionized teachers - can do anything a charter can. So why don't they? Just as Charlie is interested in that question so am I but I am REALLY interested in why charter supporters don't ask that question.

Here's a way to save money (bringing in charters costs money just in infrastructure) AND raise up existing schools. So why don't districts do more to give principals and teachers flexibility? It can't be the union issues (at least not today, see Seattle's teachers contract which proves the union will work with the district).

I suspect that the work to create that flexibility is not work that district administrations want to do (or perhaps don't even know how to do). Again, Seattle schools, even with the flawed Creative Schools approach, is trying to do this. It's a way forward.

I have mentioned previously that in other states, what we have here like foreign language immersion and alternative schools and their "themes" is usually the purview of charters. Again, ahead of the curve and Seattle could provide the example to the rest of the state.

Of course, there could be many other reasons why people would want charters besides academic outcomes. Some charters definitely put a premium on behavior and some parents would like to have that for their children. Again, it could be done in existing schools but, for some reason, isn't.

Just as I know that one Board member is trying to reach out to various education advocates to bring them together to find common ground, maybe it is time for a singular issue like charters to be hashed out with a group. I know I certainly would be willing to talk.

JS said...

My overriding concern with charters is over privatization. Am I being paranoid to worry that some see charters as an entry point to access to public education money? Even if they're restricted to non-profit companies, some non-profits are more non-profit than others.

I would certainly like to find common ground, though.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that charters here would set up new cost and accountability infrastructures in a state that can't handle the ones its got.

Charters may give in some individual cases, but ultimately they would take away far more, for far more people, than they would benefit.

And ultimately, who do charters benefit most? The people making money off the charter system. Not the students.

No room for discussion. Sorry.

"Charter Naysayer"

Sahila said...

you miss the point....

the only reason there is a push for charter schools is PRIVATISATION AND GETTING ACCESS TO $600B/YEAR in taxpayer dollars allocated to public education...

go back to the work of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman - basic philosophy noted here, with remarks on origins and its effects...

Greed Destroys America

charter schools will not improve the education of the "masses"... they are not intended to... you can see that with the abysmal results they produce - no better than public schools...

and the (ruling) rich and those who doggy paddle in the bog that is all that is left of the middle class still have private schools to which to send their children...

Its time to see the bigger picture and fight back on that level....

Not a Charter Fan said...

But Charlie - what is the long term cost of obtaining that "expediency of change" that charters promise? I keep hearing that bad charter schools are notoriously difficult to shut down if their administrators wish to remain open, and notoriously easy to close mid-school year if their administrators wish to bail out. Flexibility can work against you, as well as for you. I worry that the barn door cannot be closed if we allow them in to our state, no matter how tempting the desire is to bypass bureaucracy. Charters seem like a potentially hot, sticky mess.

I think that Melissa is correct that the middle road is a better path. Alternative or Creative Approach schools seem like a more reliable solution. You can focus change within the system on a small subset of schools, with enthusiastic staff, a few administrators, and parents doing the hard work, yet still retain both a traditional schools and public control over local education. The only tricky bit is on the administration and school board arena - you absolutely need people in charge who are supportive of the dual approach, and not looking to sabotage the system.

Sahila said...

My point is that there is NO INTENTION TO EDUCATE EVERYONE ... from the article: "Ayn Rand became the darling of the American Right with her books, such as Atlas Shrugged, promoting the elitist notion that brilliant individuals represented the engine of society and that government efforts to lessen social inequality or help the average citizen were unjust and unwise...... The Ayn Rand/Milton Friedman theories may have purported to believe that the “free market” would somehow generate benefits for the society as a whole, but their ideas really represented a moralistic frame which held that it was somehow right that the wealth of the society should go to its “most productive” members and that the rest of us were essentially “parasites.”" .....

Charlie Mas said...

I understand that Sahila and a lot of other people - she is not alone in this - believes that there is absolutely no rationale for charters outside of the profit motive and no advocate for charters other than those in pursuit of profit.

I just don't accept that analysis.

There are a lot of folks who support charters for personal - rather than pecuniary - reasons. I'm sorry to get personal about this, but I believe that Sahila has said that she had a child enrolled at AS1 (Pinehurst). There are 295 school districts in Washington State. Not all of them are as progressive as Seattle. Not all of them offer alternative options like AS1. I can easily imagine someone living in one of those districts who wanted that style of education for their child. That person would advocate for the creation of a charter school that employed an alternative pedagogy and they would advocate for that charter school without any intention of profiting from it.

Likewise there are people who live here in Seattle and who do not like their choices among public schools. There are folks who see public schools that have very low expectations for the students - in academics and behavior - as well as low expectations for teachers and families. These folks could also yearn for a charter school that would set and maintain higher expectations for the school community. They would want that without any expectation of ever making a dime off it.

I, myself, am very tempted to seek paths around the obstructionists in the central administration. A charter is a tempting shortcut to systemic reform. I would seek that bypass without any hope of getting paid.

The inability to believe in any good intent in the folks on the other side of this debate contributes to the false dichotomy.

I'm not saying that there aren't privateers. There are. But not EVERYONE who supports charters is one of them. And not EVERYONE who supports charters is looking to make a buck off it. No more than EVERYONE who opposes charters is a either a stooge of the jackbooted teachers union or a thug member.

Charlie Mas said...

Please don't get me wrong. I continue to oppose charters.

I continue to believe that real systemic reform is the more worthwhile path. Unless we end up like New Orleans and make all of the schools into charters, then we will always have public schools, so we need to do what we can to fix them. They are broken, you know.

I just want to move the line of scrimmage from the question of charters vs. no charters to the question of identifying and removing the barriers to more effective education. I think it is a more worthwhile conversation.

Sahila said...

@Charlie - its cool... I dont mind the personal reference....

there's a basic philosophical foundation missing in this debate...

what are charters?
what are vouchers?
what do they promise?
why have they been created? (and that question leads straight back to social and economic ideology)...

and then, looking at where these two market-driven 'solutions' have been implemented to the largest extent - Chile and Michigan - what have been their results? (hint - research states in both places their implementation has been a total failure, in reducing academic and socio-economic gaps, have in fact exacerbated them)

Aside from the philosophical issues, real world experience shows charters DO NOT work as a short cut to systemic reform...

so, why waste time, energy, money and children's futures on going down that path?

if you believe in society's obligation to educate ALL its young, why not work with/within the current system?

and if we wont work with the current system, you will have more people like me who take our children out of school altogether...

Sahila said...

oh, and fi we dont tackle this at the "big picture" level, those who dont understand what is going on, and/or who cant take their kids out of public school, will be sentenced to watching their children grow up and live as the serfs of the oligarchs...

which really means we havent progressed at all, despite more than 2,000+ years of "civilisation"...

Sahila said...

@Charlie.... re-reading my last two posts, I realise it could seem I am arguing with you...

I'm not.... I was just wanting to clarify the thinking/train of thought that was the basis for my points...

I wouldnt be so sure though, that we will always have public schools...

There is more than one way to create/take advantage of a catastrophe that would give the excuse to turn all public schools into charters (Shock Doctrine)...

and then, you will notice in many states, that legislators (controlled by ed deformers) are lifting their caps on charters...

unless we tackle this from the big picture perspective, it really is only a matter of time before we're a country that only has charter and private schools ....

and the charter schools for the very poor, ESL, ELL, non-whites will be nothing more, in reality, than juvenile detention centres....

Jan said...

Charlie -- the only quibbles I had with your argument (assuming I understood it correctly, and maybe I didn't) are these:

1. You said: We need to acknowledge the expediency of bypassing it. They need to face up to the ultimate need to fix it.

I am assuming "it" is the overall education system and "they" are the charter proponents. As noted in comments above, charter advocates need to face up to more than that. They need to face up to the fact that the current charter models being rolled out in states are not delivering results (when 17% are better, 31+ percent are worse, the others are "unchanged," there is a big problem with it) AND the addition of a new delivery model to coexist with current public schools is costly and disruptive. If this were a medical patient, and the proposed cure screwed up the CURRENT medications (so they don't work as well) AND delivered a worse health outcome -- it would be malpractice to prescribe it.

2. Those who champion charters have not been credible or honest about the costs to the education system in general of running charters on top of a public school system. This doesn't matter, I guess, if you secretly want the regular public schools to fail miserably. But if you are really out there for ALL kids -- and not just the ones who choose charters, you have to deal with the disruptions in asset allocation, enrollment patterns, funding, etc.

Philosophically, I have some affinity for charter schools "in concept," but none for charter schools as they have evolved in the ed reform corporate model. And I acknowledge Sahila's point that the entire issue is subject to capture by (and has been somewhat taken over by) an ideological group of folks for whom I have no patience.

Anonymous said...

Huzzah Charlie! I often think if we didn't have to discuss charter and such du jour topics and focus on the nuts and bolts of a school district's work which is to educate the students, this district would be in a better place. Do other school districts get as much involvement from all these advocacy and ed lobbying groups? How much time must our school board, Superintendent and the deptuies, HR and Budget folks spend handling queries and requests? And for all that effort, time and money, has it helped the 40,000+ kids this district serves?

I often wish there was as much robust e-mailing and blogging among our educational advocates re: C & I, methods and ways to to provide instructional support be it more subject IAs, special ed/ELL IAs and real PD that teachers can use daily in classroom work. Or if teaching pedagogy is not their strong suit, then fine, work on finding ways to buttress the wrap around service some kids need and coordinate it such a way that we don't have costly duplicate service. If there is issue about quality of teaching certification, then work on the national or state level and do it right by including your teachers, unions, higher teacher ed programs. Don't take the shortcuts.

There need to be a clear line of priorities and to do list because there is just so much to work on in this district. The transportation SNAFU came on top of the unending capacity, program, BEX/BTA, central accounting, HR and so many other issues.

It never ends. It tells me the Board, the Superintendent, the Deputy Super, the EDs, the dept managers need to focus on nuts and bolts on runnning this school district. This district need strong department heads who knows how to do their job.

If there is to be engagment, then start with the community..... parents and students FIRST.
Why? Look at who you are asking to fund the levies. It isn't just the Livs, the Lynns, council members, the state reps, and favorite insiders. But thousands and thousands of tax paying citizens of this city.

tax payer

Melissa Westbrook said...

Do other school districts get as much involvement from all these advocacy and ed lobbying groups?

I suspect so. TFA, Stand, all of them (plus whatever parent groups there are).

You could ask the district how much time they spend on public requests for information. They do have a public information officer as all public entities are required to do. That's because it's the public's money and they do get to see how it is spent. And so taxpayers do get to ask questions.

The flaws in district management have nothing to do with too many requests coming from the public for information.

Anonymous said...

Personally I have mixed feelings about charter schools and I have actually voted for them in WA state. Why? Because I believe in the Waldorf education process and Seattle does not offer any Waldorf choice schools. There are Montessori schools, language immersion and other alternative schools but no Waldorf school. If I lived in CA or AZ, I would be able to send my kids to Waldorf Charter schools. We have 3 thriving Waldorf schools in the Seattle area (Seattle Waldorf in Meadowbrook Seattle, Bright Water Waldorf on Capital Hill and Three Cedars in Bellevue) so there is a desire for Waldorf education. A lot of people simply can't afford it though or are not able to make the financial sacrafices to send their kids there.

Salmon Bay and Thorton Creek are probably the closest to Waldorf. One is in Ballard and the other only goes to 5th grade. Both have waitlists. We couldn't get into Salmon Bay and I didn't want to switch schools in 6th grade so we went private and ended up at Seattle Waldorf. My kids have received a wonderful education but it saddens me that many who want Waldorf can't afford it.

FHP

Sahila said...

Charlie.... have you been watching what's been happening in Florida? Web today full of info re latest testing disaster... writing test pass rates fell from around 80% to around 20% IN ONE YEAR...

you know that Shock Doctrine strategy I mentioned a few posts ago?

Diane Ravitch posted this comment and article from Orlando Sentinal: Florida goal: Raise standards so high that no one passes, then privatize all schools: FCAT writing scores are a 'disaster'

Sahila said...

and the Florida BOE has been meeting today (in conference call open to the public) and has decided to LOWER THE BAR just for this year, so that more kids can be said to have passed....

Melissa Westbrook said...

FHP, so you kind of hit a difficult issue. How many kinds of charters should there be and is the point choice or better academic outcomes?

There certainly can be both in one answer but, as it turns out, not often true for most charters.

I love Montessori (and I wonder why we have Montessori in our schools and not Waldorf so maybe something for you to look into) but having charters exist just to make sure a specific kind of education is accessible to all is an interesting thought.

The specific issue you raise is one reason for new pushback in some states like New Jersey where they have a firmly established charter school system. The issue is parents who want a certain kind of education for their children and doing this advocacy in high-performing districts. The parents already in the high-performing districts DON'T want these new schools as they take funds from their schools.

If we do get charters, I hope someone tries to open one in Issaquah. That would be funny because I'm pretty sure the PTA people there advocating for charters would be quite startled to see one pop up.

Charlie Mas said...

Sahila wrote:
"@Charlie.... re-reading my last two posts, I realise it could seem I am arguing with you...

I'm not....
"

Yeah. I know you're not arguing with me because I agree with your core statement:

"if you believe in society's obligation to educate ALL its young, why not work with/within the current system?"

And that kinda helps me make my point. That there is a LOT of common ground here.

Anonymous said...

Waldorf tends to be more controversial than Montessori, I think that is why we don't have one in WA. Also, there is a huge division in Waldorf about whether charter schools are good. Many in Waldorf do not want any government say in how the school is run.

It is interesting that in Europe, Waldorf (called Steiner schools there) are not part of the public schools but are partially paid for by the government.

I also think that the way Waldorf teaches reading is very controversial too and could cause testing issues. In Waldorf, a child is not expected to read fluently until the end of 3rd grade. There are no academics in Kindergarten. Finnish schools which have been in the news a lot lately, are actually very similar to Waldorf schools.

Anonymous said...

Waldorf tends to be more controversial than Montessori, I think that is why we don't have one in WA. Also, there is a huge division in Waldorf about whether charter schools are good. Many in Waldorf do not want any government say in how the school is run.

It is interesting that in Europe, Waldorf (called Steiner schools there) are not part of the public schools but are partially paid for by the government.

I also think that the way Waldorf teaches reading is very controversial too and could cause testing issues. In Waldorf, a child is not expected to read fluently until the end of 3rd grade. There are no academics in Kindergarten. Finnish schools which have been in the news a lot lately, are actually very similar to Waldorf schools.

FHP (posting again because I forgot to sign)

Jet City mom said...

I am on the fence about charters, however I note that there seems to be a process surrounding closing a charter school.
Still unclear if A charter school like Summit K-12 would have had more protections & supports.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Emerald, do you know the number issue for states with charters? Accountability and the ability to close them. While charters want to lift caps on their numbers, the states are looking around and saying where are the results?

Again, it all depends on the charter law.

What protections and supports are you referencing? For the school and the district it's in? For parents? For staff? For the program? Again, really depends on the law and once it's passed, good luck.

Anonymous said...

Charlie,

The debate is a "distraction" for you armchair types who like to debate the merits of education policy over "chats" at Starbucks (Robin, Paul Hill & Co). By being open to compromise, you are also allowed into these little policy discussions with borderline academics who act like K-12education is something akin to rocket science. All it is is common sense--you teach kids and have expectations from all relevant parties. Just ask the nuns how to do it...it is a simple thing to do but people who went into other fields besides teaching (perhaps because it wasn't high status enough) like pretend it is something other than basic common sense. The bureaucracy is a nightmare--we can all agree on that--what else is new?

For those of us who are employed as teachers, charter schools would impact collective bargaining and the few rights we have left. In an ideal world, teachers would actually have more, not less, voice in education. The debate for me is much more than a distraction.

I find your "evolving" position rhetoric very insulting, much like Obama's evolving position on gay marraige. It's an on-the-fence, I'll-get-off-the-fence-when-it-most-suits-"me" approach---when the issue wasn't about Obama and this one is not about you.

Without tooting my own horn, I have actually been able to do all the things you talk about doing in education, have produced the results and have done it for years. I appreciate your support of schools and your attempt to keep the district accountable but please...

Get off your high horse, Charlie. Stick with your day job. If you want to continue your "chats" with Robin and even Liz, that's your business.

Butt out of the classroom. You are an annoying distraction when you pretend to be an expert. If you want to be a teacher, please apply with Teach for America--I'm sure KIPP would snatch you up.

--enough already

Anonymous said...

Enough already, well this district's union, the SEA, had a hugh chance with TFA. Where was your big horn then ? It's not just the teachers who are heavily impacted by TFA or for that matter charters. I would argue our kids are even more affected. It still saddens me to this day that I didn't see more muscle from SEA. What's that good ol' American saying.... use it or lose it!

- So when you say to butt out, did you mean yourself too?

Anonymous said...

So when you say...

I no longer teach in Seattle--in large part because of the incompetence/impotence of SEA and the apathy of its membership.

I feel your pain...but I'm in greener pastures.

Unfortunately, the students in Seattle (mostly children of color who are living in poverty) are being used as guinea pigs by these very so-called policymakers. It's disgraceful.

--enough already

mirmac1 said...

I believe the issue is black and white, either you are for civil rights and collective bargaining, or you are not.

I have no problem discerning where my proclivities lie.

Charlie Mas said...

enough already has convinced me. I'm going to quit this nonsense.