Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"Show Me The Money!"

The Washington Post continues its love-in with Michelle Rhee, with this editorial from Richard Whitmire. The editorial points out that with the rise of charter school enrollment (28,000 students) at the expense of public school enrollment (44,000 students), there's danger that Rhee won't be able to "maintain a viable-sized school district". But if charter schools are everything they're cracked up to be, why is that a problem?
The advantages enjoyed by charters, which can pick and choose their staff, are considerable. Among the 1,500 schools in New York City, the top-ranked one on the city's 2007 progress report was Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School. There's just one secret to its success, says Evan Rudall of the Uncommon Schools network, which runs Williamsburg: high-quality teachers. "The best way to find such teachers is by using the latitude granted to charter schools: interviewing hundreds of candidates, both certified and uncertified, to find out if they know their material, are enthusiastic about their subject matter, and can maintain classroom control."
The author also mentions KIPP schools. What goes unmentioned is the sacrifice that some of these teachers make to keep up with the demands of their schools. As EducationSector points out,
The big question is whether the new models can be scaled up to reach the many students who need help. The answer is, not easily. In a decade, education entrepreneurs have created at most a couple hundred very strongly performing schools, serving perhaps 55,000 of the nation's more than eight million urban students. Among the major obstacles to a broader effort: Talented teachers and principals are hard to find and burn out quickly; the schools' longer calendar and other features that are key to their success are expensive; and most of the schools have to pay for their own buildings and often receive less than their full share of state and local education aid. Lacking large infusions of philanthropy, many of the schools would founder financially, and the economic downturn has made the schools' plight even more precarious. The Harlem Children's Zone recently cut staff in the face of diminishing donations.
Talk all you want about "highly qualified teachers" motivation, school quality... but it comes back to this: You're not going to convince teachers unions to give up job security so that their teachers can work more and earn less. It's great that a handful of schools can maintain a sufficient flow of applicants that, as their faculty members wear out and burn out, they can replace them with a new set of motivated teachers. But that model doesn't scale.

Also, let's not forget that this is a model we only propose for the inner cities. I am not aware of any middle or high SES school district that is looking at KIPP and saying, "We should follow that model." Maybe they should be. Maybe they should be looking at alternate modalities such as Waldorf or Montessori and trying to figure out what those approaches do correctly. Maybe they should be looking to offer an array of choices instead of "the same" and "more of the same" (most "school reforms" after all speak of doing the same thing, but "better" or with a longer school day or school year). But interest in "what works", at least with the loudest voices for "reform", seems to be pretty much limited to the retrospective study of standardized tests, and I see little sense that they're really looking for innovation - or that most parents even in "failing schools" are demanding innovation, as opposed to school safety and order in the halls.

For all this talk about top rated schools in the public and charter school systems, let's not forget that we're still not talking about the schools our nation's political and economic elites will choose for their own kids. Before they'll consider such a thing, many will plunk down $30,000+ per year for Sidwell Friends. With diminished private donations for even the best charter schools, and the further erosion of the tax base for public schools, who's going to pay for reform? Talk is cheap in D.C., but the best schools are not.

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