‘Accountability’ proposal is anti-choice

The Charter School Accountability Agenda is a “front” for opponents of school choice and reform, writes RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. The authors, Center for Popular Democracy and In the Public Interest, have union backing, he writes.

The agenda includes requiring an “impact analysis” on how new charters would affect district-run schools. It’s “absurd” to let existing schools keep out the competition, Biddle writes. That’s especially true in cities: Urban charters improve achievement — and raise the odds students will earn a diploma and go to college — according to Stanford’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes and Rand studies.

KIPP charter students in Manhattan. Photo: Beth Fertig, WNYC.

KIPP charter students in Manhattan. Photo: Beth Fertig, WNYC.

The agenda would let district schools keep per-pupil funding when students transfer to charters. “Why should any district be entitled to receive dollars for kids they are no longer serving?” asks Biddle.

It also calls for charters to enroll as many special-needs students as traditional schools.

Charters have fewer special-ed students because they’re less likely to put a disability label on students with learning problems, Biddle writes. They focus on teaching struggling students instead of sticking them in a “special ed ghetto.”

The American Federation of Teachers, which endorsed the agenda, ran a very low-performing charter school in New York City, notes Biddle. The school met just one of 38 goals set by its authorizer and was “rated a failure mill” by the city’s education department. The school had little tolerance for special ed students.

UFT Charter meted out-of-school suspensions to 17.8 percent of special ed students in 2011-2012 and in-school suspensions to another 20 percent of them, according to data submitted by the school to the U.S. Department of Education. This is higher than the out-of-school and in-school suspension rates of  1.5 percent and 6.5 percent for kids in regular classrooms.

United Federation of Teachers, the New York City local, will close the K-8 school, but hopes to keep the high school going.

NYC union’s failing K-8 charter will close

Running a charter school is harder than the United Federation of Teachers thought. The New York City union will close its failing charter school’s elementary and middle school, but ask for authority to continue its high school.

Students read at UFT's charter school in 2013. Photo: Geoffrey Knox

A reading class at UFT’s charter school. Photo: Geoff Decker

“When the school opened in 2005, then-UFT President Randi Weingarten said its success would demonstrate that unions could play a starring role in efforts to improve the school system,” write Geoff Decker and Sarah Darville on Chalkbeat NY. Weingarten also hoped to show that a union contract was not an “impediment to success.”

The UFT Charter School has been one of the lowest-performing charters in the city.

“Under Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s new school-grading system, the school earned the lowest of four marks in all four categories, including the school environment and its success at closing the achievement gap,” write Decker and Darville.

Curiously, only 2 percent of the school’s students are English Learners and 10 percent –below the public-school average — have an Individual Education Plan.

Unions and charter schools don’t mix, writes Darren. Two California charters run by schools of education — UC Davis and Stanford — also closed due to poor performance, he observes.

Should charters have to ‘backfill’ seats?

Charter schools should be required to “back-fill” their “empty seats,” argues a Wall Street Journal op-ed. It’s aimed at New York City’s Success Academy network, which posts very high scores, but doesn’t replace students who leave. 

Backfill mandates are a backhanded way to kill school autonomy, responds Mike Petrilli on Education Gadfly.

Some charters let new students start only at a designated entry point, such as kindergarten, sixth grade or ninth grade. As the unengaged leave, the remaining students are almost certainly more motivated and probably higher performing.

It’s unfair to compare a school with only the motivated to a school where students are coming and going, Petrilli concedes. So, stop comparing.

. . .  there are strong instructional arguments for not backfilling. Great schools spend a lot of time building strong cultures—the almost-invisible expectations, norms, and habits that come to permeate the environment, such as the notion that it’s cool to be smart and it’s not OK to disrupt learning. Culture-building is a whole lot harder to do if a school is inducting a new group of students every year in every grade.

Furthermore, schools that help their charges make rapid gains in their early years will be forced to spend a lot of time remediating new students who enter midstream. That’s why so many solid charters and networks that launch as middle or high schools eventually reach down to start serving students at age four, five, or six. It’s hard to remediate a kid who has already gone through half a dozen years of learning nothing in a dire school.

. . . When we force charters to backfill, or adopt uniform discipline policies, or mimic district schools’ approach to special education, we turn them into the very things they were intended to replace.

Districts could protect some of their schools, such as magnets, from “backfill”churn, Petrilli suggests.

No evidence of ‘push-out’ at NYC charters

Attrition is lower at elementary charter schools in New York City than at neighboring schools, concludes a new analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Office.

About 64 percent of students attending charter schools in kindergarten in school year 2008-2009 remained in the same school four years later, compared with 56 percent of students attending nearby traditional public schools.

In addition, special-needs students are more likely to remain at a charter than a traditional school, the IBO reported. That’s a change from last year’s report, which looked only at students in full-time special ed classes, notes the New York Times. Most special-needs students are mainstreamed.

High-needs students are segregated in low-performing district schools in the city, charges Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter group.  Ninety-three district schools in New York City “serve less than 1% of either English Language Learner or Special Needs students.”

Education’s culture clash

The school reform debate reaches its peak of vitriol when it turns to teachers unions and “corporate reformers,” writes Steven Hodas on The Lens. This reflects a culture clash, he argues, citing his experience in New York City.

Urban school systems  — like other municipal departments — “drew employees largely from blue-collar urban ethnic populations seeking entry into the middle class,” he writes. The work culture valued apprenticeship in the craft, “personal relationships gained through immersion and tenure in the workplace, and an acute awareness of chain of command and workplace rules.”

 The techniques of day-to-day practice (on a job site, at a fire, in the classroom) were largely unwritten . . . The centers of gravity and legitimacy were situated with the front-line workers themselves, and only those managers who had risen through the ranks of successive apprenticeship had legitimized authority.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein brought in a “white-collar, managerially focused culture” that sees seniority and experience as suspect. “Personal loyalties and obligations . . . are not assets but liabilities to org chart-style managers.” Klein created new career routes “that explicitly sought to route around the traditional pathways of apprenticeship,” writes Hodas.

For the first time, significant numbers of teachers, principals, and district personnel were recruited from elite institutions, not for lifelong careers but for stints of indeterminate duration. Now, principals need not to have spent long periods in the classroom or serving apprenticeships as assistant principals. Central office administrators increasingly drew from the ranks of those who had (or could have had) lucrative professional careers elsewhere and would never before have considered service within one of the nation’s most notorious bureaucracies.

The two cultures — blue-collar and white-collar — mistrusted and misunderstood each other, writes Hodas. “White-collar managers saw themselves as missionary and insurgent, their nominal authority threatened and undermined at every turn by aboriginal cultures of practice. Where they found strongholds they dismantled them, most significantly in the community school districts and in the central Division of Teaching and Learning (headed at the time by Carmen Farina, now de Blasio’s Chancellor and settling scores). “

Summer jobs save lives

New York City teens who got a summer job didn’t earn more three years later, concludes a study that compared participants to applicants who lost the lottery. Getting a summer job didn’t change the odds of college enrollment.

But summer job participants were more likely to be alive three years later, researchers found. The incarceration rate fell by more than 10 percent and mortality by almost 20 percent for former summer job participants.

Youths clean up blight in Memphis as part of an anti-crime program. (AP Photo/The Commercial Appeal, Jim Weber)

Youths clean up blight in Memphis as part of an anti-crime program. (AP Photo/The Commercial Appeal, Jim Weber)

In Chicago, summer workers from high-poverty neighborhoods were less likely to commit a violent crime, another study found. Arrest rates for violence fell by 43 percent over 13 months.

“It might be teaching youths that not everything that happens is an affront to them, not to get quite so angry and not to throw that punch,” said Sara Heller, a Penn criminology professor. “It’s teaching them to manage their own thoughts and emotions more constructively.”

Fewer teens — especially low-income, minority youths — have summer jobs, according to a new report. Over the past 12 years, youth employment has declined by 40 percent. In 2013, “white male youths from high-income families were five times more likely to be employed than black male youths from low-income families.”

NYC goes back to ‘balanced literacy’

New York City’s low-performing elementary and middle schools are being told to use “balanced literacy” approaches that didn’t work well in the past, reports Patrick Wall on Chalkbeat.

At a meeting last month, some principals in the Renewal program were told to reserve up to 45 minutes daily for students to read “just-right” books matched to their ability levels. Elementary and middle school leaders were also told to use a writing program created by Lucy Calkins, founder of theTeachers College Reading and Writing Project, and to send their “best and brightest” teachers to be trained there.

“Those are the non-negotiables we’re starting with in terms of instruction,” Laura Kotch, a former Teachers College consultant who serves as an adviser to Fariña, told the principals.

Yet Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s spokeswoman, Devora Kaye, said, “This is not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Daily “independent reading” time and student-selected books key components of balanced literacy, notes Wall. “Teachers give quick lessons on reading strategies before letting students practice with books of their choosing” at their ability level.

“The approach was mandated citywide about a decade ago,” until then-Chancellor Joel Klein let some schools try a Core Knowledge program focused on building students’ background knowledge. Compared to balanced literacy students, Core Knowledge students showed much stronger reading gains.

Balanced literacy’s critics say it’s incompatible with the Common Core, reports Chalkbeat.

For example, they say letting students choose books matched to their skill level keeps some from reading the grade-level texts the standards demand, and that the approach can ignore the standards’ call for a “content-rich curriculum.” Others accuse the approach of being loosely structured, with too little direct guidance for students — especially ones who are struggling.

“What these kids need is instruction, not to sit there with books they can’t read,” said New York University education professor Susan Neuman.

Schools have lost the idea that “reading is for the rest of your life to enjoy reading,” Fariña said in a recent interview.

Reading’s not much fun for people who can’t read well and understand what they read.

Diana Senechal challenges the idea that “balanced literacy” leads to joyful reading.

Study links voucher use to college success

A privately funded New York City voucher program improved the lives of the low-income, minority students who attended a private elementary school, according to a new study by Matthew M. Chingos of the Brookings Institution and Paul E. Peterson of the Harvard Kennedy School.

Voucher users were more likely to go to college and earn a bachelor’s degree, concluded the study, which is set for publication in the Journal of Public Economics. 

Students who received vouchers in 1997 were compared to a randomly selected group who applied for vouchers but lost the lottery.

Immigrant students did no better with a voucher, compared to the control group. However, U.S.-born students who used a voucher were 18 percent more likely to enroll in college and 61 percent more likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree.

Singing their way to academic success

At Voice Charter School in Queens, K-8 students learn to read music, play a little piano, harmonize and “sing, sing, sing,” reports the New York Times. Voice students do significantly better in math and somewhat better in reading than the New York City average.

First graders sing in the winter concert at Voices Charter School in Queens.

First graders sing in the winter concert at Voice Charter School in Queens.

Seventy percent of Voice students qualified for free lunch last year. All are admitted by lottery. No one auditions.

Teacher Kate Athens said skills learned in music class translate to her fourth-grade classroom. “They learn to stick with something hard and breaking things down into steps,” she said. “And work together as a group at such a young age.”

Younger students at Voice usually have music twice a day, and older students once, on average. To make time, the “school day is unusually long, from 7:55 a.m. to 4:25 p.m., which can be hard for small children,” reports the Times.

Twenty percent of the city’s public schools have no arts teachers, and low-income students are the least likely to be taught art and music, reports the Times. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has increased funding for arts teachers.

NYC’s would-be teachers flunk literacy test

Teacher trainees have to pass a new literacy exam to teach in New York: One third failed statewide and a majority of would-be teachers failed the literacy test at New York City colleges, reports the New York Post.  

The Academic Literacy Skills exam “measures whether a prospective teacher can understand and analyze reading material and also write competently,” reports the Post.

At a half-dozen City University of New York campuses, half or more failed to make the grade.

CUNY pass rates ranged from 0 at Boricua College in the Bronx to 82 percent passed at Hunter College.

Students who failed can pay a fee to retake the test.

State Education Commissioner John King said New York said many teacher-prep programs need to improve or close. “It’s better to have fewer programs that better prepare teachers than having many schools that have teachers who are unprepared for the classroom,” said King, who’s leaving to be a senior advisor to U.S. Education Department Secretary Arne Duncan.

Most states have not done enough to make sure new teachers will be ready for the higher standards students are expected to achieve, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality’s State Teacher Policy Yearbook.