Creating top charter schools

The Founders, Richard Whitmire’s new book on how the nation’s best charter schools were created, is being published online by The 74.

“This is the history of high-performing public charter schools — the best of the best, the top 20 percent, the game-changers,” he writes. Charters started 25 years ago in Minnesota, but “this story begins years later in California, spreads east through the unlikely collaboration of top school leaders, and stands apart for its success in guiding poor and minority children from kindergarten all the way through college graduation.”

The book is “a welcome antidote to the pernicious notion that high-performing schools for disadvantaged students are isolated flukes, dependent on a charismatic educator or the cherry-picking of bright students, writes Arne Duncan in The Atlantic. He’s never met a charter leader who claimed to be running a “miracle school,” adds Duncan.

Whitmire analyzes what’s holding back growth of the best charter schools in Education Next.

“The first wave of charter pioneers is nearly all white with excellent college credentials,” writes Whitmire. Yet their schools, often staffed largely by white teachers, target low-income “black and brown students.”

This is a race reality that’s rapidly shifting as charters diversify, but will it shift fast enough to avoid the pushback that’s already bubbling up around the race issue?

High-performing schools need to “attract talented teachers, and in a lot of cities, that just isn’t going to happen,” Whitmire adds. “Plus, the powerful anti-charter movement led by unions and superintendents is fully capable of blocking charters in some cities.”

Finally, it’s critical to shut down low-performing charters, he writes.  Nobody predicted how difficult it would be to close bad charters. “As it turns out, charter parents cling to their failing schools just as closely as parents of traditional failing schools.”

On the Rocketship: Growing top charters

Richard Whitmire’s On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools are Pushing the Envelope looks at a high-flying charter network with ambitious expansion plans.

A start-up ethos at Rocketship

Richard Whitmire’s On the Rocketship looks at the high-flying, fast-growing Rocketship network of charter schools. Rocketship

Rocketship is fueled by the “start-up ethos,” writes Conor Williams on TPM. The network “began as the brainchild of John Danner, a tech startup guy who cashed in his chips and became interested in the achievement gap.”  After teaching for three years and helping to start a KIPP charter school, Danner set out to provide “one million high-quality school seats…[in] 2,500 charter schools” in 30 years.

Rocketship “operates by backward mapping,” writes Whitmire. “First define your long-term goal, then decide how you will measure it, and then determine the steps that will get you there.”

Rocketship students work on computers for part of the school day, using adaptive software that lets them work at their own level and move at their own pace. Teachers target instruction to smaller groups, while aides supervise learning labs.

Rocketship’s first schools have been wildly successful in San Jose, but expanding rapidly while maintaining quality is proving to be a challenge.

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.

Plastic women vs. cardboard men

Men are scarce on college campuses, writes Richard Whitmire in a USA Today commentary. College-educated women are dominating more career fields — “just about everything but plumbing,” he writes. Women are “plastic,” quick to adapt, some argue, while men are “cardboard.” Whitmire doesn’t think vast economic forces have caused what Hanna Rosin calls The End of Men:And the Rise of Women. He blames kindergarten reading.

Twenty years ago, education reformers pushed literacy skills into earlier grades, assuming an early start  would prepare more students for college, he writes.

So how’s that turning out? At the eighth-grade level, 37% of girls scored proficient or above in writing on a just-released federal test, compared with 18% of boys.

What happened? Educators somehow overlooked the fact that boys pick up literacy skills later than girls. When boys get slammed with early academic demands they can’t handle, they tune out. They assume school is for girls, and they move on to more interesting activities, such as video games.

“If educators adjusted their early-grades literacy practices, a lot more boys would arrive in 12th grade ready to compete in the new economy,” he writes. “What educators have done can be un-done.”

As a reading tutor, I’ve seen dramatically higher expectations for first graders in the 25 years since my daughter started first grade. (Yes, she’s that old.) Kindergarten is the new first grade and some kids — mostly boys — aren’t ready.

Rhee survives smear campaign

Stop smearing Michelle Rhee, writes Richard Whitmire, author of The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District.

Read all about it

PBS education correspondent John Merrow of Learning Matters recommends six new or upcoming education books, including his own book, The Influence of Teachers, on the Huffington Post.

Alexander Russo’s Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors: Fighting for the Soul of America’s Toughest High School tells the story of the transformation of Locke High School in Los Angeles into a Green Dot charter school.  This is the one I’m most likely to read. (Send me a review copy, Alexander.)

The Bee Eater, Richard Whitmire’s semi-authorized biography on the controversial Michelle Rhee, is a “terrific read,” Merrow writes.

Merrow also likes A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Flux by John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas, who write: “The ability to play may be the single most important skill to develop for the twenty-first century.”

New York Timesman Gene Maeroff, a school board member in Edison, New Jersey, is the author of School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy.

The Perfect Test by Ronald Dietel may be the first education reform murder mystery.  Ten years in the future, the Venus Assessment System has made U.S. students number one in the world in math and science. (It’s science fiction too!) But one of the test developers “discovers a secret list of names, students who are exceptions to the high-stakes consequences of the test. So secret that some people are willing to kill for it.”

My review stack includes The Same Thing Over and Over by Frederick Hess on “how school reformers get stuck in yesterday’s ideas.” Also David Kirp’s Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children’s Lives.

I’m also enjoying Andrew Ferguson’s very funny Crazy U, subitled “one dad’s crash course in getting his kid into college.”  Ferguson, a Weekly Standard writer, talks to a private admissions counselor (the platinum package costs $40,000), college guide editors, testing critics and the Kitchen People, equally college-crazed parents who gather  to brag (or agonize) about their children’s SAT scores. He follows backwards-walking tour guides as they describe the unique college experience in exactly the same way as all the other college guides, including an obligatory Harry Potter reference and the number of a cappella groups on campus. He takes the SATs and pays a company $199 for  a dreadful essay.  “One stroke at a time, I am prepared to study diligently and become a valued contributor in this learning environment, one step at a time.” He does refuse to divorce his wife to provide family trauma for his son to write about.

The son, who lacks the Eddie Haskell characteristics needed to market himself, gets into the flagship state university, his first choice.

For those in D.C., Samuel Casey Carter’s On Purpose: How Great School Cultures Form Strong Character will be featured at An Evening on Purpose Feb. 16 from 5 to 8 pm at The University Club, 1635 16th Street, NW.

All these books go well with Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds by me.

Affirmative action for males

With women earning 58 percent of bachelor’s degrees, some private liberal arts colleges are practicing affirmative action for male applicants to preserve a gender balance in enrollment. Private colleges have the legal right to discriminate against women, but don’t like to publicize it.  Now the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is investigating whether the practice is widespread. From Inside Higher Education:

. . . the Civil Rights Commission’s inquiry is based on concerns about another part of Title IX — its requirement that colleges provide equitable athletic opportunities to male and female athletes. A theory behind the inquiry, outlined in the proposal used to launch the probe, is that colleges may be favoring men in admissions because they are worried about gender-neutral changes they might otherwise use to attract more male students. Foremost among such strategies would be adding more male athletic teams, a move some colleges may be reluctant to make out of fear of the expense of then being required to add more women’s teams.

Look at the underlying issue, Richard Whitmire at Why Boys Fail. Too many boys do so poorly in school that they’re not prepared for college or not motivated to try it. Why?

Update: Dr. Helen has more, plus a plug for Whitmire’s upcoming book, Why Boys Fail.

D.C.’s Braveheart

Michelle Rhee is via D.C.’s Braveheart, writes June Kronholz in Education Next.

. . . (At a senior staff meeting) Rhee wades in with, “Here’s what I think,” or “What I don’t want,” or “This is crap,” or “I want someone to figure this out,” or “I’m gonna tell you what we’re gonna do; we can talk about how we’re gonna do it.” And that is that. Next order of business, please.

Rhee’s style—as steely as the sound of her peekaboo high heels on a linoleum-tile hallway—has angered much of Washington, D.C., and baffled the rest since she arrived as schools chancellor in June 2007. But it is also helping her gain control of a school system that has defied management for decades: that hasn’t kept records, patched windows, met budgets, delivered books, returned phone calls, followed court orders, checked teachers’ credentials, or, for years on end, opened school on schedule in the fall.

When I asked Rhee to name her most significant achievement in her two years in Washington, her answer suggested that any progress is, so far, only incremental. “We have begun—begun—begun—to establish a culture of accountability,” she said, with a long pause between each “begun.”

There’s some evidence that test scores and graduation rates are rising, writes Kronholz. (NAEP reported higher 2009 math scores for D.C. fourth and eighth graders.) But the system is deeply dysfunctional — and losing more students every year to charter schools.

Rhee has no choice but to play hardball, writes Richard Whitmire in the Washington Post.  She has little time to produce results.

Rhee should be able to work with teachers, writes Robert Pondiscio. If she fails to persuade parents to keep their children in district-run schools, the unionized teachers will be out of work too.

Books for boys

Children’s authors and illustrators — mostly male — told 300 teachers and librarians — mostly female — how to hook boys on books, reports Mary Ann Zehr in Education Week.

Boys like to read books about trucks, boys who get into trouble, sports, animals, and war. More than girls, they lean toward nonfiction. And don’t forget the humor or action in stories.

Boys like a mixture of action and emotion, said Jack Gantos, who specializes in “books about bad boys,” such as the Rotten Ralph and Joey Pigza series.

A theme in his books is that the characters are loved unconditionally, even if they mess up a lot, which he said is something that children can identify with.

A British teacher may have gone a bit too far, when she tried to encourage teen-age boys to read by writing a sexy novel featuring herself and her male students. It was all for a good cause, writes Richard Whitmire of Why Boys Fail.

Leonora Rustamova was suspended for her racy novel, Stop! Don’t Read This!, which “includes underage drinking, hints of drug use and “pupil fantasies” about sex with the teacher.

Five 15- and 16-year-old boys had asked for a story about themselves, she told the BBC.

“In their being a difficult audience, the material had to be quite risque to give them an excuse to listen to it — to 16-year-old boys that are disaffected, story time is for small children.”

One of the boys, 17-year-old Travis, told BBC Radio 5 Live the novel was the first book he had ever read on his own and that he had now read other books.

The principal supported the idea — until the book was published on the Internet.  Rustamova’s husband had wanted to print copies of the book for the five boys; by mistake, it was published online for everyone to read. This led to charges of unprofessional conduct.