Newark principals sue over suspensions

Five Newark school principals suspended for speaking out against the superintendent’s school reorganization plan have filed a free-speech lawsuit reports the Newark Star-Ledger.

New Jersey took over the troubled district. Superintendent Cami Anderson’s turnaround plan is very controversial.

Four principals — H. Grady James of Hawthorne Avenue School, Tony Motley of Bragaw Avenue School, Dorothy Handfield of Belmont Runyan School and Deneen Washington of Maple Avenue School — were suspended with pay Jan. 17, two days after they spoke at a community meeting at a Newark church intended to oppose Anderson’s One Newark plan.

The principals work at schools affected by the plan. Hawthorne and Bragaw are targeted for use by charter schools and Maple is set to become an early childhood learning center. Belmont Runyon has been designated a “renew” school, which means new leadership will be installed and teachers will be asked to reapply for their positions. Brown’s school, Ivy Hill, is designated for “redesign.”

The fifth principal, Lisa Brown of Ivy Hill Elementary, was suspended for not heeding the district’s ban on Daryn Martin, the head of Ivy Hill’s parent-teacher organization who was escorted from the school Jan. 15 after he protested the removal of fliers he posted that were critical of the reorganization plan.

Motley, James and Handfield are now back to work at their schools. Brown and Washington will be reassigned.

“The school district has violated their rights and we’d like a judge to say that,” attorney Robert Pickett said. “Public employees have a right to talk about issues of public concern.”

Do principals have a right to oppose district policy and keep their jobs?

A teacher in virtual charter hell

After 15 Months in Virtual Charter Hell, Darcy Bedortha quit her job as a high school English teacher for K12 Inc., the nation’s largest virtual education company. She couldn’t meet students’ learning needs, she writes in Education Week Teacher.

K12 pays full-time teachers $42,000 a year to teach a minimum of 226 students, writes Bedortha. Some full-timers have more than 300 students.

Students can enroll at any time.

In a given day in mid-November I would grade introductory assignments, diagnostic essays and end-of-semester projects, and everything in between, for each course (this month I had 30 separate courses). I found it to be impossible to meet the learning needs of my students in that situation.

Many students are phantoms, Bedortha writes. Fewer than 10 percent of students “attended” the weekly 30-minute “class,” which used an interactive blackboard. Only a small percentage communicated by email.

Most were behind in high school credits and “could not afford another failure.”

. . .  as I wrote this in early December, nearly 80 percent of our students were failing their classes.  At that time there were 303 students (12 percent of the school) enrolled in special education programs – and 259 of them were failing while 17 had no grade at all. Eighty-two percent of the 9th graders were failing. 

Other virtual schools face similar failure rates, writes Bedortha. Only 37.6 percent of students at full-time virtual schools graduate on time, compared to 79.4 percent of all public high school students according to a July 2012 National Education Policy Center report.

Virtual schools do best for mature, self-directed learners or for students with a homeschooling parent. Most students who’ve failed in schools with in-person teachers won’t succeed with less personal contact with a teacher. But they need an alternative to traditional schooling.

Virtual schools are bound to attract transient students. We need a way to fund virtual charters so they’re not compensated for students who aren’t using the school’s services.

District schools become faux charters

Money is motivating some charter conversions in California, reports Sarah Butrymowicz on the Hechinger Report. Until this year, all California charters received the state’s average per-pupil funding. Schools in districts with below-average funding could convert to charters and move up to the average. They also could apply for federal startup grants.

That’s lead to a wave of “chinos” — charters in name only — that haven’t changed curriculum, teaching, schedules or anything else.

Several California school districts with only one school have become “charter districts.” And in at least five California districts with multiple campuses, charters now comprise nearly all of the schools. Many of these “dependent” charters retain close ties to their districts.

In San Carlos, five out of six schools are charters. Most parents don’t realize their neighborhood school is a charter. There are no lotteries, writes Butrymowicz. “The schools still have a traditional central office and school board overseeing them.”

Starting this year, district schools in California can’t boost state funding by converting to charters. Conversation applications are way down.

Nationally, conversion charters make up nearly 10 percent of all charter schools. 

Charter group: Close low-performing school

A low-performing charter school with university affiliations should be closed, says the California Charter Schools Association. The charter group believes in accountability.

West Sacramento Early College Prep, which is run by University of California at Davis, Sacramento City College and the Washington Unified School District, is one of the worst-performing schools in the statereports the Sacramento Bee

 “I think the school is doing a great job,” said Harold Levine, president of the school’s board and dean of the UC Davis Education School. “I think we are doing what the state of California is asking us to do: develop college-ready kids.”

All students in the first graduating class of 32 went on to university, community college, trade school or the U.S. Marines.

The school serves students in sixth through 12th grade. Many come from low-income families and have emotional problems, according to Levine.  

Levine says students at the school don’t fare well on the state’s standardized tests, known as STAR tests, because they aren’t aligned to “the way we want them to think.” He said the school adopted project-based learning in 2008 that is more closely aligned with the new Common Core State Standards curriculum that California students will begin to be tested for in 2014.

The dean noted that California students are no longer taking STAR tests. He questioned why the charter association is using an “outmoded” measure to decide if a school is performing well academically.

“If anything, the CCSA should look to us and work with us to see what useful reforms can come to California,” Levine said.

The school rates as a 1 out of 10 — the lowest level — compared to schools with similar demographics.

The best and the brightest have no freakin’ idea what they’re doing, responds Darren, who teaches math at a Sacramento high school. But they know how to make excuses.

I’m told that Common Core will boost students’ academic thinking beyond mere regurgitation of facts, that they’ll understand the material on a deeper level. If this school is teaching its students to operate that way, wouldn’t those students perform even better on the STAR tests, which supposedly ask for only a cursory, fill-in-the-blank-style understanding?

I’m no fan of the Common Core standards or of the effort to use them to impose so-called discovery learning or any other educational fad on us, but even CC supporters must concede that using CC standards to excuse and explain low performance is a harsh indictment indeed.

If this school is the best UC Davis eggheads can come up with, “how much confidence should we taxpayers have in that university’s school of education?” asks Darren.

Small schools that recruit disadvantaged students often boost graduation and college enrollment rates by paying attention to students. (Community colleges take anyone and some four-year schools are almost as open.) It’s much harder to raise achievement levels.

How a charter network evaluates teachers

Evaluating teachers’ effectiveness is a priority for the Aspire network of 37 charter schools, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s not just about test scores.

When Eva Kellogg’s bosses evaluated her performance as a teacher, they observed her classes. They reviewed her lesson plans. They polled her students, their parents and other teachers. And then they took a look at her students’ standardized test scores.

When the lengthy process was over, the eighth-grade English teacher at Aspire Lionel Wilson College Preparatory Academy in Oakland had received the highest rank possible.

She was a master teacher.

And based on her job performance, she got a $3,000 bonus as well as a metaphorical front-row seat at one of the biggest battles in public education: how to evaluate teachers and whether to give good ones a bigger paycheck.

Forty percent of a teacher’s score is based on observation by the principal, 30 percent on students’ standardized test scores and the rest on student, colleague and family feedback, as well as the school’s overall test scores.

Teachers are ranked as emerging, effective, highly effective or master. Bonuses range from $500 to $3,000.

Tennessee, D.C. lead ed reform

Tennessee and District of Columbia schools are making the fastest reading and math gains in the nation on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) , writes Richard Whitmire in a USA Today column.

A few years ago, Tennessee students were acing state tests but failing the high bar set by NAEP, writes Whitmire. Washington D.C. “was regarded as one of the worst urban school districts in the country.”

Both adopted education reforms that remain very controversial.

In Tennessee, a third of the district school superintendents along with the teachers unions in Memphis and Nashville just signed no-confidence letters condemning State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.

. . . The Washington reforms are famously controversial, designed by former chancellor Michelle Rhee (Huffman’s ex-wife), who was forced from office in part because of the political turmoil created by those school changes. Current Chancellor Kaya Henderson was able to preserve and improve those reforms partly because she is considerably less inflammatory than Rhee.

Tennessee and D.C. raised their standards, then switched to Common Core.

Both got serious about evaluating teachers.

In Washington, D.C., teachers routinely won rave reviews despite abysmal outcomes by their students — a contradiction routinely explained away by poverty (despite higher-poverty school districts with better outcomes). That changed dramatically with its groundbreaking 2009 IMPACT teacher evaluation. At the time, national union leaders dubbed it outrageous. Last month, a national study dubbed it effective. Overall, the better teachers stayed and tried harder, encouraged by the prospect of being rewarded. The “minimally effective” teachers tended to look for other lines of work.

Forty percent of D.C. students now attend charter schools, which tend to have higher test scores than district-run schools. That may be a factor in the rising scores.

Education Consumers Foundation lists Tennessee’s reforms.

Successes are fragile, Whitmire warns. There’s always push back.

The author of The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes On the Nation’s Worst School District, he is writing a book about high-performing charter schools, On the Rocketship.

Maryland tops the NAEP dishonor roll by excluding most special-education students and English Language Learners, reports Dropout Nation.

Better than Shanghai

“While U.S. schools struggled to reach even an average score on a key international exam for 15-year-olds in 2012, BASIS Tucson North, an economically modest, ethnically diverse charter school in Arizona, outperformed every country in the world, and left even Shanghai, China’s academic gem in the dust,” writes June Kronholz on Education Next.

How do they do it?

“We do an incredible amount of work,” said Alia Gilbert.

Founded in Arizona by economists Michael and Olga Block (she’s Czech), BASIS admits any student — anyone who’s willing to do the work.

Fifth graders take Latin and can expect 90 minutes a day of homework. Middle schoolers have nine hours a week of biology, chemistry, and physics. Algebra starts in 6th grade; AP calculus is a graduation requirement. The English curriculum separates literature and language, or critical thought; high schoolers take both. There are year-end comprehensives; fail even one and it means repeating the grade.

Students take an average 10 AP exams each, and in 2013 earned an average score of 3.9 out of 5

BASIS teachers said that they offer slower learners abundant extra help, and that kids rise to meet the schools’ expectations. But at the same time, those expectations may scare off the less-able, less-interested students, which can mean a test-score bump for BASIS. (Sophomore Charlie) Murphy told me that his class had 120 students when they arrived as 5th graders, but the group has dropped to 40, as youngsters have transferred to schools with bigger sports programs, more social offerings, or an easier course load.

The Arizona schools operate on about two-thirds of the funding for a child in a traditional public school, writes Kronholz. Classes are large. Technology is minimal. With highly motivated and capable students, it doesn’t matter.

A new Washington D.C. school, which enrolls a high percentage of disadvantaged, poorly prepared students, is struggling to accelerate the curriculum, but test scores are far higher than in district schools.

BASIS teachers, who are expected to be “scholars,” start at about $40,000 and peak in the “mid-80s.”  They receive “bonuses based on the number of their students who pass AP exams—$200 for each student who passes with a score of 5; $100 for a 4—but schools must raise money themselves for other performance bonuses.”

BASIS Schools, Inc., a for-profit, “secures the charters, employs the teachers and handles centralized functions.” Each school is a nonprofit that owns its building. New BASIS schools use pre-fab buildings that can be assembled in four months for about $8 million, including the land. That’s half the cost of a typical Phoenix school.

A school that puts physical education first

Physical education comes first at Urban Dove Team Charter School in a low-income Brooklyn neighborhood, reports CBS News. High school students spend the first three hours of every day working out with their team mates and coaches.

They play basketball, lift weights, jump rope, use punching bags, ride bikes, and do yoga. Students rotate sports depending on the season.

. . . When kids go to Social Studies, English and Math, their coaches go with them . . . sitting in class, helping with homework, and sorting out problems.

If a student walks out of class, coach Alana Arthurs follows to ask “What’s wrong?” She wants to know “how can I get you back in the classroom so you can continue to learn.”

Ninety-three percent of students come from low-income families; one third are in special education. The school recruits “overage/under-credited students” with poor attendance records.

Jai Nanda developed the school after running an after-school sports program for inner-city kids, Urban Dove. He saw teens who’d attend school only if they were playing on a sports team. When the season ended, they stopped showing up.

Three hours a day for sports is an awful lot, but nothing else has worked for these kids.

College rah rah bah

“Millions of young people will never attend four-year colleges,” writes Sarah Carr in the Wilson Quarterly. “America must do more to equip them to secure good jobs and live fulfilling lives.”

From President Obama on down, “college for all” is seen as the solution to poverty, writes Carr. In New Orleans, the city of Carr’s book, Hope Against Hope, reformers created college-prep charter schools for low-income, black students.

At schools that have embraced the college-for-all aspiration, career and technical education is seen as being as outdated as chalkboards and cursive handwriting. Instead, the (mostly poor and mostly minority) students are endlessly drilled and prepped in the core humanities and sciences—lessons their (mostly middle- or upper-income and mostly white) teachers hope will enable the teenagers to rack up high scores on the ACT, SAT, and Advanced Placement exams and go on to attend the four-year college of their dreams (although it’s not always clear whose dreams we’re talking about).

Idealism should be tempered with pragmatism, Carr writes. Only one-third of low-income college students earn bachelor’s degrees by their mid-20s. Drop-outs may be thousands of dollars in debt.

A 2011 Harvard report, Pathways to Prosperity, described strong demand for “middle-skill” workers with vocational certificates or associate degrees. For example, electricians average $53,030, dental hygienists  $70,700 and construction managers $90,960, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“College for all” isn’t a smart state or national education policy, but can make sense as the mission of a single school, responds Michael Goldstein, founder of MATCH, a high-performing charter school in Boston.

In Boston, many traditional high schools describe themselves as college prep, but they’re sort of half-hearted about it. Few alums actually graduate from college. College rah-rah is absent. But so is career rah-rah. There is no rah-rah. I’m not sure how Carr thinks about such schools.

College is the dream of low-income black and Hispanic parents, Goldstein writes. When a large, open-admissions high school in Boston surveyed parents — mostly black or Hispanic single mothers without a degree — more than 80 percent wanted their son or daughter to go on to college.

I’m not sure I agree that educators in urban college prep charters, see career and technical education as “outdated.”

. . . I think more typically — there’s a perception that the vo-tech offerings themselves are terrible, with really bad track record of actually connecting kids to the right jobs, the air-conditioning repair jobs that Carr writes about.

Boston’s vo-tech high school is considered by far the worst public school in the city.

MATCH has considered launching an “excellent” vocational charter school, then measuring how graduates do in the job market, he writes.

I think everyone wants their kids to go to college because everyone thinks it’s the only way to get a good job. A high-quality school focused on qualifying graduates to train as electricians, mechanics, welders, dental hygienists, X-ray techs, etc. would be very popular.

‘Parent trigger’ schools open

The first “parent trigger” schools have opened in California. Desert Trails, a low-performing elementary school in Adelanto, is now a charter “preparatory academy.” The school year started in early August.

In Los Angeles, 24th Street Elementary opened last week:  The district will run the K-4 grades while a charter operator will run grades 5 to 8; a preschool provider will offer early childhood education.

Parent Revolution, which is backing trigger campaigns, claims two other victories: Parents got what they wanted without taking over the school

At Haddon Avenue Elementary in Pacoima, the parent union paused — and then stopped — their Parent Trigger campaign.  This was because their pressure caused the district, teachers and administrators to put together a thoughtful plan to transform the school.  And in the Watts neighborhood of LA, the parents decided on replacing the principal and making in-district changes to turn-around the chronically failing Weigand Avenue Elementary.

We The Parents, a documentary about Compton parents’  “trigger” campaign to seize their children’s chronically low-performing school, has opened in Los Angeles. The LA Times calls it “inspirational but not too informative.” The Compton parents failed on a technicality, but drew a charter school to a nearby church to provide an alternative.