Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Evaluating Eli Broad's Evaluation of Charter Schools



In the February 5, 2008 edition of the Los Angeles Times, Eli Broad, noted philanthropist and home builder, wrote a piece praising the success of charter schools. For the record, charter schools are “public schools that have been exempted from selected state and local regulations.” To me, they represent a hybrid: sort of a public school, kind of like a private school with some bureaucracy attached, although not as much as a regular public school.

According to Broad, “successful charter schools across the country have five key ingredients in common that enable them to improve student achievement.”

One, “successful charters…focus on getting students to achieve to high standards…they offer a rigorous curriculum, assess student progress frequently and regularly use this data to improve instruction.”

Two, administrators “in successful charters are not just effective instructional leaders or master teachers who work closely with their teachers to improve instruction and learning. They are also effective managers of complex school budgets. And unlike many traditional principals, charter principals are empowered to decide whom to hire, whom to fire and how to spend dollars to best meet student needs.”

Third, charter school offices have minimal staff and “rely on the best research-based practices and technology to funnel all available dollars to the classroom.”

Fourth, charter schools use only proven methods for educating kids. “These include creating smaller schools, offering double blocks of math or reading, extending the school day or enforcing a strict dress code.”

“Finally, successful charters hold school leaders accountable for student results. The bottom line: students perform or the schools are closed.”

Broad applies the business model to education. He believes “market forces will pressure neighboring district public schools to improve.” If public schools face stiff competition, teachers will have to improve to stay competitive. In Broad’s view, a little capitalistic competition makes everyone a winner. “Those of us who come from the world of business understand what is at risk if we do not dramatically improve our public schools,” Broad writes.

In Broad’s first point, I hear echoes of Catholic schools. The parochial school system pioneered the “rigorous curriculum.” It is the public school system that watered down what students learn in order to improve performance statistics. If you do not challenge the students, they will not rise to meet the expectations, and therefore will not “achieve to high standards.”

In his second point, logic wins out. It makes good sense to allow the person on the ground to make decisions. No public institution has been successful when led by bureaucracy and red tape. LAUSD is a perfect example: it is simply too big and too overloaded with bureaucrats. What always amazes me is that these people forget what is the heart of the school: the classroom, the teachers, and the students. Teaching and educating are not about principals and business managers and purchasing agents. Those offices should work in support of the classroom. This also connects with Broad’s third point. Eliminate the needless administrators and put their salaries into the classroom. We do not need management; we need the funds we spend on the management salaries to fund classroom equipment, supplies and teachers’ salaries.

As for successful practices in the classroom, devoting more time to instruction with double blocks of teaching is again a no brainer. We need to increase, at the very least, the number of school days per year. We might also do some experimenting with time, too, like starting the school day a bit later. Some of my colleagues have classes at 7:30 in the morning or even earlier. Studies have shown that kids benefit from more sleep. Why can’t school start at 9:00 and end at 4 or 5? Those are the common work day hours in the real world. Why not keep the same hours in the classroom?

The only thing that I disagree with Broad on is his final point. The business model does not work in schools. You cannot teach a kid to a national specification. Yes, floor joists can be regulated. Building materials must be up to code. The city must inspect buildings for safety. But it is very difficult to quality control the human mind.

Often, the success of a teacher and course is not apparent for decades. I shudder to think what might have happened if my teachers were judged by my success level in their classes. I did not experience the fruit of my teachers’ efforts for years. I wish I could go back now and tell them they made a difference. I know what they were trying to do back then, but I needed a few years for my emotional and physical maturity to catch up.

Standardized testing does not fit the bill for assessment. It can reveal some of the teacher’s success, but it is not reliable.

I remember once when I was in third grade and had pneumonia, I missed an entire week of school. This was the week the school administered the grade level standardized tests. When I returned, they allowed me one day to make up a week’s worth of testing. By the afternoon, I was just bubbling in anything. I was so tired, I just wanted to finish the damn thing and go home. A month later, when the school received my results, they called my mother in to give her the unfortunate news that her son was brain damaged, at least according to the results.

Some kids do not test well. There are anomalies in the testing process. A kid could be having a bad day, or recovering from a debilitating disease, or just simply out of energy to pay attention for an extended period of time.

I agree with Broad that there are real ramifications if we do not improve American education. Arguably, the consequences are already apparent. But the solution is not to demonize teachers or test students to death. Go to the school and spend some time there. Are lessons in critical and analytical thinking a daily occurrence? Are teachers creative and innovative? Are students responding? Do the people in the school, teachers, students and administrators, appear to enjoy what they are doing? Are students writing well, reading good books, creating interesting and intriguing science experiments?

If one spends time in a school, the learning should be apparent. There is no magic evaluation or test that will indicate quality control like an inspector at the end of an assembly line. This is human growth and development. It comes in fits and starts, in darkness and in light. It is framed by the Renaissance and the Dark Ages.

Years ago, I watched my wife teach a first grade class in a small Catholic school. The students entered knowing no alphabet or phonics or words. I watched those small people go from colors to shapes to numbers to letters to vowels and consonants to words, and incredibly, around January, to reading. The world bloomed for them. They read. Then they wrote. And by the end of the year, they were picking their own books to read, doing basic addition and subtraction, and drawing pictures. They wrote paragraphs and stories. To me, watching, it was magic. Learning is a gift in the abstract, and therefore, it cannot be adequately measured. It can only be appreciated, fostered, and in the end, whatever the result, it must be celebrated. This is how we should reward learning in America.