Suspension doesn’t explain charter scores

High suspension rates don’t explain high test scores at no-excuses charter schools, write Robin Lake and Richard Whitmire in USA Today.  She directs the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell, while he’s the author of On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools are Pushing the Envelope.

What counts is not whether students are suspended, but whether they transfer to another school, Lake and Whitmire argue.

Take Boston’s high-performing Brooke Charter Schools as an example. The suspension rate there is 20%. Sounds high, but the attrition rate is only 5.5%.

“We use suspension to help draw clear lines about the responsibilities all members of our school communities have to each other,” says Brooke founder Jon Clark.

In high-poverty Ward 8 of Washington, D.C., about 90% of Achievement Prep students re-enroll each year — an astonishing number for a high-transient neighborhood. Their academic record is just as striking, and there’s no evidence the school pushes out “bad” students.

New York’s Success Academies draw the most complaints, in part because their low-income and minority students outperform many middle-class schools in the city. Something must be amiss, right? And yet the attrition rate there for the past few years is about 10%, far lower than many schools in the same neighborhoods.

New Orleans charters with high expulsion rates are modifying their discipline policies to retain more students, they write.

Learners have rights too

Charter schools with strict discipline policies provide learning opportunities for motivated students, wrote Mike Petrilli in a New York Times debate on school discipline. That’s why parents are choosing charters, he argued.

Accused of abandoning troubled students — and worse — he concedes that “pushing kids out of school and giving up on them too soon” is a problem.

There are too many schools with weak cultures, weaker leaders, ineffective discipline policies, and poorly trained staff that resort to punitive actions when other approaches would work better. And this has serious consequences for the kids who are suspended or expelled. Helping schools learn how to create positive school climates and develop alternative approaches is definitely worth doing.

But — you knew there’d be a but — eliminating suspensions and expulsions is “the educational equivalent of . . .  letting windows stay broken,”  argues Petrilli. “It elevates the rights of the disruptive students” above the needs of their classmates.

In high-poverty urban schools, the serious learners are low-income black or brown kids. Their parents can’t afford to move to the suburbs or pay private-school tuition.

Strong public schools have long had tools to deal with these moral dilemmas, including detentions, suspension, expulsion, and “alternative schools” for the most troubled students. Yet some on the left, including in Arne Duncan’s Office of Civil Rights, have been fighting to take these tools away.

“If you want traditional public schools to thrive, allow them to employ reasonable discipline policies that will create environments conducive to learning—including the responsible use of suspension, expulsion, and alternative schools,” writes Petrilli. Otherwise, competent parents will choose charter schools that are safe and orderly.

Critics say there are better ways to create safe, orderly schools, such as “restorative justice” approaches that try to mediate conflicts.

Here’s a video on a conflict-resolution program at an Oakland (California) middle school.

A new research paper from the Discipline Disparities Research-to-Practice Collaborative calls for educators to analyze discipline rates by race and ethnicity and look for alternatives to suspension. These include improving the “cultural responsiveness of instruction,” better classroom management, programs to build supportive relationships between teachers and students and high-quality instruction. “Efforts to increase academic rigor and to increase safe, predictable environments for young people” reduce conflict, the paper concludes.

That last bit seems chicken-and-eggish to me. If you create a safe, predictable environment, you’ll have a safer environment.

Let parents, teachers choose orderly schools

Parents and teachers should be able to choose safe, orderly schools designed for “the vast majority of children . . . who come to school wanting to learn,” argues Mike Petrilli in the New York Times.

Disruptive students make schools “unpleasant, unsafe and unconducive to learning,” he writes.

For eons, excellent schools have found smart ways to create order that need not require large doses of punitive sanctions. (They create) . . . a climate of respect for students and teachers alike; setting clear behavioral expectations schoolwide and enforcing them consistently; and using a set of graduated consequences for misbehavior that work to correct problems before they get out of hand.

It’s no surprise, then, that both parents and educators flock to schools with strong, positive climates and a sense of order. Once upon a time that often meant urban Catholic schools, with their school uniforms and ample supply of tough love. Increasingly it means urban charter schools, many of which are secular forms of the Catholic schools of old.

It’s much easier for schools of choice to enforce order. “They can make their discipline codes clear to incoming families (and teachers),” writes Petrilli. “Those who find the approach too strict can go elsewhere.”

Traditional public schools don’t have that consensus on how strict is strict enough, he writes. They have to compromise.

Instead of forcing charters to tolerate more disruption in the classroom, why not encourage district schools to tolerate less?

Districts can create choice schools. How many low-income urban parents would choose a do-your-own-thing school over a school with clear rules enforced consistently? Some would prefer a “community school” with social workers and counselors, while others would want an academically focused school with after-school tutors.

Ohio charters show mixed results

Ohio charter schools work well for low-income blacks, but overall do worse than district schools, concludes a new CREDO study.

CREDO estimates that low-income black students receive 22 additional days of learning in math and 29 days in reading when attending a charter instead of a district school. Cleveland charters also are outperforming the district.

Stand-alone charters do better than those run by non-profit and for-profit charter-management networks.

Charter middle schools perform well, notes Education Gadfly. Charter high schools do not, perhaps because some specialize in “dropout recovery.” Online charters also perform poorly.

Schools improve to compete with charters

Charter school competition is improving district-run schools in New York City, argues Eva Moskowitz in the Wall Street Journal.

Her Success Academy charter schools serve low-income, minority students, yet students “not only rank in the top 1% in math and top 3% in English among all state schools, but they take top honors in national debate and chess championships,” writes Moskowitz.

Critics charge her schools and other charters cherry-pick the best students and dump harder-to-educate students in district schools. If that’s so, “any academic gains by charters are offset by losses in district schools,” she writes.

The city is divided into 32 community school districts. Math and reading scores improved from 2006 to 2014 in community school districts with the most charters and fell in areas with few or no charters, Moskowitz writes.

Of the 16 charter-rich districts, 11 rose in the rankings. And of the eight among those 16 with the highest charter enrollment, all rose save one. The district that jumped furthest, rocketing up 11 spots between 2006 and 2014, was District 5 in Central Harlem, which has the city’s highest charter-school enrollment (43%).

And what about the 16 charter-light districts? Thirteen fell in the rankings, and not one rose. For example, District 12 in the Bronx, which in 2006 ranked higher than Central Harlem, now ranks 13 spots lower. District 29 in Queens, which in 2006 ranked 15 spots higher than Central Harlem and has fewer poor students, now ranks lower.

Average charter-school enrollment was 20% for those districts that rose in the rankings and 6% in those districts that fell.

If there holes in this, I don’t know New York City well enough to spot them.

NYC Chancellor Carmen Fariña should be looking for ways to emulate successful charters, rather than dissing them, writes Richard Whitmire. “New district/charter collaborations were announced in Cleveland, Minneapolis, Rhode Island and Florida, the Center on Reinventing Public Education reported last month. They will join the more established compacts well under way in places such as Denver, Houston and San Jose.”

Detroit Public Schools woo middle-class families

Detroit Public Schools has closed more than 80 schools due to severe drops in enrollment. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

Detroit Public Schools has closed more than 80 schools due to severe drops in enrollment. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

Detroit Public Schools is trying to “attract middle-class families to one of the worst school systems in the country,” writes Sarah Butrymowicz on the Hechinger Report. The district is competing with charter, suburban and private schools — and the tendency of middle-class parents to move when their oldest child reaches school age.

Dara Hill, a college professor and mother of a four-year-old, diligently scribbled notes as the principal of Detroit’s Nichols Elementary-Middle School led her and several of her neighbors on a tour of the school. A room for special education students was brimming with stuffed animals, but the hallways were sparsely decorated. Work displayed in the kindergarten classroom was charming and developmentally appropriate. Why were there six students sitting to the side during gym class?

Nichols . . . typically performs at or slightly above average on state tests. It’s also a five-minute walk from Hill’s home . . .

An education professor, Hill joined a parent group called the Best Classroom Project. Parents, mostly middle class, share information and coordinate school visits.

School officials hope to use the Project to “reach the city’s small middle class as a means of ultimately growing a larger one,” writes Butrymowicz. In the district’s downtown offices, a “war room” is devoted to strategizing on how to raise enrollment.

On one wall, a Sun Tzu quote a translation of “The Art of War” hangs next to a poster someone has titled, “THE QUESTION: How shall DPS compete and win the marketplace?” The answer, posted next to it, is “Empowered DPS employee’s operating via synchronized, lean agile and leveraged work efforts.”

But it’s not all corporate doublespeak.

Officials gathered community volunteers to walk with children to school and are working with the city’s lighting authority to get broken streetlights near schools replaced first. They’ve picked 20 schools to serve as community hubs. They’re open 12 hours a day and filled with resources and classes for parents. Music or art is now taught at every elementary school — although many schools can’t afford to to offer both.

They’ve also launched new academic programs, like the three-year-old Benjamin Carson High School of Medicine and Technology. Many students there said they returned to the district from charter schools because they were attracted by Carson’s small size and focus on science. They praised the school and its academics, but in the spring, in the school’s first year of state testing, only 9 percent of 11th-graders passed the state math test and just 1 percent did in science. About 40 percent were proficient in reading and writing.

“A handful of parents from the Best Classroom Project opted to send their children to high-performing DPS schools this fall, but Hill’s leading contender is a private school,” writes Butrymowicz.

Moskowitz outmuscles the unions

In a Reason interview, Eva Moskowitz, founder of New York City’s phenomenally successful Success Academy charter schools, talks about how she built a political coalition to fight union power.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to squash Success Academy’s expansion plans, Moskowitz “bused 11,000 charter school parents and kids to the state capital in Albany to protest.” Gov. Andrew Cuomo backed the charter network, the mayor backed down and “state lawmakers quickly passed a bill to protect charter schools from future interference by the mayor.”

How strict is too strict?

How Strict Is Too Strict? asks Sarah Carr in The Atlantic.  Many high-performing urban charter schools “share an aversion to even minor signs of disorder,” she writes. Critics say students — most are black and Latino — face harsh discipline for low-level misbehavior.

Many parents “appreciate the intense structure, but only if they also come to trust the mostly young educators who enforce it,” writes Carr.

From the moment Summer Duskin arrived at Carver Collegiate Academy in New Orleans last fall, she struggled to keep track of all the rules. . . . She had to say thank you constantly, including when she was given the “opportunity”—as the school handbook put it—to answer questions in class. And she had to communicate using “scholar talk,” which the school defined as complete, grammatical sentences with conventional vocabulary. . . .

. . . Teachers issued demerits when students leaned against a wall, or placed their heads on their desks. (The penalty for falling asleep was 10 demerits, which triggered a detention; skipping detention could warrant a suspension.) . . . The rules did not ease up between classes: students had to walk single file between the wall and a line marked with orange tape.

Students wear a school uniform. Hats, sunglasses and “bling” are banned.

Summer was 14. It felt like elementary school.

Parents are very concerned about student behavior, writes Carr. “The margin for error is much smaller in black communities, especially for black boys,” Troy Henry, a New Orleans parent, told her.

But there’s been pushback from high school students.

Summer—who had received countless demerits and three out-of-school suspensions in her first semester as a freshman—was among the roughly 60 students who walked over to a nearby park wearing orange wristbands that read LET ME EXPLAIN. In a letter of demands she helped write, the teenagers lamented, “We get disciplined for anything and everything.”

High on their list of complaints were the stiff penalties for failing to follow the taped lines in the hallways, for slouching, for not raising their hands with ramrod-straight elbows. “The teachers and administrators tell us this is because they are preparing us for college,” the students wrote. “If college is going to be like Carver, we don’t want to go to college.”

Carver has modified its rules and decided to end out-of-school suspensions. Other charters also are rethinking strict discipline policies and reducing suspensions.

The changes came too late for Summer, who transferred to a low-performing magnet school.

“Restoring order and discipline” has helped New Orleans’ schools improve dramatically, writes Greg Richmond on Education Post. “From 2007 to 2013, the share of students reading and doing math at “proficient” levels surged from 37 percent to 63 percent in New Orleans. From 2005 to 2011, the high school dropout rate declined from 11.4 percent to 4.1 percent.”

Can charters require parents to volunteer?

Thirty percent of California charters require parents to provide unpaid labor, according to a Public Advocates report. “Forced work” is an “illegal school fee” that restricts access, charges the group.

Requirements range from one hour per year to 96 hours, according to Charging for Access.  Some schools charge parents $10 to $25 per hour or the equivalent in school supplies for unworked hours.

A parent helps a student with vocabulary at a KIPP school in Los Angeles.

A parent helps a student with vocabulary at a KIPP school in Los Angeles.

A charter school “may lawfully include reasonable admission criteria, including a requirement that parents agree to do work for the charter school,” according to a 2006 memo by a state Education Department attorney.

The report calls on the department to end the practice or face a lawsuit.

Charters should not make service hours an enrollment requirement, says the California Charter Schools Association. However, CCSA is unaware of any school that’s excluded a student “as the result of the parent’s failure to volunteer.”

I checked out the local charters on the report’s list.

ACE charters in San Jose require one hour a month: Parents may volunteer from home, such as phoning other parents with information.

Rocketship schools require 30 hours a year. Again, there are opportunities to meet service hours after school, on weekends and from home.

“Parent participation” schools ask the most.

Village School, a “district dependent” charter in Campbell, asks parents to volunteer three hours a week. It’s not clear whether parents have alternatives

Discovery, which also uses the parent participation model,  promises to “work with you individually to find a mode of involvement that works for you.” No child will be turned away because parents can’t volunteer, the web site states.

Photo: Lance Iversen, The Chronicle Ma Elena Villagas (center in pink) a teacher at Adelante Academy in San Jose gets help from parents.


Ma Elena Villagas (center in pink) a teacher at Adelante Academy in San Jose gets help from parents.

Some district-run schools also require parents to support their schools. In Alum Rock, a heavily immigrant district in East San Jose, Adelante Dual Language Academy, a district school of choice, requires 30 hours. 

Alum Rock considered requiring all parents to volunteer 30 hours a year, not just those at schools choice. That idea didn’t fly.

Two district-run choice schools in Sacramento require parent hours, reports the Sacramento Bee.

Leonardo da Vinci sets forth an annual parent contract requiring at least 40 hours a year for a family with one child enrolled, according to the school’s website. “Parents who fail to meet the obligations of the contract will lose sibling preference and may be given voluntary school transfer opportunities,” according to the school’s website.

The Phoebe Hearst website specifies that families “are required to donate 40 hours of volunteer time per year” and can do so by helping in the office, ensuring safety on the playground or in the school parking lot or helping in the classrooms. Parents can also donate $5 an hour in lieu of volunteering to cover up to 20 hours, according to a parent participation form that families are asked to submit each month.

Asked about the requirement, a district spokesman said “the language would be removed from both schools’ websites,” reports the Bee.

I suspect most California schools will drop the requirements. But is it wrong for a school of choice to require parent participation?

Charter myths

Philly School Choice highlights “five charter myths.”