Plain speaking

Edu-agitprop can be unhealthy, Rick Hess wrote last week in considering the season’s education reform movies. As an antidote to simplistic moral crusading, he recommends Fordham’s forthright book on the institute’s efforts to “help launch new schools; to fix broken older schools; to assist needy families to make their way into better education options — and to duke it out with powerful institutional resistances, reform-averse politicians, and adult interests bent on maintaining the status quo.”

Ohio’s Education Reform Challenges: Lessons from the Frontlines by Checker Finn, who runs Fordham, Terry Ryan, the vice president for Ohio, and writer Mike Lafferty concedes that reform is hard. Very hard.

The authors showcased their take in a terrific column for Fordham’s Education Gadfly recently, one in which they unapologetically described Fordham’s adventures in charter school authorizing as “humbling.” They recounted, “One of our sponsored schools imploded in a fashion worthy of a Greek tragedy. Just a few years ago, the W.E.B. Dubois Academy in Cincinnati was visited by the (then) governor [and] lauded in the U.S. Senate (as a praiseworthy example of a school narrowing achievement gaps)… But fast forward a few years and the school’s dynamic founder was pleading guilty to five counts of theft in connection with charges that he misused school funds and services to improve his home. The school he founded was closed–for weak academic performance–just last month.”

One of the book’s lessons is that a charter school “has the opportunity to do things smarter and better,” but inept founders may blow it, Hess writes.

Another is that choice doesn’t guarantee quality. “The education marketplace doesn’t work as well as we thought — or as some of our favorite theories and theorists assert,” the Fordham authors admit.

In practice, the authors note that atrocious schools can roll comfortably along for years, fully enrolled–undermining blind confidence that the mere presence of parental choice will serve to encourage academic excellence and discipline lousy schools.

Finally, “they detail how seemingly zealous reformers can quickly morph into defenders of the new status quo, as charter school operators and others find themselves grasping for dollars, resisting accountability, working to stifle competitors, and generally deciding that there’s no need for further change.”

The book isn’t just for Ohioans, Hess writes. It’s for those who “prefer hard truths to airy rhetoric when it comes to improving schools.”

John Merrow of Learning Matters also has a new book, Below C Level: How American Education Encourages Mediocrity – and What We Can Do about It.

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  1. SuperSub says:

    I worked at a charter school that was a diploma-mill for an educated Turkish-American community. In five years the school had 3 directors (principals) who took graduate (PhD)classes paid for by the school while earning a six figure salary for working 3-4 days a week. Other administrators were afforded the similar benefits, and most of them were of the same community.

    The sad truth is that schools are only as good as the staff that work there. More school choice does not increase the chances of having a good school, it simply dilutes the local talent pool. The important factor is in being more selective during the certification and hiring processes.

  2. John Thacker says:

    The promise of charter schools, and choice in general, is the same as that of capitalism in general. Not that mistakes will never be made, but that mistakes will result in stopping making the mistake. Bad schools will close.

    Bad schools are inevitable. But bad charter schools get closed; bad public schools limp along forever, failing to educate.

    “More school choice does not increase the chances of having a good school, it simply dilutes the local talent pool.”

    An odd opinion, committing a variety of the lump of labor policy. It only “dilutes the local talent pool” if the net result is to reduce the student-to-teacher ratio. One must assume that SuperSub is steadfast against all those attempts to decrease the number of students per teacher.

    I agree that teacher quality is important, but I sincerely doubt that a focus on selectivity during the certification and hiring processes will result in higher teacher quality. Anyone familiar with teacher certification knows that it is gamed by terrible teachers good at the certification games, and certification is often used to exclude terrific teachers from non-traditional backgrounds.

  3. SuperSub says:

    Regarding the reduced teacher quality, I do feel that a lot of the growth in teacher numbers has not had the intended effect of improving student learning. Effective teachers are effective whether they have 15 or 25 students as long as they are given the support of the administration.
    I’d also argue that a school is more than the sum of its parts (teachers). Teaching is a very cooperative profession, and having 10 good teachers together in a school will have greater effect than the same 10 teachers split between two schools.
    There’s an easy way to improve teacher certification. Set the bar higher for subject specific tests and require at least a year’s worth of student teaching. The sad part about certification is that it doesn’t even need to be ‘gamed’ by the bad teachers… making them have to game it would be an improvement.
    The main problem with charter schools is that they distract parents from the root problem in education – falling standards for students, teachers, and administration that is brought on by pressures from the community and school boards.


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