Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Mixed Charter Results Warns of Difficulty in Transforming Education

A recent article in the New York Times cries out:

Despite Push, Success at Charter Schools Is Mixed

This is one of a series of recent news articles and scholarly reports which raise troubling questions about whether the charter experiment launched in Minnesota and now replicated in many other states, an experiment which has been the darling of both the Bush and Obama administrations, is really paying off. The Times article writes:

But for all their support and cultural cachet, the majority of the 5,000 or so charter schools nationwide appear to be no better, and in many cases worse, than local public schools when measured by achievement on standardized tests, according to experts citing years of research. Last year one of the most comprehensive studies, by researchers from Stanford University, found that fewer than one-fifth of charter schools nationally offered a better education than comparable local schools, almost half offered an equivalent education and more than a third, 37 percent, were “significantly worse.”

Now the theory behind the charter experiment is that by removing some of the constraints and by fostering competition, charters would transform public education and make significant inroads on the achievement gap. A recent auditor's report here in Minnesota authored by the Minnesota legislative auditor found that:

As a group, charter students posted lower test scores and their schools were more likely to wind up on a watch list dictated by No Child Left Behind goals. Half of active charter schools failed to make adequate yearly progress and were subject to federal sanctions,compared with 32 percent of district-run schools. (Minneapolis Tribune, June 30, 2008.

My purpose in citing these sources is not to launch an attack on charter schools. Rather, I want to make the point that making significant inroads on transforming education for all students is way more difficult, way more challenging, than pundits, presidents and most educators are willing to admit. What we are discovering is that there is no magic bullet, no quick fix. The problem is that when the same kids, from the same families, with the same work habits move from one school to another, you haven't solved the problem by calling the new school a charter, a magnet, or anything else. Teachers in charter schools are largely trained by the same teacher training schools and they largely use the same curriculum, as the traditional publics. We are discovering that our education system rests on a fundamental pillar, the ability of the family, and of course the student, actively to participate in education by providing the language tools and work habits to succeed. When students come to us without those tools and work habits, if we want them to succeed, we need to make up for that huge deficit with new strategies, and those new strategies are not all that easy to implement.

If we want to transform public education, we need to something far more radical and purposeful than the quick fixes proposed by pundits. Not changing the compensation system, not creating more charters, not race to the top, is going to do the job. Listen. The fact is that public schools are providing an outstanding education for a huge block of children--the ones who come to school ready to learn, the ones whose parents read to them and prepare them with the coping skills they need to learn. The intractable problem, the one that we are called upon to address, is to graduate all students to excellence, and that job is way more difficult than most people imagine.

What, then must we do? The answer is that there is not one thing, or two things, or even a dozen things alone that can meet the national goal of leaving no child left behind. It will take changes in teaching techniques. It will take better and smarter use of testing. It will take demanding oversight from school boards and a new vision of educational leadership. But most of all, it will take strategies that inspire students and families to get on board with the hard work and persistence that education requires. We are just beginning to make the changes here in St. Cloud that need to be made. In our recent forum with disadvantaged students, that is exactly what they told us. They praised the teachers that encouraged them--pushed them--to succeed.

And we do have great teachers here. We have the richest curriculum, the broadest and most demanding courses, the best opportunities for students that can be found in the area. The transformation that I speak of would not be required if we were satisfied with the old paradigm that provides superb education for some students, average education for others, but leaves others behind. My kids received here in St. Cloud not just an ordinary education, but a world class education. They had every opportunity. Any child who is ready to learn, who comes to school prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that are provided, can do very well. The crisis in public education is how to educate the students that in decades past we would have cast aside because they lacked the language tools, work habits, and persistence to overcome obstacles placed in their way.

The transformation that is required is not going to happen overnight. Some of the charter experiments have implemented really good ideas. We need to seize on those good ideas and use also the good ideas that are permeating regular public schools as well. One key is the organized, intentional, deliberate use of testing data to intervene at the earliest possible time to make sure that students who are behind are getting appropriate instruction. Another key is to impose rigorous demands and high expectations on all students and their families. These are two of the core ideas behind the new strategic direction adopted here in St. Cloud. But adopting a strategic vision is the easy part. Let's talk some more about the things that need to be done next time.

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