Saturday, May 15, 2010

DIANE+DEBORAH | BRIDGING DIFFERENCES: Charters & Their Shallow Community Roots + A Double Standard on Test Scores

an online correspondence between Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch in EdWeek


Charters & Their Shallow Community Roots

May 13, 2010

Dear Diane,

That was an amazing and surprising find re. Milwaukee charters. I thought that at the very least they'd get the advantage of being in a more diverse (integrated) setting with more middle-class kids and that being chosen (even by lottery) would produce a kind of halo effect. Why it didn't is what should baffle the media. But it doesn't.

"What if there were a great debate concerning the nature and future of American society, and only one side showed up? That approximately describes the condition of the US media today," says Ernest Partridge of The Crisis Papers. But I think there may be a slight shifting of media mood on education matters. I see a wee bit more skepticism about charters, test scores, and the data base they call upon to back up their stories. I think you've played your part in this wee shift.

The following story I found on the Internet intrigued me re. our curiosity about what's in it for the Big Boys Network. Juan Gonzalez, a reporter with the New York Daily News (which loves charters) is always worth reading. The following quotes are taken from the Democracy Now! radio show he co-hosts with Amy Goodman.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, before we move have a very interesting column in the "New York Daily News" today, an exposé around big banks and charter schools.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, Amy, one of the things I've been trying now for a couple of years is to try to figure out why is it that so many hedge fund managers, wealthy Americans, and big banks, Wall Street banks—executives of Wall Street banks, have all lined-up supporting and getting involved in the development of charter schools. I think I may have come across one of the reasons. There's a lot of money to be made in charter schools, and I'm not talking just about the for-profit management companies that run a lot of these charter schools.

He goes on to discuss a 2000 law called a New Markets tax credit, which enables investors to double their money in seven years. He claims, however, that over time it loses its value and spells trouble ahead. This is worth more space to understand.

At the Meier Symposium, Gonzalez focused on something else important re. charters, which you and I have raised: their effect on the already shallow roots people have in their own communities. Can democracy, in the long run, survive the disappearance of people-to-people communities with common political clout? Does our system of politics rest on assumptions that may be outdated? That was always my concern about choice. We created a strong community at Central Park East and Mission Hill that served education well, but did it serve the functions of geographically based political communities as the base of democratic politics? That's my conundrum.

Says Texas Ed, one of our regular reader commenters: "Sec. Duncan is....touting Sam Houston High School as evidence that reconstitution is successful. Indeed, the school was closed under a low-performing rating and achieved recognized status two years later. Good for them, right? But wait—here is what REALLY happened. The school was low-performing because too few African-American students could pass the state math test. After its shuttering and re-opening, the 9-12 school [was divided into two] schools—one a 9th grade center and the other a 10-12 school.... When the school was split, the number of African-American students fell to fewer than 30 in each school which, in Texas, is too small to be considered in the accountability ratings. Voila! The school is now acceptable, even though the combined African-American scores would have made the school low performing. Further, a new initiative called the Texas Projection Measure (TPM) was applied. ...The TPM uses a new statistical analysis to see if students who did not pass are on track to pass at the end of that level of schooling.... Now the school is recognized. But, under the old rules, the school would STILL be LOW PERFORMING. This is the type of Enron smoke-and-mirrors that our CEO-leaders are using in education like they used in business to provide 'evidence' that their theories work." Without an alert media, how do we avoid such massive....yes, lying?

In the "good old days" in NYC we had similar absurdities during the weeks following the annual media posting of school test scores (in rank order). No one would bother to take note that a startling rise in scores at school X might be due to the fact that a former neighborhood school had become the "gifted" center. Instead, it was attributed to a tough new leader who swept house, etc. Even Education Week doesn't engage in the kind of investigative reporting that Juan Gonzalez does.

But, in some ways, it's a problem we all face—clinging to data that tells us what we want to hear and rejecting the bad news when it affects our favorite ideas. In fact, it almost seems to be an obligatory role for the heads of institutions—like schools—to tweak the data in order to produce the most positive public relations. So, too, when every major newspaper in New York City is 100 percent in Mayor Michael Bloomberg's corner.

We don't hire PR folks to get out "the truth," but to promote our "product." And most school systems now invest in a lot of PR.

I'd be remiss, Diane, if I didn't take sad note this week about the insecurity facing hundreds of thousands of pink-slipped teachers right now—regardless of its impact on schooling. Some "reformers" think insecurity is at the heart of good work. As though we must pit children and adults against each other's interests. Instead, we need to link what's good for the kids with what's good for society, as we do when it comes to what's "good" for our own children with what's good for all members of our family.


P.S. Some of us are organizing a postcard campaign to Michelle Obama urging her to support policies that allow public schools to practice the kind of schooling she offers her own girls. Details next week.


A Double Standard on Test Scores

May 11, 2010

Dear Deborah,

Last month, a very important report was released about the voucher program in Milwaukee. It did not receive nearly enough attention, because its findings have major implications for a longstanding debate about the efficacy of vouchers. It was compiled by the School Choice Demonstration Project, which is based at the University of Arkansas, and written primarily by Patrick J. Wolf; the co-principal investigators were Jay Greene, who is known to be a strong supporter of school choice, and John Witte, who has written skeptically about Milwaukee's voucher program. Major funding for the School Choice Demonstration was provided by foundations that are known to be pro-choice.

The report concluded that students in the voucher program "generally are achieving achievement growth rates that are comparable to similar MPS [Milwaukee Public School] students."

The voucher program got its start in 1990, the first in the nation, and it expanded rapidly after 1998, when the Wisconsin State Supreme Court ruled it to be constitutional. Today, nearly 20,000 students attend 127 different non-public schools in Milwaukee, and another 17,000 are enrolled in 59 charter schools. Meanwhile, enrollment in the Milwaukee public schools has steadily declined since 1998.

This is the third annual evaluation of Milwaukee vouchers, and the third that has failed to uncover significant differences between students who go to voucher schools and students in the regular public schools. Both groups have very low performance, and neither has an advantage. Of course, this study is not the end of the story; indeed, this project will continue to evaluate the voucher program in the years ahead. Maybe the voucher students someday will forge ahead, but it has not happened as yet.

For years, advocates of vouchers and school choice in general had argued that competition would improve all sectors; that the public schools would get better if they were compelled to compete for students; and that a rising tide would lift all boats. That has not happened in Milwaukee.

The reaction of choice proponents to the latest study was fascinating. Some conservative commentators declared that choice was not supposed to raise test scores, it was just supposed to provide choice, which was a good thing in itself. Rick Hess opined that the point of choice was not to produce higher test scores, but to give educators the chance "to create more focused and effective schools" and "to solve problems in smarter ways." Whether that is happening in Milwaukee is far from clear. Charles Murray wrote in The New York Times that "standardized test scores are a terrible way to decide whether one school is better than another..." and that choice gives parents the chance to send their children to a school with the kind of curriculum they want. Murray wrongly believed that the Milwaukee study reviewed the performance of both vouchers and charters and found both wanting. His article was erroneously titled "Why Charter Schools Fail the Test," when the study referred only to students in voucher schools, not charter schools.

Meanwhile, the legislature in Illinois came close to passing a new voucher program for the city of Chicago, which would have been even larger than the Milwaukee program, giving private school vouchers to 30,000 students. Legislation to create vouchers worth about $3,700 (about one-third the cost of educating each student) was passed by the Democrat-controlled Senate and failed in the Democrat-controlled House. I doubt that anyone in the debate mentioned that vouchers would have no effect on students' test scores.

Back to Milwaukee. When the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported state scores in reading a few weeks ago, it turned out that African-American students in Wisconsin have about the lowest scores in the nation. Two-thirds of the African-American students in that state live in Milwaukee, so it seems fair to say that they gained little or nothing from the flowering of vouchers and charters. In fact, African-American students in Wisconsin have test scores that are about the same as those of African-American students in Mississippi. The competition with charters and vouchers did not lead to higher scores for African-American students in regular public schools. There was no rising tide, no boats were lifted.

Considering the fact that the public schools in Milwaukee and elsewhere are regularly pummeled for failing to raise test scores of African-American students, one begins to sense a double standard at work. When public schools fail to raise test scores, it is a sign of their decrepitude and failure; when voucher schools fail to raise test scores, well, so what, they weren't supposed to do that.

Now, with the Obama administration firmly in the charter camp, touting the benefits of competition, expect to see a continuing effort to dismantle public education. I just wish that choice proponents would stop promising that charters and vouchers will bring us closer to that date when 100 percent of all children reach proficiency. If evidence mattered, they would tone down their rhetoric. But I won't hold my breath.


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