How charters get motivated students

Some charter schools screen students for motivation by requiring lengthy applications, essays or interview, writes Stephanie Simon on Reuters.

Five states – Florida, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Ohio and Texas – let some charter schools screen applicants by academic performance, Simon writes. Alaska, Delaware and North Carolina let charter schools give admissions preference to students who demonstrate interest in the school’s educational focus, such as technology or performing arts. Most are required to admit students by lottery. But first students have to apply.

Roseland Accelerated Middle School, a charter school in Santa Rosa, California, won’t even enter applicants into the lottery until they have proved their mettle by writing a five-page autobiography (with no errors in grammar or spelling, the form warns), as well as a long essay and six short essays. Applicants also must provide recommendations, report cards and statements from their parents or guardians and submit a medical history, including a list of all medications they take.

Gail Ahlas, superintendent of the public school district that oversees the charter, says the process isn’t meant to exclude anyone, but to “set the tone” for the school as a rigorous college-prep environment.

Many charters specialize in serving low-income and minority children, Reuters concedes. These use simple application forms. Most for-profit charter school chains also make it easy to apply. But some charters ask for more.

No

rthland Preparatory Academy in Flagstaff, Arizona requires parents to attend one of three information sessions to pick up an application form. “It’s kind of like a time share (pitch),” said Bob Lombardi, the superintendent. “You have to come and listen.” (The arts middle school — a district-run magnet — in Portland, Oregon has the same policy.)

Some charter principals told Reuters they use the application to ensure students really want to be at their school.

Hawthorne Math and Science Academy, a top-rated charter school outside of Los Angeles, uses a multistep application that requires assessment exams in math and English and a family interview.

Principal Esau Berumen said he does not screen prospective students for academic ability. But, he said, the process is demanding enough that about 10 percent drop out before the lottery – leaving him with a pool of kids he knows are motivated to embrace the rigors of his curriculum.

“If there’s any skimming off the top, it’s on effort and drive,” Berumen said.

Heather Davis-Jones tells Reuters it was a challenge to enroll her eight-year-old daughter, Shakia, in a charter school in Philadelphia. ”But I felt like I needed to do whatever it took to get her into a better school. If they want me to stand on my hands for 10 days, I’ll do it.” Her daughter got into one of the charter schools and loves it.

The Preuss School at the University of California, San Diego serves only low-income students who parents aren’t college graduates. But Preuss wants low-income, first-generation students with “aptitude, drive and parental support,” writes Simon.

The 23-page application requires students to hand-write a long essay and several short-answer questions. They must submit a graded writing sample from their old school, and then explain what they learned from the assignment and how they could have done better. They must provide three recommendations.

And their parents must respond to a page of questions, including: “Describe what type of service you will contribute to this school. Please be specific.” If they don’t speak English, parents are asked to secure help from a translator.

Principal Scott Barton said students’ writing skill doesn’t matter. The application is designed to screen out students who lack “the motivation and the potential to succeed.”

Even when charters use simple applications, they’re enrolling students whose parents care enough to find an alternative to the neighborhood school, says Mike Petrilli of Fordham, a charter advocate.

That’s true. Parents who choose a school — charter, magnet or whatever — are showing extra motivation that may be passed on to their children. If their children’s classmates also have parents who care about education, even better. I wish school districts would create more of their own schools of choice to give parents more chances to find a “right fit” with similarly inclined classmates.

Nationwide, charter schools “enroll a greater percentage of low-income students than traditional public schools (46 percent versus 41 percent), black and Latino students (27 percent versus 15 percent and 26 percent versus 22 percent, respectively), and students who perform lower on standardized tests before transferring to public charter schools,” responds the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Charters aren’t creaming the best students, responds the Center for Education Reform, which charges the story distorted its school lunch data. While 40 percent of charters don’t participate in the federal lunch program — the rules are too burdensome — most “feed all of their students,” CER data reports. The story also mischaracterizes state policy on charter admissions, CER charges.

Nationwide, suspension and expulsion rates are lower for charter schools than for traditional public schools, according to federal data published in Ed Week. However, the rates vary in different cities and the data is not complete. Charters in New Orleans are standardizing discipline policies. All expelled students in the city are sent to the same alternative charter school.

Report: Raise teachers’ status, pay

Raise U.S. teachers’ status by recruiting only high-performing college graduates, training and mentoring them well and paying them more, advises a new report (pdf) by Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the PISA international achievement test. In top-scoring countries like Korea, Singapore and Finland, teaching is a high-status occupation, Schleicher says. From the New York Times:

“Despite the characterization of some that teaching is an easy job, with short hours and summers off, the fact is that successful, dedicated teachers in the U.S. work long hours for little pay and, in many cases, insufficient support from their leadership.”

The report was released to kick off an Education Department conference on teaching that included education ministers and leaders of teachers’ unions from 16 countries as well as state superintendents.

“In South Korea, teachers are known as ‘nation builders,’ and I think it’s time we treated our teachers with the same level of respect,” Mr. Obama said in a speech on education on Monday.

Schleicher, an official at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, wrote, “What the U.S. Can Learn from the World’s Most Successful Education Reform Efforts,” with Steven L. Paine, a CTB/McGraw-Hill vice president and a former West Virginia schools superintendent.

The report lists “five things U.S. education reformers could learn” from the high-performing countries, including raising the status of teachers, adopting common academic standards, developing better tests to diagnose students’ day-to-day learning needs and training more effective school leaders.

The average salary of a veteran elementary teacher in the U.S. is higher than the OECD average, but U.S. teachers earn 40 percent less than other college graduates here, while teachers elsewhere are closer to the median.

In an interview, Mr. Schleicher said the point was not that the United States spends too little on public education — only Luxembourg among the O.E.C.D. countries spends more per elementary student — but rather that American schools spend disproportionately on other areas, like bus transportation and sports facilities.

“You can spend a lot of money on education, but if you don’t spend it wisely, on improving the quality of instruction, you won’t get higher student outcomes,” Mr. Schleicher said.

Linda Darling-Hammond expresses a similar vision — top students, excellent training, higher pay — in a piece that calls for melding Teach for America’s recruitment expertise with training for career teachers.

Elite students don’t need elite colleges

Elite college graduates earn 40 percent more than graduates of non-elite schools, but is it the chicken or the egg? Top students who go to second-tier universities do as well in life as top students who go to elite colleges, concludes research by Princeton and Mellon Foundation economists.   Only students from disadvantaged backgrounds get an edge from attending an elite school.  From the New York Times:

. . . they compared students at more selective colleges to others of “seemingly comparable ability,” based on their SAT scores and class rank, who had attended less selective schools, either by choice or because a top college rejected them.

The earnings of graduates in the two groups were about the same — perhaps shifting the ledger in favor of the less expensive, less prestigious route.

The super-elite schools tend to have large endowments and the ability to discount tuition significantly for middle-income students.  I wonder why non-wealthy students still choose second-tier and third-tier private colleges where the sticker price is close to the real price.

My stepdaughter Susie’s boyfriend works in admissions for a private, non-elite university, where he’s known for rejecting applicants who aren’t prepared to earn a degree.  Colleagues call him The Dream Crusher.  Of course, he’s also The Debt Preventer.

Update:  More on the “higher -education bubble.”