The charter school advantage increases

Once considered an innovation, charter schools are now outranking even selective public schools (“Why it Matters That Public Charters Dominated the 2018 US News Best High School Rankings,”, May 9).  As readers of this column know, I support parental choice.  But I’ve also written often about the tilted playing ground on which charter and traditional public schools play.

Let’s start with funding.  Although charters technically are public schools, they are exempt from financial oversight.  They are free to do virtually almost anything they want in awarding contracts on everything pertaining to their operation.  Traditional public schools lack such freedom.  In fact, some things that charters do would be considered criminal.

Charters in most states also can hire non-certified teachers.  Traditional public schools by law cannot do the same.  The best they can do is to issue temporary, emergency credentials when they can demonstrate the need.  I realize that a credential is no assurance of classroom effectiveness, but it is better than no evidence of competency.

Charters also retain the right to push out students who are disruptive.  They do so by subtly counseling parents to look elsewhere for the education of their children.  Traditional public schools must enroll all who show up at their door regardless of motivation or interest.  Once enrolled, expulsion becomes almost impossible.

Despite these unfair advantages, I expect to see charter schools proliferate in the years ahead.  Anger and frustration over the glacial pace of improvement in traditional public schools will fuel the change. The latest U.S. News & World Report rankings will only accelerate the growth of charter schools.

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Do school closures work?

When schools are persistently failing despite efforts to help them, reformers argue that they should be shuttered. The strategy has great intuitive appeal, but does it do what it is supposed to? (“School Closures: When a School is More than Just a School,” National Education Policy Center, May 15).

A study that looked at Chicago, which five years ago closed roughly 50 schools housing 12,000 students, concluded that it didn’t work.  Putting aside the loss of a sense of community that schools foster, the move failed to help students.  Those who moved to schools with higher test scores posted lower achievement the first year and improved only slightly afterward.

Let’s take a closer look at the findings.  High test scores alone do not mean a school is good.  Such scores could be the result of turning classrooms into test preparation factories.  If so, it’s doubtful the school offers an improvement.  But there’s another factor given short shrift in the debate.  Students don’t always transfer to better schools, as assumed.  They may enroll in schools that are a better fit for one reason or another than those they left.

That’s why I support parental choice.  Parents differ widely in what they seek for their children.  The only common factor that I see is safety.  If a school cannot provide that, it needs to be closed.  I’m talking about repeated incidents.  No matter how academically outstanding, any school can be the venue for an isolated act of violence. But when students are subjected to repeated incidents, letting those schools remain open constitutes child endangerment.

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Compassion fatigue takes toll on teachers

The psychological and emotional strain on teachers brought on by ever- increasing demands affects students in ways that are not fully appreciated (“Who Is Taking Care of Teachers?” Education Week, May 8).  This compassion fatigue is insidious, slowly but surely undermining morale.

Chronic stress, which 46 percent of teachers report, forces them to call in sick.  The more absences teachers rack up, the less time they spend with their students.  It’s not surprising that teachers in schools with a large percentage of disadvantaged students are out more than their colleagues in other schools.  That’s because those students bring huge deficits to the class through no fault of their own.  Teachers have to attend to their needs before teaching subject matter. Excessive absences are then reflected in student underachievement in the former.  It’s a vicious cycle.

Burnout results in disengagement, which means merely going through the motions. A 2015 poll found nearly two-thirds were “not engaged.”  How can they be helped?  Unfortunately, schools and districts fail to provide the support teachers badly need.  The media pile on by focusing only on negative news.  Telling teachers about the importance of exercise and diet is important, but I question if that is nearly enough.

The way the typical school day is structured leaves little time to attend to personal needs.  That’s why I think it’s worthwhile scheduling periodic pupil-free days or at least shortened days so that teachers can confer with their colleagues and receive outside assistance.  I seriously doubt that will happen, as pressure mounts for measurable outcomes.  My suggestion would be seen as time away from instruction.  But instruction is only as good as the state of the mental and physical health of the teachers who provide it.

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School integration is hard to achieve

Despite the passage of 64 years since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, too many schools remain largely segregated.  That’s why a lawsuit organized by the New Jersey Coalition for Diverse and Inclusive Schools will be closely followed (“New Jersey Law Codifies School Segregation, Suit Says,” The New York Times, May 18).

I say that because there seems to be a direct clash between New Jersey courts and the U.S. Supreme Court.  The former has ruled since the 1960s that even de facto segregation is unconstitutional.  Yet the U.S. Supreme Court in Milliken v. Bradley held in 1974 that school systems are not responsible for desegregation across district lines unless it is de jure.  Curiously, the plaintiffs in the New Jersey suit admit that it is de facto.  Which side will prevail?

But let’s assume for a moment that the high court rules in favor of the plaintiffs.  What can be done to integrate schools now that hasn’t been tried before?  Busing hasn’t worked for the most part.  Magnet schools are more promising, but they too are limited in their potential.  Integration is good for all students.  But the devil is in the details. As long as present residential housing patterns remain, I see little hope for significantly integrating schools.

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Standardized tests are useful when properly used

No other issue in education is as poorly understood as testing.  And no aspect of testing is more controversial than standardized tests. That’s why it’s ironic that on the same day as schools in New York State were administering standardized math exams, the state Assembly passed legislation to bar the results of such tests as part of the teacher and principal evaluation process (“State Assembly passes bill to stop schools from linking student test scores to teacher evaluations,” New York Daily News, May 2).

If I had not taught for 28 years, I would be totally opposed to the action.  After all, shouldn’t effective instruction be reflected in how students perform on a test?  But that view is based on the assumption that all tests are created equal. The fact is that tests are measuring instruments.  How they are designed largely determines student outcomes.

Most standardized tests are created to allow students to be ranked.  If test makers loaded up their instruments with the most important material taught effectively by teachers, scores would likely be bunched together, making comparisons difficult.  To avoid that possibility, the tests contain items that have been shown in the past to produce score spread. I call those trick questions. It’s unfair, but it produces the desired outcomes.

A far better use of standardized tests is for diagnostic purposes.  I believe teachers would welcome the results as a way of providing them with invaluable feedback.  Finland, which is known for the quality of its schools, uses that approach.  It does not name and shame schools, treating test scores confidentially.  I realize that many people will view this suggestion as an excuse for poor instruction.  But I submit it’s worth a try.  That’s why I’m not opposed to what New York State has done.

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High school graduation rise not what it seems

At first glance, the increase in the on-time high school graduation rate to 83 percent from 79 percent in 2010-11 is great news (“Is the high school graduation rate really going up? Brookings, May 3).  But a closer look reveals that it is no time for celebration.

To understand why, it’s necessary to keep in mind how the rate is calculated.  It takes the number of students in a school that enters the 9th grade (the cohort) and compares that number with the number graduating four years later.  It seems so simple and so fair.  But schools have learned how to game the process.

For one thing, they are not supposed to remove a student from the cohort until they receive a request for records from another school.  In other words, they are not supposed to count students as transfers when in reality they have dropped out.  But schools violate this rule to inflate their graduation rates.  They also fail to identify students who are enrolled in adult education, further distorting the data.

Finally – and most egregiously – they resort to credit recovery as a way to make themselves look good.  According to the Education Department, 89 percent of high schools offered at least one credit recovery course and 15 percent were in some credit recovery.  As a result, some 2 million or more high school students are in credit recovery each year.  Credit recovery allows students to get full credit for a semester’s work for a course lasting only one week.

On the basis of the evidence, the real graduation rate may actually be falling – not rising.  Only a thorough audit, combined with protection for whistleblowers, can determine the truth.

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Military parents deserve school choice

At present, military parents are limited to local public schools for the education of their children.  But efforts are underway to give them the same right that civilian parents possess by defunding a program known as Impact Aid. (“Betsy DeVos Is Facing Backlash for Her Plan to Push School Vouchers on Military Families,” The Nation, May 1).

Because military bases are tax-exempt sites, the federal government has long offered subsidies that are designed to offset the lack of resources normally provided by local property taxes. That certainly is fair.  But recent House education legislation would divert the funds to Education Savings Accounts to give military parents greater choice.

If the bill becomes law, it has to give parents enough to pay for private schools and other services.  Unfortunately, it does not, offering a maximum of $4,500 for families in high-needs Impact Aid districts or $2,500 for those families outside those areas.  That certainly is not fair because the amounts do not come close to paying for the full cost of private schools, which is roughly $10,000.

Instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, however, the bill needs to be altered to reflect the true cost of non-public school tuition.  I say that because military parents already sacrifice so much in serving the country.  Yes, choice always involves doing due diligence.  But I maintain that military parents should have the same right to decide which school is best for their own children.

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When diversity clashes with excellence

Although diversity is a worthy objective in education, the No. 1 goal should be excellence. When we focus on the former over the latter, there will be unintended consequences (“DeBlasio’s school ‘diversity’ plan will be a progressive failure,” New York Post, May 2). New York City serves as a case in point, but it is not unique.

Until recently, all students there had to apply and be accepted to a middle school.  Their status was determined by scores on the state exams.  But because this criterion has resulted in a disproportionate number of white and Asian students, Mayor Bill DeBlasio wants to give priority to students who don’t meet the requirement. It includes students who score a 1, which is “well below proficient.” In short, the mayor wants to establish a racial quota system.

The unavoidable effect will be to force teachers to lower their instruction to the lowest achieving student.  That might please their parents, but what about the other students?  I’ll bet their parents will demand instruction geared to their needs.  They might even pull their own children out and enroll them in private or religious schools.  Depicting such parents as racist is outrageous.

I don’t think diversity and equity can simultaneously exist on a large scale. Any attempt to engineer diversity based on rigid quotas will invariably result in pushback.  The closest we’ve come to that goal is some charter schools.  But charters play by a completely different set of rules than traditional public schools.

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Teacher tenure is still needed

Teacher tenure is depicted by critics as the villain in attempts to improve education.  Yes, there have been abuses, but there’s another side of the story that deserves telling (“Dear Mr. Chancellor, please stop the grade-fixing in NYC schools,” New York Post, Apr. 14).  It has to do with wholesale grade-fixing fraud orchestrated by the principal at John Dewey High School in the New York City system.

When Kathleen Elvin became principal in 2012, she launched “Project Graduation” in an attempt to boost the graduation rate.  Aside from shortchanging students through credit recovery courses, she retaliated against unwilling teachers by giving them the lowest rating of “ineffective.” Two teachers blew the whistle, which eventually led to an audit by the state Education Department confirming the fraud.  But the Board of Regents has never held any guilty party accountable.

Here’s my point: If the teachers who exposed this scandal did not possess tenure, they would have been fired under some trumped-up charge. Even with the existence of tenure, teachers are still harassed by abusive principals.  But at least they still have their jobs.  Exemplary reputations do not protect teachers from such abuse.  What puzzles me in this case is that the two whistleblowers say the United Federation of Teachers failed to support their cause.  Bully principals are nothing new.  I’ve written before about the situation several years ago at Brooklyn Tech, an elite high school in the New York City system.

If tenure were abolished, how many teachers would be willing to expose similar scandals?  Tenure merely guarantees that teachers receive due-process protection.  It’s important to keep that in mind as pressure mounts to eliminate it or gut it.  As Sir William Blackstone wrote in 1765: “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

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Strict schools appeal to some parents

It should be evident by now that a school which is ideal for one child is a disaster for another (“What It’s Like to Study at the Strictest School in Britain,” Time, Apr. 20). Although I have reference to Michaela Community School in Wembley Park, which is an impoverished section of north London, I submit that my remarks are equally relevant to schools in this country.

Founded in 2014, Michaela is built on order and discipline, to the extent that some liken it to the British army.  Everything is timed and regimented.  That includes behavior at lunch time and between classes. Students get demerits for failing to follow the rigid rules, like not sitting up straight at their desks and not tracking the teacher with their eyes.

Michaela is one of about 400 free schools in Britain. They are like charter schools here: independently operated by non-profit groups.  That means teachers design their own curriculum and create their own textbooks.  Rote learning characterizes instruction. Group projects are absent.  Ofsted, the government’s independent regulator, gave it a rating of “outstanding” in May 2017.  How students will perform on the national exams known as the GCSEs that all students in the country take at age 15 or 16 remains unknown.

So much of Michaela in London reminds me of Success Academy in New York City.  Both schools are highly controversial. But they can be just what some students need and want. Yet the same can be said of their opposite, the controversial Summerhill School in Suffolk, England.  In the 1960s, Summerhill captured the attention of the public by rejecting the model of rigid, joyless schools.  It was “child-centered,” which meant that the authority of teachers and most school rules were eliminated.  It too had its vocal supporters.

My point is that what works so well for some students can destroy other students. That’s why I have long advocated parental choice.  Parents know the needs and interests of their own children. Let them choose.  I know all the arguments against parental choice.  But in the final analysis, I maintain that it is still the best way.

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