First Person

Voices: Close failing charter schools

This post by charter school expert Alex Medler on what is missing from a recent report on charter school accountability was originally published on the blog of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

The charter promise is not, “We will give you a charter to run a public school and flexibility from many of the rules and regulations constraining traditional schools. But if you fail to achieve what you promise to achieve we will insist that you submit a plan that outlines what you might do about it and begin to engage in a five-year self-improvement process.

Ten students are enrolled in the Agate School District this year.
<em>EdNews</em> file photo

The deal is simpler.

“If you perform and attract students, you get flexibility and you stay open. If you do not perform or families won’t show up, you are closed.”

If only people could stick to the plan.

A recent study commissioned by Colorado’s Get Smart Schools explored Colorado’s failing schools and the state’s obligations to engage in “turnaround” efforts. The study provides excellent information and a long list of recommendations for the state as it faces the serious challenge of what to do to make good on its commitment to “turn around” almost 200 public schools serving more than 80,000 students. Sadly, the study does not see the obvious answer for the 21 failing charter schools on that list. Close them! The report didn’t say that.

I predict many states will commission similar studies in the next year and ponder the same challenge. These studies and those to come will all ask the same question: what should we do about all the schools we have identified as failing?  The reluctance of studies like this to state the obvious implication of charter failure is vexing.

The Colorado study was conducted by Robin Baker, Paul Teske and Kelly Hupfeld at CU-Denver, along with Paul Hill from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE).  It presents a lot of data on kids, schools and districts affected by this policy. At the heart of this issue rests Colorado’s system of accrediting schools and districts, which is also the state’s latest iteration of a federally-approved accountability regime. In it, the state identifies the worst performing schools using a sophisticated growth measure. The state then oversees efforts conducted by schools and districts to make a dramatic change in these schools. Like other states, the range of turnaround options includes restructuring, changes in leadership and staff, working with outside contractors or providers, converting to charter status or closure.

For charter schools, the most obvious and compelling strategy is closure. However, the report barely mentions it. This report, and those that follow, should add a targeted intervention for charters that persistently fail – policy should lead the state or their authorizer to close almost all of them.

It is almost as if people are afraid that if we insist on closing failing charters, we would have to make similar steps for traditional public schools. But traditional public schools don’t operate under the charter premise, so a longer list of possible interventions is fair for them. This is a situation where treating everything the same is not the same as doing what is right or fair.

This awkward unwillingness of the report’s authors to recommend the obvious for failing charters reflects the same challenge that reluctant authorizers also face when they know they should close a school, but decline. To address this natural reluctance, state policy should establish a default system that closes charter schools if the state declares those schools to be failures.

Colorado, and indeed most states with a significant number of failing charter schools, should consider mandating the closure of charters that are identified as failing on state accountability systems. Of course, we need exceptions for schools that are making dramatic impacts on the lives of students that we can see, or that are clearly alternative schools serving extremely at-risk populations. However, with those things in place, which is the case in Colorado, being brave about closure should be something that makes it onto our “to do” list.

First Person

I’m a teacher in Memphis, and I know ‘grading floors’ aren’t a cheat — they’re a key motivator

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Shelly

Growing up, my father used to tell me not to come to him with a problem unless I had a solution.

That meant I learned quickly what kinds of solutions wouldn’t go over well — like ones involving my father and his money. His policy also meant that I had to weigh pros and cons, thinking about what I was able to do, what I wasn’t, and whom I needed help from in order to make things happen.

I sometimes wish decision-makers in Memphis had a father like mine. Because more often than not, it seems we are talking about the problems void of a solution or even possible solutions to vet.

Right now, the issue in Memphis and Shelby County Schools is the “grading floor,” or the policy of setting a lowest possible grade a teacher can assign a student. They have been temporarily banned after a controversy over high-school grade changing.

Grading floors aren’t new to teachers in Memphis, or to me, a fifth-grade teacher. I have taught and still teach students who are at least two grade levels behind. This was true when I taught fourth grade and when I taught sixth grade. Honestly, as the grade level increased, so did the gaps I saw.

More often than not, these students have been failed by a school, teacher, leader or system that did not adequately prepare them for the next grade. Meanwhile, in my classroom, I have a responsibility to teach grade-level material — adjusting it for individual students — and to grade their work accordingly.

That’s where “grading floors” come in. Without a grading floor, all of my current students would have grades below a 65 percent.

Can you imagine seeing the face of a fifth-grade boy who tried his hardest on your test, who answered all the questions you gave orally, who made connections to the text through auditory comprehension, only to receive a 0 on his paper?

I don’t have to imagine – I see similar reactions multiple times a day. Whether it’s a 65 percent or a 14 percent, it’s still an F, which signals to them “failure.” The difference between the two was summed up by Superintendent Hopson, who stated, “With a zero, it’s impossible to pass a course. It creates kids who don’t have hope, disciplinary issues; that creates a really bad scenario.”

I know that as years go by and a student’s proficiency gap increases, confidence decreases, too. With a lowered confidence comes a lower level of self-efficacy — the belief that they can do what they need to do to succeed. This, to me, is the argument for the grading floor.

In completing research for my master’s degree, I studied the correlation between reading comprehension scores and the use of a motivational curriculum. There was, as might have guessed, an increase in reading scores for students who received this additional curriculum.

So every day, I speak life into my students, who see Fs far too often in their daily lives. It is not my job as their teacher to eradicate their confidence, stifle their effort, and diminish their confidence by giving them “true” Fs.

“This is not an indication of your hard work, son. Yet, the reality is, we have to work harder,” I tell students. “We have to grind in order to make up what we’ve missed and I’m the best coach you have this year.”

In education, there are no absolutes, so I don’t propose implementing grading floors across the board. But I do understand their potential — not to make students appear more skilled than they are, or to make schools appear to be better than they are, but to keep students motivated enough to stay on track, even when it’s difficult.

If it is implemented, a grade floor must be coupled with data and other reports that provide parents, teachers, and other stakeholders with information that accurately highlights where a student is, both within the district and nationally. Parents shouldn’t see their child’s progress through rose-colored glasses, or be slapped by reality when options for their child are limited during and after high school.

But without hope, effort and attainment are impossible. If we can’t give hope to our kids, what are we here for?

I don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of my father, don’t come with a problem unless you have a solution.

Marlena Little is a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. A version of this piece first appeared on Memphis K-12, a blog for parents and students.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

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

“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.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede