Why charters lost: They worked too well

Michael Siciliano holds a No on 2 sign outside a Holyoke school on election morning. Photo: Dave Roback / The Republican

Michael Siciliano holds a No on 2 sign outside a Holyoke school on election morning. Photo: Dave Roback / The Republican

Charter-school expansion lost in Massachusetts in a 62-38 blowout, writes Richard Whitmire on The 74. Why did voters reject “the best charter schools in the country?”

Unions targeted charters because they’re so good, he concludes. “The better the charter, the bigger the threat.”

Educators fought to defend the premise that schools can’t make a difference for kids in poverty, writes Whitmire.

When a charter operator such as Brooke Charter Schools, which serves a poor and minority student population, turns its students into scholars who rival the white and Asian students attending amply funded public schools in the suburbs along the Route 128 corridor, the question has to be asked: If Brooke can do it, why not others?

The Massachusetts Teachers Association started its anti-charter campaign seven months before the election, focusing on funding rather than school quality, Whitmire writes. Neither unions nor superintendents “can afford to lose the poverty argument. That risks losing everything.”

Eduwonk’s Andrew Rotherham asks how much the unions spent in Massachusetts to “protect jobs and keep poor black kids bottled up in crappy schools?” What if they’d spent that money “in, oh I don’t know, Wisconsin or Michigan or Pennsylvania on politics there?”

 Non-urban school districts with existing charters voted heavily against lifting the charter cap, reports MassLive. Money was the issue: The state pays districts 100 percent of per pupil revenue lost to charters in the first year, but only 25 percent for the next five years.

Free lunch stats mask ‘deep poverty’

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Subsidized-lunch eligibility is an inaccurate measure of family poverty, argues researcher Susan Dynarski in an interview with The 74.

Half of Michigan students receive a subsidized lunch, but only 14 percent have been eligible since they started school, her research found.  “Persistently disadvantaged” children have much lower scores than occasionally or never disadvantaged classmates.

Many states, districts, and the feds, use this measure as a proxy for the disadvantage of the school to target resources to them. What we found in Michigan is that if you compare schools that have the same shares of currently disadvantaged kids, they have vastly different shares of persistently disadvantaged kids. We’re masking real variation in the needs of schools and the needs of kids.

Students in “deep poverty” have much greater needs, says Dynarski.

Since 2010, schools with at least 40 percent of students eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch can make all students eligible, writes Matt Chingos. Schools are required to track the performance of “economically disadvantaged” students, but there’s no reliable way to tell who’s disadvantaged.

In Baltimore, survivors ‘keep breathing’

Shawn Nelson, who survived a stabbing, gives a mortarboard to classmate Acoyea Booze. Nelson will enroll in community college. Booze will enlist in the military. Shawn Nelson, who survived a stabbing, gives a mortarboard to classmate Acoyea Booze. Nelson will enroll in community college. Booze plans to enlist in the military. Photo: Christopher T. Assaf/Baltimore Sun

Corey Witherspoon cradled a 17-year-old boy who’d been stabbed by a classmate in the middle of science class at Baltimore’s Renaissance Academy High School. The boy’s mentor screamed: “Fight! You can make it! You’d better keep breathing!”

Those words became “the unofficial mantra” of the small school, reports Erica Green for the Baltimore Sun. Ananias Jolley never regained consciousness and died a month later, just before Christmas. In the next two months, two more students were killed. “Darius Bardney, 16, was shot in a hallway at the Pedestal Gardens apartment complex,” writes Green. “Daniel Jackson, 17, was shot while standing on a West Baltimore porch.”

Santonio Jolley, whose brother was stabbed in science class, returned to school to earn a diploma. He plans to be a truck driver.

Santonio Jolley, whose brother was killed by a classmate, returned to school to earn a diploma. He plans to be a truck driver. Photo: Christopher T. Assaf/Baltimore Sun

On June 3, Renaissance graduated 65 students — and posted an 82 percent four-year graduation rate, its highest since 2010. A majority of graduates will enroll in community college and four-year universities. Quite a few plan to go into the military. (It’s probably safer than staying in the neighborhood.)

“Among the graduates were Ananias’ brother, 20-year-old Santonio Jolley, a dropout who enrolled in Renaissance five days after his brother died,” writes Green. Valedictorian Jaylen Myers, 17, will study engineering at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

Shawn Nelson, who was stabbed seven times protecting his aunt last year, also earned his diploma. “It was like God gave me another chance that he didn’t give them,” said Nelson. “He gave me a second chance.” He will apply to Baltimore City Community College and hopes eventually to run his own business rehabbing vacant homes.

Poor neighborhoods perpetuate poverty

Living in a poor neighborhood changes everything about your life, reports Alvin Chang on Vox.

“Research shows it’s like breathing in bad air; the more you’re exposed to it, the more it hurts you,” he writes. “And it isn’t just because of the lack of opportunity.”

Living in a high-stress environment changes your brain and your children’s IQ. 

Blacks are much more likely than whites to live in poor neighborhoods — and less likely to climb the economic ladder.

“If you’re black and your parents grew up in a poor neighborhood, then you probably ended up in a poor neighborhood too,” writes Chang, citing research by NYU sociologist Patrick Sharkey.

Parenting and the poverty gap

Poor kids are behind — way behind — on the first day of school, said Jane Waldfogel, a Columbia professor, at an Education Writers Association discussion on equity, poverty, and education. Seventy percent of the achievement gap at age 11 was there when lower-income children started kindergarten, she said.

Boston has launched a campaign called “The Boston Basics,” led by Ronald Ferguson’s Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard, to help parents nurture their children in the first three years of life.

There are five basics: maximize love and manage stress; talk, sing, and point; count, group, and compare; explore through movement and play; and read and discuss stories.

Paul Tough, author of Helping Children Succeed, talked about improving children’s environment at home and at school.

When kids grow up in a calm, nurturing environment their brains send them signals to relax, and that encourages them to be curious and take risks, Tough explained. In contrast, kids who live in chaotic environments get brain signals that fire up “fight-or-flight” responses, he said.

“It’s hard for them to concentrate,” Tough explained. “They’re distracted by the emotions and anxieties that are flooding their nervous systems.”

Grit and resilience can’t be taught like math or reading, writes Tough in The Atlantic. However, some teachers and schools are able to reach stressed students.

The central premise of EL schools is that character is built . . .  through the experience of persevering as students confront challenging academic work.

. . . In general, when schools do try to directly address the impact that a stress-filled childhood might have on disadvantaged students, the first—and often the only—approach they employ has to do with their students’ emotional health, with relationships and belonging.

That’s not enough, writes Tough. “For a student to truly feel motivated by and about school, he also has to perceive that he is doing work that is challenging, rigorous, and meaningful.”

If poor kids are unteachable, why teach?

Do teachers think low-income students are hopeless? That’s the message Derrell Bradford gets from a Duluth News Tribune commentary and graphic that was retweeted by American Federation of Teachers leader Randi Weingarten.

In response to a lawsuit challenging Minnesota’s teacher tenure law, the cartoon shows a seating chart filled with losers.

“Weingarten’s retweet shows what she and perhaps many of her members believe about our kids — that their entire identities can be reduced to the challenges they bring to the classroom, and that those challenges obviate and absolve the teacher’s responsibility in the learning equation,” writes Bradford.

Poor kids from tough places are no longer the outlier in America’s schools — they’re the majority of students.
 . . . Teaching is at a crossroads in this country but the issue isn’t which way we proceed with value-added scores or licensure and certification. It’s whether you’re up to the challenge of teaching poor kids or you’re not. There are no “better kids” waiting in the wings.

Bradford grew up poor. He could have been have been trapped in a “below poverty line” square, but he rode buses to get to better schools where teachers worked hard to educate him.

At #ThisTeacher Sees, teachers are making their own seating charts:

Apparently, some teachers have nothing but victims in their classes and others don’t have a single kid who rates “royal pain,” “never shuts up” or “cellphone addict.”

Social services alone won’t improve learning

Cincinnati has piloted community schools, which “wrap health, dental, therapeutic, and family support services around existing schools” to “improve students’ learning and life prospects,” writes Paul Hill of University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education. The idea has spread to New York City and Philadelphia.

However, social services along won’t improve student outcomes, he warns. Students from poor families need a high-quality academic education in addition to social supports.

Oyler School in Cincinnati offers a full range of support services -- at a high cost.

Oyler School in Cincinnati offers a full range of support services, but costs are high and the effect on achievement is not clear.

Oyler School, Cincinnati’s model community school, provides an array of health services, including vision and dental care and mental health counseling.

However,  “the links between even intensive services and student learning are weak and tough to find,” Hill writes. “In Cincinnati, the strongest link between wrap-around services and outcomes like normal progress in school comes from attendance gains: on-site health services mean a parent or guardian no longer needs to take children out of school to wait all day to be seen at an emergency ward.”

“Careful studies” have found that students’ learning growth in the Harlem Children’s Zone “is a result of improvements in the schools,” rather than improved social and health services, he writes.

“Despite enormous support from Cincinnati hospitals and businesses, only Oyler has the full menu of services,” Hill notes. Community schools are expensive.

Ed Next’s top stories of 2015

Starting in pre–K, children at Hoover School talk, sing, chant, move, explore, experiment, and play in language-rich, text-rich, and information-rich environments. Children who aren't proficient in English can learn well in English or their native language -- if they're taught well.

Children at Hoover School in Redwood City, California talk, sing, chant, move, explore, experiment, and play in language-rich, text-rich, and information-rich environments. Good teaching is more important than the language of instruction.

Learning English, my story on how “accountability, Common Core and the college-for-all movement are transforming instruction” of students from immigrant families, ranks 10th in Ed Next’s list of the top 20 Education Next Articles of 2015.

That’s not bad considering it didn’t come out till late November.

Overall, readers went for stories on poverty and inequality, say editors. “Five of the articles in the top 20 are from a special issue . .  . on the 50th Anniversary of the Moynihan Report which examined the rise in the number of children growing up in single-parent families.”

Feds run the worst schools in America


Navajo students ride home from Lukachukai Community School in Arizona. Credit: M. Scott Mahaskey

The Bureau of Indian Education’s network of schools for Native American children is “arguably the worst school system in the United States,” writes Maggie Severns on Politico. Reports have detailed its failures for 80 years. “It’s just the epitome of broken,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told Politico. “Just utterly bankrupt.”

Tucked into the desert hills on a Navajo reservation 150 miles east of the Grand Canyon, Crystal (Boarding School) has cracks running several feet down the walls, leaky pipes in the floors and asbestos in the basement. Students come from extremely troubled backgrounds, but there is no full-time counselor. Last year, a new reading coach took one look at the rundown cinder block housing and left the next day. Science and social studies have been cut to put more attention on the abysmal reading and math scores, but even so, in 2013 only 5 percent of students were considered to have grade-level math skills.

. . . The 48,000 students unfortunate enough to attend BIE schools have some of the lowest test scores and graduation rates in the country — even as the education they’re getting is among the nation’s most expensive: At $15,000 per pupil, the system costs 56 percent more than the national average.

“Frankly, we spend an enormous amount per student relative to other school systems for terrible results,” Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said.

After a visit to a Sioux reservation in South Dakota last year, President Obama called for “a pathway that leads to change.”
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The Interior Department wants to replace bureaucrats with education experts, improve teacher training and allow more tribal control. However, the proposal has many critics who “warn that paring back the federal government’s role will only make it easier to under-invest in schools that, by almost any measure, need money and resources the most,” writes Severns.

Corruption and mismanagement have plagued BIE schools. Often located in isolated and very poor areas, the schools have trouble attracting and retaining competent teachers. However, I think the greatest problem is that so many students come from “extremely troubled” families with high rates of alcoholism.

Students in Department of Defense schools outperform the average public school student. Black kids do especially well in DoD schools. Why? I think it’s the parents.

Mediocre U.S. scores: Don’t blame poverty

When U.S. students post mediocre scores on international tests, poverty is “the elephant in the room,” says American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. Others point to a “poverty crisis” rather than an “education crisis.”

The elephant is not in the room, write Michael Petrilli and Brandon Wright in Education Next. U.S. schools do as well — or poorly — educating low-income students as other countries. Furthermore, U.S. children aren’t more likely to be poor: Those sky-high child poverty rates really are measuring inequality rather than absolute poverty.

Overall, the U.S. rates 28th in math proficiency for advantaged students among the 34 countries in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Disadvantaged U.S. students rank 20th compared to similar students in other PISA countries.

Our advantaged students may do better than poor kids here, but they don’t outperform similar students in developed countries.

While income inequality is high in the U.S., absolute poverty is not especially high, Petrilli and Wright argue.  Including all forms of income, including welfare benefits, the U.S. poverty rate is lower than Britain’s, the same as Germany’s and “barely higher than Finland’s.”

Poverty drags down performance here — and everywhere, they conclude.  The U.S. is not an outlier.

Socioeconomic disadvantage — such as few books in the home — explains some of the gap in scores, according to a report  by three economists. “Once we adjust for social status, we are doing much better than we think,” Stanford’s Martin Carnoy told the New York Times.

“There is no way you can blame socioeconomic status for the performance of the United States,”  countered Andreas Schleicher, who runs PISA for the OECD. “When you look at all dimensions of social background, the United States does not suffer a particular disadvantage.”

According to OECD’s disadvantage index, which includes “parental education and occupation, household wealth, educational resources at home and other measures of social and economic status,” less than 15 percent of U.S. students “come from the bottom rung of society,” reports the Times. “And yet, Mr. Schleicher found, 65 percent of principals in American schools say at least 30 percent of their students come from disadvantaged families, the most among nations participating in the PISA tests.”