First Person

Closing the Credibility Gap

I’ll admit it: When I hear the phrase “charter school miracle,” my antennae go up. It’s not that I think that charter schools can’t possibly be good schools, or that they cannot surpass traditional public schools in the measured achievements of their students. The evidence is pretty clear that there are many fine charter schools, just as there are many struggling charter schools.

No, it’s that I think miracles are exceedingly rare phenomena. And the current narrative about miracles in school reform relies heavily on a “great man” theory, replete with outsized personalities. Witness the contemporary stage, on the cusp of the release of Waiting for “Superman”: Geoffrey Canada, Michelle Rhee, even — God help us — Bill Gates and Joel Klein being anointed as miracle-workers who, by dint of their commitments, hard work and personalities, are overcoming entrenched bureaucracies and transforming the life-chances of poor and minority children across America’s urban landscape.

It was against this backdrop that I read Caitlin Flanagan’s stirring op-ed that graced the gatefold of Sunday’s New York Daily News. Flanagan, a former prep-school teacher who now writes for The Atlantic and other publications, singles out Mike Piscal, who founded a charter management organization called the Inner City Education Foundation (ICEF) that now operates 15 elementary, middle and high schools in south Los Angeles. Flanagan and Piscal were colleagues, once upon a time, in the English department of the elite Harvard-Westlake School.

Flanagan’s argument goes something like this: the ICEF schools are extraordinarily high-performing; in fact, the elementary schools have eliminated the achievement gap. But the educational bureaucracy is trying to close them down. These fine schools were unable to benefit from the Race to the Top funds they should have received because California’s RttT application was scuttled by a lack of teacher-union support. These teachers unions, therefore, deserve our scorn: they are single-handedly preventing inner-city children from succeeding.

The gaps in logic are breathtaking. It’s not at all obvious that ICEF charter schools would have gotten a cent if California’s RttT application had been funded. As is true of most RttT applications, California’s emphasized developing new standards and assessments, providing high-quality professional development to principals and teachers, expanding the state’s longitudinal data system and improving its lowest-performing public schools.

Basic operational support for existing schools was never the purpose of the competition. Moreover, California lost more points in the RttT judging for its failure to fully implement a longitudinal data system than for not securing the support of a broad group of stakeholders for its plan. (And teachers unions were not the only stakeholders who were lukewarm about the state’s application.)

But I was most intrigued by Flanagan’s claims about how the ICEF schools have closed the achievement gap. Time and time again, such claims have been shown to be exaggerated. We’d all like to believe the story of how great people, working hard, can overcome the powerful forces that structure inequality in American society. Can it be true?

Here’s what Flanagan wrote: “ICEF has done what we are always told is impossible. All five of its elementary schools have eliminated the achievement gap in reading for its African American students. Eliminated it. That fact alone should cause the Department of Education to send a team of researchers to ICEF this afternoon to keep them there until they learn what Mike’s doing.”

How much of this is true? Well, there are five ICEF elementary schools. Beyond that …

flanagan-fig-1I compared the average performance of students in these five schools on the 2010 statewide California Standards Tests (CST) with the average performance of white students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, expressing the gap as a fraction of a standard deviation. (I estimated the 2010 standard deviations as the average of the 2008 and 2009 standard deviations.) Figure 1 shows the data for English Language Arts for grades 2 through 5. Across the Los Angeles Unified School District, black students score about .85 to .90 standard deviations below white students, on average. A gap of this magnitude indicates that roughly 80 percent of all white students score above the typical black student.

If the achievement gap had been eliminated in the five elementary schools, then the columns expressing the gap should have no height – they’d be at zero. Clearly, that’s not the case. On average, students in ICEF elementary schools have made some progress in closing the achievement gap in reading test performance, but that’s driven primarily by the performance of students at a single school, View Park Prep.

Second-graders at View Park Prep are outscoring the typical white student in Los Angeles, and that’s a remarkable accomplishment. But if one wanted to cherry-pick results to make a point, it would be just as easy to point out that the fourth-grade students at Vista are performing 1.1 standard deviations below the typical white student in L.A. (More than 75 percent of the students at Vista are Hispanic or Latino; there aren’t even enough black students for the state to report their performance on the CST, which makes me wonder why Flanagan felt that she could say that “all five” of the ICEF elementary schools had eliminated the achievement gap in reading for African-American students.)

flanagan-fig-2The story is much the same in mathematics. Figure 2 reports the math achievement gaps for the five ICEF elementary schools. As is true in reading, the district-wide black-white achievement gap in mathematics is substantial – on the order of .9 standard deviations. The ICEF elementary schools have made some progress in closing the gap, and that’s commendable.

But no one looking at this figure would conclude that the ICEF elementary schools have come close to eliminating the achievement gap that separates the test scores of African-American and Latino children from white children in Los Angeles. Test scores are, to be sure, a very narrow representation of what children are learning in school, and I would never want to base a judgment about the quality of ICEF schools, or any other schools for that matter, solely on test scores. But Flanagan flew the achievement-gap flag, and her claims don’t hold up under scrutiny.

I like a good story as much as the next guy. But when it comes to swaying opinion on important matters of public policy, we should demand more. Perhaps Caitlin Flanagan has access to other data that provide more support for her claim that all five of the ICEF elementary schools have eliminated the black-white achievement gap in reading. But until she goes beyond a bald, unsupported assertion, she’s got a credibility gap.

This post also appeared on Eye on Education, Pallas’s column at The Hechinger Report.

First Person

I dropped out of school in Denver at 13. Here’s how I ended up back in the classroom helping kids learn.

Students at Rocky Mountain Prep in SE Denver.

Every day when I greet the young children walking into the pre-kindergarten classroom at Rocky Mountain Prep, where I’m a teaching assistant, I wonder what my middle school teachers would think if they could see me now.

My story starts out like so many others, but it has a happy ending. Why? Because a caring teacher at the school saw in me, a young mother with three kids, someone she wanted to help reach her potential.

So here I am.

Back then, no one would have guessed I would end up here. It felt like no one at the Denver middle school I attended took education seriously. The teachers who didn’t bother to learn my name didn’t take me seriously. The kids who walked in and out class whenever they wanted sure didn’t.

Even though I wanted to get an education and improve my English, after a while I started doing what my friends did.

First I’d leave a class once in a while before it was over. Then I started cutting classes. Next I’d ditch full days. Then, in seventh grade, I stopped going completely. Yes, that’s right. I dropped out of school at 13.

I guess you could say my dropping out was no big surprise. In a lot of ways, the process started when I was little. In elementary school, I was one of the thousands of Denver kids who didn’t speak much English. But I could never find the help I needed and wanted at my school.

I just felt lost, like no one there cared about me.

It was worse when I started middle school. My mom didn’t want me to go to one closest to home because it had gang problems.

I walked 45 minutes to and from school every day. I always walked. There was no school bus and public transit would have taken even longer.

Rain or snow or hot sun, there I was, walking to school by myself. I had to wake up at 5:45 a.m. to get to school on time. My mom was already at work at that hour.

When I dropped out, my mom was upset. She always worked very hard at her job in a nursing home. She had three kids and worked from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. My dad wasn’t around.

She wasn’t going to put up with me hanging out and getting in trouble, so she sent me down to Mexico to live with my grandparents and maybe finish school there, in rural Chihuahua.

The school I went to in Mexico was much better for me. Reading, writing, math and Spanish classes were hard. But the teachers really cared. They checked in with me one-on-one every day. It was the first time I began to realize that there were adults outside my family who really cared about me. That made a big difference.

I had met a boy I liked in Mexico, and when I came back to Denver I was 16 and pregnant. My daughter Alisson was born in Denver. Eventually her father and I got married and we now have three children.

But at 16, I knew I needed to get a high school diploma if I wanted to get anywhere in the world. I attended an online high school for a while, and then a private religious school where I could take online courses. I was very proud when I graduated.

I never considered the possibility that I might go to college someday.

When Alisson turned four, I needed to find a school for her. We lived right across the street from an elementary school. But everyone told me it was not a great school. I knew how to look up information about test scores and every school I looked at near our home did not have the best scores, or at least anything close to my expectations.

I went to my mom crying. We felt stuck. I really wanted my daughter to receive a better education than I had. I wanted a high quality school that would provide the attention and support she would need. A school that would care for her education as much as I did.

Then in June, someone knocked on my door. It was a teacher from Rocky Mountain Prep charter school. They said they were opening that fall in Kepner Middle School, just a few blocks from our house. I invited her in and asked her questions for an hour. I liked what I heard.

I sent Alisson to the school and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. It’s nothing like any of the schools I attended. The teachers love the kids. Allison has learned so much.

At the end of her first year, I had a conference with her teacher, Laura. She said Alisson was an advanced student. I asked what I could do with her over the summer to make sure she stayed on top of her schoolwork.

That’s when Laura told me I should come work there because I was a natural teacher. I thought she was joking. I think my answer to her was, “Yeah, seriously.”

But she was serious. I didn’t think I had what it took. No college. No education, no experience. But she bugged me and bugged me until I said I’d apply. I did, and was hired as a teaching assistant.

I just finished my first year in the classroom. It went great. I love teaching. I love kids. I love that I get to be a part of what Rocky Mountain Prep is doing for my community in providing a strong foundation in education that I never received.

As a pre-K teaching assistant, I serve as a second educator in the classroom for our young scholars’ first experience at school. I share responsibility for helping to build their social skills and love of reading, writing, math, and science.

As a parent, I know firsthand how important those early years are for learning. I love that I also have a hand in helping so many little ones fall in love with coming to school and growing their brains.

My daughter is in first grade now. She is reading chapter books. And she’s always saying, “When I’m in college …” She has no doubt that’s what she’ll do when she finishes high school. As a mom, this makes me feel very proud.

Listening to those words coming from my own child has motivated me. I’m not always the most self-confident person, but thanks to Allison and our school, I know that’s my next step — going to college and making her as proud as she’s made me.

First Person

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

PHOTO: NPEF

This is the fourth entry in a series we’re calling How We Got Here, where students and families explain how they chose, or ended up at, the schools they did. You can see the whole series here.

My child attends a Nashville charter school. But that might not make me the “charter supporter” you think I am.

Let me explain.

My husband and I chose our neighborhood zoned school for our child for kindergarten through fourth grade. We had a very positive experience. And when we faced the transition to middle school, our default was still the neighborhood school. In fact, I attended those same schools for middle and high school.

But we also wanted to explore all of the options offered by Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. Eventually, we narrowed it down to three choices: our zoned school, one magnet and one charter.

We spent months studying everything we could learn about them, visiting each one more than once, asking countless questions, talking to other parents, and openly discussing different options as a family. We even let our child “shadow” another student.

I also did a lot of soul searching, balancing what we learned with my deeply held belief that traditional public education forms the backbone of our democracy.

When we chose the charter school, it was not because we wanted our neighborhood public school to fail. It was not because we feel charters are a magic bullet that will save public education. We did not make the choice based on what we felt would be right according to a political party, school board members, district superintendents, nonprofit organizations, charter marketers or education policy wonks.

These are the reasons why we chose our school: A discipline policy firmly grounded in restorative justice practices; a curriculum tightly integrated with social and emotional learning; a community identity informed by the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of its families; a culture of kindness that includes every child in the learning process, no matter what their test scores, what language they speak at home, or if they have an IEP; and not least of all, necessary bus transportation.

It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me. The discussion about charter schools, especially, has become so polarized that it sometimes seems completely divorced from the realities faced by many Nashville families.

Education advocates and even some of our elected school board members often characterize families that choose charters in an extreme way. We’re either depicted as corporate cronies out to privatize and destroy public schools with unabated charter growth and vouchers, or we’re painted as uneducated, uninformed parents who have no choice, don’t care, or don’t know any better.

This is simply not reality. As a parent who opted for a charter school, I am by definition a “charter supporter” in that I support the school we chose. That doesn’t mean I support all charter schools. Nor does it mean I support vouchers. And it certainly doesn’t mean that I agree with the current presidential administration’s stance on public education.

Nashville families who choose charter schools are public school supporters with myriad concerns, pressures, preferences and challenges faced by any family. Demonizing families for choosing the schools they feel best fit their children’s needs, or talking about those families in a patronizing way, does not support kids or improve schools.

I am aware that shady business practices and financial loopholes have made it possible for unscrupulous people at some charter organizations to profit off failing schools paid for on the public dime. Exposing this kind of abuse is vital to the public interest. We should expect nothing less than complete transparency from all our schools.

That does not mean that every charter school is corrupt. Nor does every charter school “cream” high-performing students (as many academic magnet schools do).

It’s important that, unlike other states, Tennessee doesn’t allow for-profit entities to operate public charter schools or allow nonprofit charter organizations to contract with for-profit entities to operate or manage charter schools. And we need Metro Nashville and the state of Tennessee to limit charters to highly qualified, rigorously vetted charter organizations that meet communities’ needs, and agree to complete transparency and regulatory oversight.

We also have to recognize that traditional neighborhood schools separated by school district zones are themselves rooted in economic inequality and racial segregation. Some charter schools are aiming to level the playing field, helping kids succeed (and stay) in school by trying new approaches. That’s one of the reasons we chose our school.

I’m not saying this all works perfectly. My school, like any school, has room for improvement. Nor am I saying that other traditional public schools don’t incorporate some of the same practices that drew us to the charter.

If we believe that our public schools have a role to play in dismantling inequality and preparing all children to be thoughtful, engaged citizens, let’s look at what is and is not working in individual school communities for different populations.

I know that my family is not alone, and other families have grappled with these same issues as they made a careful choice about a public school for their child. I have no doubt that if charter school opponents would keep this in mind, rather than making sweeping generalizations about all charter schools and “charter supporters,” it would make our community dialogue more meaningful and productive.

Aidan Hoyal is a Nashville parent. This piece is adapted from one that first appeared on the Dad Gone Wild blog.