Are military academies the answer?

Youth Challenge cadets at the Grizzly Academy in San Luis Obispo, California

Military training can turn Strugglers Into Strivers, writes Hugh Price, the former Urban League chief turned Brookings’ fellow, in a new book. In a speech at Fordham’s Education for Upward Mobility conference in D.C., Price talked about the benefits of JROTC, public military academies and the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe corps, a residential program for dropouts that’s improved the success of participants.

 (Common elements) include an emphasis on belonging, a strong focus on motivation and self-discipline, emphasis on academic preparation, close mentoring and monitoring of how youngsters are doing, accountability and consequences, demanding schedules, teamwork, valuing and believing in the young people, believing that they can succeed, structure and routine, frequent rewards and recognition, and of course, an emphasis on safe and secure environments.

Some urban districts, such as Chicago and Philadelphia, offer military academies. Others are charter schools, such as the New Orleans Military & Maritime Academy and Bataan Military Academy in Albuquerque.

Here’s a 2005 New York Times story on public military schools across the country.

MATCH Education’s Michael Goldstein sees the potential in Price’s approach, but says the zeitgeist is moving the wrong way. Charters are under fire for being too tough on students, he writes.

The darlings of the charter movement, schools like KIPP and so forth, are being (unfairly) attacked for having discipline policies deemed too strict.  Any quasi-military school would probably look at KIPP as hopelessly lax, but compared to many high-poverty schools where “anything goes,” it’s certainly true that KIPP is stricter.

. . . some top charters are reallocating spending to satisfy these critics.  They taking $ from extra-curriculars, school trips, books, advanced classes, art, sports, and just about any sort of item that could be perceived as discretionary — and reallocating for more full-time staff to work with a small group of kids who struggle to adhere to the rules.  The same thing is happening with limited teacher time — reallocation towards time-consuming discipline procedures and therefore away from other core topics like lesson prep, helping strugglers after school, showing up for the basketball game to cheer, and so forth.

I think it’s all about choice. Some students — or their parents — will choose structure, discipline and, perhaps, military cachet. It’s not for everyone.

Choice solves the religious holiday clash

You can’t please everyone. When Muslim parents in Montgomery County, Maryland asked for days off for Muslim holidays, the school board eliminated all religious holidays from the school calendar. It turns out you can annoy everyone.

Religion isn’t the problem, writes Cato’s Neal McCluskey on Reason. Public schooling is the problem, he argues. Choice is the solution.

McCluskey advocates vouchers for each student, so funding follows the child. “Let parents choose schools that share their values, religion, views on math curricula — you name it.”

The people of Montgomery County are diverse, and a single system of schools for which they all must pay simply cannot treat them equally. Just look at the “solution” the board came up with: ending official recognition of Christian and Jewish holidays, but holidays like Christmas and Yom Kippur remaining days off because attendance would be too low to operate. Muslims, meanwhile, are too small a minority to greatly affect attendance, so the schools will still be open on their holidays.

. . .  Values-based conflagrations are constantly flaring up across the country, whether the flashpoint is school holidays, student prayer at graduations, reading Huckleberry Finn, the content of history curricula or myriad other matters.

Parental choice — funded by taxpayers — could improve social cohesion, he argues.

. . . some empirical research has shown more meaningful connections between students of different races in private than public schools, perhaps because choosing a school based on shared values or interests provides a bonding agent more powerful than the things that divide groups. Finally, research has suggested chosen schools are better than public schools at instilling basic American civic values like voting and tolerance of others.

It’s almost impossible to treat everyone equally within a single school system, McCluskey concludes. “To foster peace and real unity, educational freedom is key.”

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.”

Bad choices in Detroit

Detroit parents have lots of school choices — most of them bad, conclude Center on Reinventing Education researchers in Education Next.

Excellent Schools Detroit, a coalition of philanthropic, education, and community leaders, gave only 16 percent of the city’s public schools (district or charter) a C+ or better in 2014, based on academic status, progress, and school climate measures. Some neighborhoods have no schools with a passing grade.

Half of charters are no better than DPS schools and the rest are only slightly better, the report concludes.

There may be 20,000 to 30,000 more seats than students in traditional and charter schools, so competition for students is fierce.

But parents “struggle to navigate the city’s complex education marketplace and find quality options for their children,” researchers write.

Parents “cite safety issues, lack of transportation, and lack of information as serious barriers to finding a good school.”

Detroit Public Schools (DPS) lost two-thirds of its enrollment between 2005 and 2012. The city’s population has declined and remaining families are turning to charters and schools in neighboring suburbs.

“No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school,” the researchers write.

“It’s a free-for-all,” one observer said. “We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control…. Detroit hasn’t set the conditions to make school choice work for families and kids.”

In 2013, 4 percent of Detroit’s 4th graders were proficient in math and 7 percent in reading on the National Assessment for Educational Progress. It makes cities like Chicago and Cleveland look good.

Status quo wins in California

Triumph of the Status Quo is Ben Boychuk’s look at the California superintendent’s race.

. . . reformers had high hopes for Marshall Tuck’s insurgent campaign against State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. The 41-year-old former investment banker and charter school president tried to paint the 65-year-old incumbent, former legislator, and fellow Democrat as a creature of the state’s powerful teachers’ unions. . . . the race did expose a growing fissure between traditional union-aligned Democrats and an emerging faction of pro-business, pro-reform Democrats. But the biggest difference between Torlakson and Tuck—their respective plans for reforming the state’s tenure and dismissal statutes—didn’t galvanize voters.

The California Teachers Association spent $11 million “touting Torlakson and denouncing Tuck,” while the challenger raised nearly $10 million from “well-heeled education reformers, including Los Angeles real estate developer Eli Broad and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg,” writes Boychuk in City Journal.

Tuck attacked Torlakson for supporting the state’s appeal of Vergara v.California, the class-action lawsuit that threw out California’s tenure, seniority, and dismissal rules.

Surveys after the ruling showed strong support for dumping “last hired, first fired” rules, writes Boychuk. But “nearly 60 percent said they didn’t know what the lawsuit was about.”

Tuck also touted his experience as president of the Green Dot chain of charter schools. He voiced his support for California’s landmark parent-trigger law, which lets parents at failing schools petition to force their school district to implement certain reforms, including charter school conversion. Here again, though, voters don’t completely understand charter school reforms.

. . . The teachers’ unions and their surrogates, such as Diane Ravitch, used Tuck’s charter school ties to paint him as a racist, a bigot, and a tool of “the power elite.”

Their attacks worked, concludes Boychuk.

Core critics win big

Common Core’s critics were big winners on Tuesday, notes Reason.  Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Florida Gov. Rick Scott, both critical of the new standards, defeated Mary Burke and Charlie Crist, Common Core supporters.

The Senate is brimming with potential Republican presidential contenders who all oppose Common Core, including Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio. Some of them have signed on to a bill that would instruct the federal government to stop pushing states to stick with the standards. And Sen. Lamar Alexander, who will head the Senate Education Committee now that Republicans have the majority, supports that effort.

Arizona, Georgia and South Carolina elected state superintendents who ran on anti-Core platforms, reports the Daily Signal.

Republican gains in state legislatures also means more support for school choice, predicts the Daily Signal.

“In Illinois, school choice also was a major plank in the platform of Bruce Rauner, the Republican who upset Pat Quinn in the state’s gubernatorial race. Rauner is interested in establishing innovative education savings accounts.”

Winners are talking about expanding school choice, writes Matthew Ladner on Jay Greene’s blog.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wants to offer school vouchers in more districts and provide choice to children with disabilities. Arizona Governor-elect Doug Ducey stated in his victory speech, “Schools and choices open to some parents should be open to all parents.”

Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s victory margin may have come from “parents of the near 100,000 children participating in Florida’s private choice programs,” writes Ladner.

Republicans control both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office in 24 states compared to 6 for the Democrats, reports the Washington Post.

Parents choose special-ed charters

Charters designed for students with disabilities are renewing the “inclusion debate,” reports Arianna Prothero in Ed Week.

A student adds a Ninja Turtle head to his chart as a reward for completing a class activity at Arizona Autism Charter School. —Patrick Breen for Education Week
A student adds a Ninja Turtle head to his chart as a reward for completing a class activity at Arizona Autism Charter School.
—Patrick Breen for Education Week

Diana Diaz-Harrison opened a charter school in Phoenix for her son, who has autism, and similar students. The Arizona Autism Charter School, which enrolls 90 students, “is among dozens of charters nationwide that focus on serving students with disabilities,” writes Prothero.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, requires that students with disabilities be taught in the “least restrictive environment.” That usually means mainstreaming students.

Some parents prefer a specialized school designed for their children’s needs.

About 100 charters are designed for special-ed students, according to the  Center for Education Reform. While some are disability-specific, others “serve children with a range of disabilities as well as their typically developing peers.”

Several years ago, I visited charters designed for disabled and mainstream students in Michigan and California as a freelance writer on Unique Schools for Unique Students, a Center on Reinventing Public Education book on charters for special-needs students.

Not everyone thinks mainstreaming is the best strategy.

“A majority of kids with disabilities are performing very poorly—very, very poorly—where they receive all or most of their instruction in the mainstream classroom,” said Doug Fuchs, a special education professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “Inclusion must account for whether or not students are profiting educationally from the mainstream setting.”

Many students at Arizona Autism Charter School were doing poorly in mainstream classrooms, says Diaz-Harrison.

Special-ed co-teachers may function as “very expensive finger pointers,” writes Peter DeWitt, who’s taught inclusion classes, in Ed Week. The Goldilocks quandary remains: “How do we find a balance between having higher expectations without making those expectations so high that we continue to make a marginalized population of students feel even more marginalized?”

School choice isn’t enough

School choice shouldn’t just be about “which one” but also about “what kind or how much or even whether or not,” writes Michael Mazenko in the Denver Post.

American education is almost exclusively designed to prepare students for university study and bachelor degrees. Even kindergarten teachers talk to kids and parents about “college readiness.” The added emphasis on STEM subjects in recent years narrows the focus even more.

Excluded from the system, however, are students who would prefer to learn a trade and work in skilled labor. Excluded are the kids who focus predominantly on the arts. Excluded are students who won’t sit passively in rows for 12 years completing worksheets and bubbling in standardized tests. Excluded are many children who don’t fit the “common” profile with “common” goals and standardized dreams.

Public education “should be offered as an opportunity,” writes Mazenko, a high school English teacher. It shouldn’t be a “mandate.”

HarvardX: What happened to our schools?

Saving Schools, a free MOOC (massive open online course) by Paul E. Peterson, launches on Sept. 8 on HarvardX, part of the edX platform. Four mini- courses on U.S. education history and politics will be offered sequentially.

Students who want credit can sign up — for a fee — with the Harvard Extension School, which will provide discussion groups.