Thursday, January 28, 2010
There are many successful charter schools in the country, some are small and some are large. Some use a project-based learning approach, others are direct instruction. Many of these have long waiting lists of families who dream of getting into the charter school, but probably never will.
One of the tenets of charter school law is that charter schools should innovate in ways that can serve as examples and be replicated. So, when I read the story about Souderton Charter School Collaborative, I have to ask a question. This is a very successful system, but no one is replicating it. The school has said that it doesn't want to grow or expand.
It appears that the charter laws aren't adequate to cover this. The implication in Colorado's charter school law is that the district will adopt practices of successful charter schools. But what about the responsibility of the school itself? If it is successful, especially with a small population as SCSC has, isn't the charter school somewhat responsible to at least help demonstrate that the practices are replicable? Isn't this a perfect opportunity for successful charters to show that this is no accident? Isn't this a perfect opportunity for districts to show that they aren't the monoliths that many charter advocates make them out to be? (NOTE: I am often one of those who make the monolith claim.)
I am not sure that I have a perfect answer, and I'm pretty sure that I don't want the answer rigidly legislated. It seems to me that there should be an organic change that happens to both charter leaders and to district officials when they see a really successful educational model that works for kids, but it doesn't seem to be happening universally. Whatever anyone thinks of KIPP schools, at least they are taking on the replication issue seriously, unlike many of the other successful schools. EMOs replicate, but they don't always replicate because they are successful, so they aren't good examples.
Because I don't have the answer, I'm going to keep my judgment very soft, but I urge a local and national discussion about this issue. If you are great, replicate!
As an example I just wrote an article for my examiner.com column about Ridgeview Classical Schools. Check it out.
Monday, January 25, 2010
There are are two terms that are thrown out a lot regarding pay systems. Now that R2T has listed performance pay as a criteria for awards, many states have rushed to implement performance pay systems for teachers. Most of these are tied either exclusively or mostly to student achievement per Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan's guidelines. Some have labeled these "merit pay" or "performance pay" systems, often interchangeably.
Here at the Charter School Insights blog, we've always advocated something slightly different from the student test based performance criteria. In fact, we've differentiated our system by using the term "strategic compensation." In our model, we want teachers (and optimally all employees of a school) to be paid on some combination of their value to the organization, the characteristics they display in doing their job, and the measurable outcomes of their performance. I suppose that this sounds much like the federal plan that many states have adopted, but there is a difference.
We do not begin with the premise that student test scores necessarily indicate the teacher's performance. As we've argued before, student test scores are affected by many variables, many of which are not within the teacher's control.
We begin by looking at the school and its constituents to see what they value. For example, one school may value character education more than another. One school may value science and technology more than another. One school may regard direct instruction more important than listening to student desires. In other words, we reward method and alignment with school values as part of "performance" or "merit." It may be that a school (parents, administrators, and teachers) decides that test scores are a high value and should be part of the measure. We disagree, but when we work with schools, we do not judge. We facilitate the process.
The key then is in developing the assessment tools that go along with the actual values to be measured. For example, how do you measure a teacher's ability to use the Socratic method? How do you decide if absolute test scores are important or if growth of students is important? What if one teacher's students grew more on average, but another teacher, whose average was lower, had more high growth students, but some falling behind? How much does working as a team player count? AND what tools do you use to measure it?
A school could combine administrator, parent, student, and peer assessments. This would take a lot of time and the person distributing the surveys would have to take the time to make sure the instruments were valid. In addition, if there is a fixed pool of money, peers have an incentive to grade down. If you get one parent who is irate, do you let outliers determine pay or do you throw out outliers?
In addition, there is a huge communication piece. Quite often in performance pay systems in industry, the rating is somewhat subjective. This may be the reason that the Federal guidelines include such objective measures as student test scores. Those are objective. Of course, using the wrong objective measure will decrease morale more than using the right subjective measure. At least if you use the right measure, employees have a chance to succeed. If you use the wrong measure, then the system is random, even if objective. The point is that whatever assessments you use, you have to communicate the results (along with the dollars) to the teacher. That means that principals need to have 1. confidence in the assessments and the results, 2. the confidence in themselves to deal with teachers who didn't contribute the strategic value as other teachers, and 3. the communication skills to clearly communicate with all employees.
The result of such a system should contribute to the strategic short and long term goals of a school. Through such as system, the school should be able to motivate teachers who display the characteristics that the school thinks will make it great; identify teachers who want to be great, but aren't great yet; and identify teachers who do not want to be great and help them find other occupations or other schools with whom the teacher can succeed.
The difference between a strategic system and a performance system is that often the performance system has the criteria for success spelled out before teachers and administrators get a say in what is important. In an era when no one seems to know what constitutes a good education, it seems that this strategic model is a better model. It directly aligns with the school's mission, vision, values and strategic plan. It's a plan that warrants national debate. Mr. Duncan?
The stronger, and understandable, argument is against for profit management companies that do not own charter schools (despite the letter from Imagine Academy CEO Dennis Bakke). These management companies are not the schools in themselves, but often act in such as way that they run the school and employee all of the employees. In the state of Colorado, there is often additional scrutiny of schools applying for charters with an Educational Management Organization (EMO). The reason is that there is a conflict of interest that authorizers want to mitigate. However, conflicts of interest are opportunities for, not guarantees that there will be, malfeasance. In almost every situation in life, there are conflicts of interest. We try to mitigate them by having balances of power or differentiation of duties or we disclose the conflicts or we disallow someone from having a vote in the final decision. Therefore, it seems there is no reason to immediately preclude a management company. On the other hand, it does seem worthwhile to be open about the conflicts and determine ways to mitigate those risks without eliminating EMOs from competing in the educational marketplace.
First, if readers are ideologically opposed to EMOs, then no argument that I will make can assuage them. I can only ask those of you in this camp to open your mind to the idea that whatever provides the best education within the budgets that states make available is the right choice. There are only a couple of good measures of an effective education system, and it isn't that the system is both publicly funded and government run.
Second, public education is not the same as government education. Public education means that the public funds the education. This is a hallmark of the U.S. education system. However, this does not mean that the government has to be the one who employs the administrators, researchers, teachers, custodians, bus drivers, and others as it currently does in most cases. In plenty of cases, government hires out contracts to those who can do the job best. When the government wants to build a road, it doesn't hire a bunch of road designers and builders. It contracts those jobs to those who have expertise. In fact, it requires that companies compete for those contracts. There is no good reason that education can't be the same way. That is the view of many of us, including those of us who support charter schools.
Third, the salary of the person who runs the school isn't necessarily wrong or right based on comparisons to other leaders of schools. If a person is a mediocre or poor superintendent, then it isn't fair to compare salary to an excellent superintendent even if the districts have about the same number of employees and students. In the same way, it isn't fair to compare a charter school management organization leader's salary to a district superintendent purely on number of students or employees or most other measures used. The measure should relate to performance of the EMO system. The public has a right to demand this, but the more relevant factor even than CEO salary is the total cost charged to the school by the management company. In other words, there is no right or wrong "price" until we look at performance.
Fourth, EMOs do have a conflict of interest. They have both an interest in educating students and in making a profit for their owners. It may be that their owners are benevolent and are not interested in making large profits, but only those reasonable to support themselves and their employees. On the other hand, there is nothing that says that owners are or will be benevolent.
Fifth, as public schools, charter schools run by EMOs are responsible to make sure that EMOs do not charge them more than is necessary to run the school effectively. Here is the rub and the first level of accountability for EMOs. The local charter school must have a board of directors that holds the EMO accountable from day one. The local board must ensure that the EMO provides both reasonable costs for administration and superior educational materials and training. This is the first way that a conflict of interest is mitigated.
Sixth, the authorizer must oversee the school closely enough to monitor some high level metrics, such as cost of EMO services and student achievement. Another measure might be to monitor loans from the EMO to the local charter school. Given that authorizers in most states are looking more closely at charter school results, both academic results and financial results, the key way of mitigating EMO conflicts of interest are begin taken care of. EMOs that do not provide great service over the long run will go out of business. As with traditional public schools, there will be abuses from time to time that don't get caught until after the fact, but this will not be the majority of EMO run schools.
The truth is that the fear of privatization is just that, it's fear. I've heard some say that fear is "false emotions appearing real." In the arguments against privatization in public education the approach taken is either a scare tactic or it's based on an ideology that opposes privatization of any kind. The fact is that unless one is predisposed against privatization of any kind, that as long as their are authorizers who take their jobs seriously, there are precautions being taken to mitigate conflicts of interest. I find it unlikely that there are any who would support the government eliminating private companies building highways, so why eliminate private companies running schools?
Let's not kill the future because of fear. Let's let the EMOs have their chance to prove their models. If they aren't successful, then let's put pressure on the authorizers to get rid of them or fix them. However, if they are successful, let's copy them. Let's use them to their fullest. Most of all let's let them have their chance to see what reality brings.
Friday, January 22, 2010
I admit it. I haven't read Colorado's application for the federal stimulus money for education labeled Race to the Top (R2T). However, I have read some of the reviews, including the one in the Denver Post. When Alan Gottlieb says, "Colorado races sideways," one could ignore it as the ranting of an ardent education reform proponent. However, when the Denver Post calls it a "False start," you can pretty much be guaranteed that things aren't good.
Last week the National Association for Public Charter Schools rated Colorado charter school law as fifth in the country. This was a sign that Colorado could be well up in the ratings for R2T money. It's not a guarantee, but a state's encouragement of charter schools was a major element of the R2T criteria.
However, Colorado decided to be less than daring in its approach to other criteria in the R2T guidelines. Rather than looking at the criteria for scoring high in the rankings, Colorado chose a collaborative approach, which rather than the normal use of the term, meant that they let anyone and everyone take the focus off of the prize and water down the impact of the application.
According to Nancy Mitchell's analysis, it appears that the biggest distraction was allowing the teachers' union to soften the commitment to performance pay. Instead of promising to implement a bold plan for teacher evaluation and pay, the Colorado application promises to put together a council to study it.
Governor Ritter and other speakers at the press conference seemed nonchalant about the fact that they understand that this wasn't exactly what the federal government wanted. However, he bragged in this press release that "More than 600 people helped develop the proposal over the past six months" It would be interesting to find out, in this year of tight budgets and furlough days for state employees, how many of those six hundred people were state employees and how many hours that represented.
Lieutenant Governor O'Brien said, “In this race, it is important to remember that the interim prize may be federal dollars, but the finish line is closing the achievement gap and providing opportunities for every Colorado student to realize his or her potential." That may be true, but then why did it take 600 people six months to develop a proposal that the preparers of the proposal seem to admit is weak?This grant of $377 million could go a long way to helping Colorado close that gap and provide those opportunities. The Governor seems to be sending a mixed message. He thought the R2T funding was so important that he had 600 people working on the proposal, but not important enough to seriously try to meet all of the federal government's criteria. It's not a message that I understand.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
It’s always an interesting experience sitting around the table with a group of charter school founders. This time is was in a church basement room with twelve supporters of the Academy for Advanced and Creative Learning (AACL), the school that was recently approved by Colorado Springs School District 11. Scott Marcy led the meeting with discussion of the various sub committees responsible for getting the school going. They reported on facilities, marketing, enrollment, and recruiting.
The school that will be located in the old Ivywild Elementary School building (subject to approval of the charter school’s contract with the district) focuses on gifted and twice exceptional students. The school will also be different in that it will have divisions rather than grade levels. Teachers will provide differentiated instruction based on student needs. Students will direct some of their own learning experiences through projects and choice of topics. Other differences is that classroom structure will allow for more movement of students so that those more active students will not be required to sit for extended periods of time. The idea is to educate kids the way they learn best and to support them while challenging them.
I had an opportunity after the meeting to speak with one of the founders, Nikki Anderson Myers. She told me that the families who originally wanted this school did some community research and developed a strategic plan. A school like this isn’t thrown together. You don’t hire just any teacher and have them tell students work harder or just throw more challenging curriculum at them. Teachers must be trained to work with a wide range of gifted students.
Anderson Myers expects that they’ll get students that often display asynchronous development. For example, “you might have a child that is reading fluently at age four, but then goes and colors your bed with a permanent marker immediately after that because that’s a how four year olds have fun sometimes! Traditional curriculum assumes that all kids learn at the same pace at the same age. That doesn’t work for advanced and gifted learners, and especially not for highly gifted children.”
The school will incorporate a block schedule so that students who are above “grade level” in one subject, but at “grade level” in another subject can participate at the appropriate level. In other words, if my child is six, but needs to study history and literature at the third grade level, he can. However, he can also study math at the first grade level if that’s appropriate. Because of this, classes will included mixed age groups.
Anderson Myers also anticipates that the school will need special teachers because sometimes highly gifted students have other issues. Some might be diagnosed as ADHD or with Asperger’s.
The other issue that the school is prepared to deal with is that many highly gifted students may have already shut down in a traditional school environment. They tend to either become self-motivated or stop trying to excel because of boredom or frustration. It’s hard for teachers in a traditional setting with twenty five to thirty students in a class room to pay special attention to that one student who is exceptional. In addition, it’s possible that the typical class room teacher has not been trained to identify and deal with these students.
The steering committee has done research into methods for dealing with gifted children. Anderson Myers named five or six different books that she’s used in developing her knowledge of working with gifted children. The curriculum design comes out of research done at the College of William and Mary. In addition, the steering committee has worked with another Colorado charter school, Westgate Community School, to see what issues that school has dealt with as it started up.
I asked what other words she might use for advanced and creative as some parents might wonder what really is different about this school. Anderson Myers said, “Advanced means challenging and supportive. It’s a different way to teach gifted kids. Creative means not conforming to traditional methods and guiding divergent thinking patterns. We reach the kids the way they need to be reached.”
The school plans to open this fall with approximately 120 students. They’ve begun registration and hope to have a minimum number enrolled by February 1st, but will continue to register students after that date. To find out more about this innovative school or to register your student, you can visit the AACL web site.
Monday, January 18, 2010
I use this reference to the longest running TV soap opera (1956 to 2010) because it seems fitting in the current debate about charter schools. There is so much hype and there are so many false accusations against charter schools that the drama seems to go on almost forever.
So often, both supporters and opponents, take an example of a handful of schools and lump all charter schools in a basket. Then they either hold charter schools up as an example of the only way to reform education or the biggest detriment to education there ever was. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between.
The fact is that "charter schools" can be used two ways. The first way is as a conceptual notion of the implementation of schools of choice and innovation funded with public money--a new way of doing public school. The second way is as the group of actual charter schools operating throughout the country.
The second way of using the term is in some sense useless. There is no "group" of charter schools. It isn't like a group of Wal-Mart stores or MacDonald's restaurants. In fact, in my experience many charter school parents and leaders don't give much care to any charter school other than their own. Oh, that changes sometimes when legislation is introduced to harm charter schools, but in the ongoing mission of each school is a general lack of concern for other charter schools.
In addition, there is such a wide variety of charter school methods, that lumping charter schools together is also invalid. For example, I often hear two claims. One is that charter schools skim the best students. This is contrary to fact for two reasons. The first is that charter schools usually enroll kids either by lottery or by a first-come first-served waiting list. The second is that there are a fair number of charter schools that are designed to serve at-risk students.
The second claim against "charter schools" is that what they provide isn't really education, but a preparation for the corporate world or just memorization for test scores. There are many reasons this isn't true either, but the main one is that even "core knowledge" schools, about whom I imagine these claims are made, use different methods of arriving at that core. Some use direct instruction and others use a more Socratic approach to learning. In addition, there are many Expeditionary Learning and Project Based schools rising up around the country. If anything, the 21st Century movement seems the most "corporate" focused. Core Knowledge schools emphasize knowledge as a benefit unto itself. What corporate exec cares if a person understands and enjoys Shakespeare or Austen or Thoreau?
The best use of the plural "charter schools" is the conceptual idea that these are schools funded by the public because the public needs change, because the existing structures aren't working in many areas. These are publicly funded because the intended benefit is not just to individual charter schools or charter school students, but also from the lessons learned that can then be implemented by teachers and leaders of non-charter schools.
As the charter school world continues to turn, let's talk appropriately about which charter schools are working and why and which are not and why not. Let's not lump them all together unless we are talking about a conceptual notion of publicly funded innovation because charter schools are not all the same. You can't throw them all our because one failed and you can't support them all because one succeeded. Allow the truth of the many fine charter schools to inform all schools so that as the education world turns, all students may benefit.
(Photo Credit: www.valleytech.k12.ma.us)
I'm a charter guy working at a college prep school, but I am well aware that my school is not for everyone. One of the main issues I observe is the challenge of providing differentiated programs for learners of various levels and destinations. Not all students are or should be college-bound. There are many jobs within the current economy that are honorable, sustainable, desirable, and accessible—without a college degree. With the curriculum consolidating to only those subject that are assessed on standardized tests, many of the professional and vocational tracks are disappearing.
I attended a tiny public school (to my knowledge, the only school in the world with Sea Otters as a mascot) in Seldovia Alaska from K-12. (We had 30 students in grades 9-12) In high school I took wood shop, auto shop, electronics (I built a ham radio ;-), drafting, home-economics (I learned cooking, budgeting, sewing, laundry) as well as a variety of fun electives like photography, journalism, marine biology and outdoor recreation. My sister’s shop class built a duplex where the Chief of Police lives 20 years later.
At my current school, with over 600 students, we have no vocational programs, limited academic electives and nothing as antiquated as film photography or home economics. Some of that is due to my school’s emphasis on the classical tradition, but a large part of the shift is increased graduation requirements and a heavy emphasis on testing.
I advocate for an open market in education where students, after age 16, could choose a variety of programs from a variety of providers. It would be possible to set entrance requirements for a variety of college tracks, vocational tracks, and community service (non-profit, volunteer, missions, military) careers. If I am looking for an auto mechanic, I care much more about ASE certification than if the student struggled to earn a D- in Algebra II so they could earn a high school diploma.
I believe in high standards for all, but I also believe there are plenty of non-academic professions that have high standards. Because we are stuffing many non-scholars through scholarly settings, we are losing expertise in many of the crafts and trades. It is incredibly difficult to find an expert-level crafter in many of the traditional American forms—from woodwork to design. The dominance of mass-oriented products and services has squeezed out the crafts tradition.
I would like to see secondary education incorporate a mix of apprenticeships, internships, project work, and traditional subjects applied to a variety of work settings. America has a great tradition of preparing workers for all types of professions. It is time to return to our roots. What do you think about the future of education for the trades?
Sunday, January 17, 2010
I don't think Mr. Mulgrew is ignorant, but the answer to a lot of this is simple. The fact is that charter schools are schools of choice. Parents, not the city or the districts or the unions, choose whether or not to attend these schools. The reasons that some parents choose not to attend this charters may be very diverse or perhaps singular, such as transportation issues. However, this is no reason for the government to impose a rule, as Mulgrew suggests, that charter school numbers have to be equal regarding percentages of low income or ELL students.
First, the numbers Mulgrew cites show that these charters do have high levels of low income kids, just not equal to the local schools. 62% is a high free and reduced lunch population. It is still a big challenge. This does not mean that the methods used in those charter schools are invalid. In fact, if those charter schools prove more successful than the local public schools, it may simply mean that those schools nearby need to adopt the methods used by the charter schools. This isn't a war. The charter schools are meant to be schools that try new approaches so that traditional schools can learn from them.
Second, Mulgrew in complaining about inequality fails to mention that charter schools are at a distinct disadvantage in funding because they have to scrape for facilities--often spending their per pupil revenue on buildings. This takes away money from important day to day expenditures such as teacher's salaries and additional staffing. I don't know about these schools, but it's often been the case that charter schools are not provided with the funds that the district receives for ELL or Special Education. So, if we want to be equal, we'd need to correct those problems as well.
The fact is that "life is not fair." Equality is a great thing when we talk about rights and choice, but equality is not always the appropriate measure for a situation. If an employer merely divided the salary budget by the number of employees, that wouldn't be fair. (I suppose that some of my socialist readers would disagree on that point, but they'd be wrong and not are not a significant player in this debate anyway.)
What is fair is giving charter schools a fair chance to show whether or not they can succeed with the students who attend them. Complaining that a local public school can't educate children because they are poor or because their population has a somewhat higher percentage of poor students implies that poor students can't learn and that these schools haven't figured out how to teach poor children. This is exactly the reason that people have wanted charter schools.
I agree with Mr. Mulgrew that "we should be working together to ensure that this city provides all its children a high-quality education, no matter what type of school they attend." However, given the rest of his article, I find it difficult to believe that is what he really means. In any case, he is wrong that charter schools have to have equal numbers of disadvantaged kids to be valid educational facilities or display valid educational models.
Mulgrew also brings up the issues of privitization and high salaries, which are not relevant to this portion of his theme. In fact, one of the problems of the argument against privatization is that if someone really could come up with a quantum leap in educational method and success, we'd gladly pay that person millions of dollars (and we should). In addition, it's a smokescreen. The unions are making money off the education system and not providing value. The unions have the biggest conflict of interest in this debate of anyone. In addition, there are many private organizations that benefit from education. We already have highly paid consultants, book and supply publishers, and those selling the latest programs and curriculum. These people profit greatly from the public trough. To think that a charter leader or charter management company shouldn't make some financial gain is like saying that educational consultants shouldn't profit from their assistance to schools. The problem isn't the mere fact of profit. The problem is whether or not any of these management companies (or consultants, or curriculum providers) actually provide any value. It's not that I support management companies, especially any specific ones. I'm only saying that, in principle, there is little difference between a management company and the many others who are profiting from public education already. A management company simply does a number of those things and tries to do it better. They often produce curriculum, train teachers, provide operational and financial functions and advice. A good management company can be worth 25% of revenue.
Taking Mr. Mulgrew's argument to its natural conclusion would mean forcing children to go to schools that their parents haven't chosen. It would mean denying freedom to others. It would mean eliminating many aspects of innovation. Would it truly help all children receive a "high-quality education?" It's unlikely. On the other hand, it might save many union jobs, and after all, that's what unions are all about.
Saturday, January 16, 2010
P.S. 1, Denver's oldest charter school, was ordered to close at the end of the year. I'm sure that many charter school opponents are happy about this. One more charter school failed, a few thousand to go.
The problem that arises is what to do about the kids. The school served kids who have struggled significantly at other schools. P.S. 1 may have been their last real chance at a public education. So, much for the criticism that charter schools don't serve "at risk" kids. Not many kids are as "at risk" as those at P.S. 1. This move just ensured that fewer "at risk" kids will be served by charter schools. In fact, it may have ensured that fewer "at risk" kids are served by any school.
I'm not suggesting that P.S. 1 was doing a great job. Test scores would suggest otherwise. On the other hand, the fact that the kids were in school may have been success in itself.
The larger question is not about P.S. 1. It is about how to reach kids who, in general, don't want to be reached. What is the role of charter schools that focus on "at risk" kids? Most would say that we don't want schools that are just babysitting kids, but what if these kids are only in school because they are at a charter school? What if their scores aren't better, but they are more excited about learning?
This raises all sorts of question about education, in general, but especially for struggling students, might their be some other criteria for evaluating a school's progress with these kids other than test scores. For example, if these students can be encouraged to go on to a technical school rather than dropping out, isn't there some benefit from the use of those tax dollars. Anecdotal evidence suggests that P.S. 1 was encouraging students to think and to learn about their world. Perhaps their reading skills weren't measurably improved, but what if the school put them on the road to improved reading skills? What if the students do show measurable improvements in areas other than the "core" areas?
As many of you, I don't have the answers to all of these questions. I'd simply suggest that for kids who have either dropped out or had significant issues in a traditional program, there must be other measures that we could include, not in place of but, in addition to the core subject measures to evaluate a program.
It's not clear if P.S. 1 would have passed on other measures or not. But what if they would have? What if? We'll never know for P.S. 1, but we could know for other schools, and, more importantly, for other students.
Friday, January 15, 2010
Thursday, January 14, 2010
Kids work to standards and know when they've met a standard for one of ten levels. They work individually, in groups and with the teachers. The fascinating thing to me is that Dennis Van Roekel, President of the NEA likes it. I'm a bit confused because I imagine that this method of teaching is more difficult in many ways than just "teaching" a class in the old lecture or teacher up front style. This method of instruction requires real teachers that are excited about learning and with whom kids feel comfortable.
Metz Elementary School in Adams Country School District 50 school district has implemented this system and it seems to be working. One concern is that standardized test scores may drop because they are established by grade level. The school believes that after a few years they will be back up to par.
I say, "Who cares?" Seriously. If the kids are learning and learning to enjoy learning, then they are far ahead of kids who are scoring high in third grade, then inevitably falling off in ninth and tenth grade.
We'll see where this goes, and I believe that there are many other aspects of educational method that have to go along with this gradeless system. Projects will have to be encouraged. Students will have to be engaged in new ways. Parents and teachers will have to partner together in new ways. Having said all of this, I wish this school well. Expecting every child to develop at the same rate in every grade is silly. No, I don't want sixth graders who can't read, but that is likely a strawman. This method should encourage kids to read, even if there isn't a grade level attached. It is an interesting experiment. Here's hoping the NEA president, ACSD 50, and I are right.
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Well, it appears that it's going to take two years to find out. The Dallas Morning News reports that the Dallas public schools will receive $1.3 million from the Gates Foundation to participate in a national study of what makes a teacher good.
Now, I do applaud the idea that we need to know what makes a good teacher, but...come on. How long have we been at this education thing? We don't know what makes a good teacher yet?
Where have public educators been? I just don't get it.
I'd love to write a really long piece here, but I just don't know what to say. I'm flabbergasted that this is being done, and if it's going to cost $1.3 million in Dallas, what will it cost nationwide?
Unions and traditional districts argue that charter schools are ruining a well established system. This effort is simply one more piece of evidence that this long standing tradition of public education hasn't worked. If it can't tell us what makes a good teacher by now, why do we think that a two year study will?
I'm sorry. I am not usually this dense, but I think that good educators know what makes for a good teacher. If we can't decide and then only hire and keep good teachers, that's another problem. Let's put money into training, hiring and continuing to mentor good teachers that we already know are out there.
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
The goal of any pay system should be to pay someone for the value that he or she creates for the customer. In the case of a school, the teacher should be paid for the value created for the student (and therefore the taxpayers).
Now, there are two really difficult questions to answer. The first is how do we measure value for the taxpayer and the student. Unfortunately, we have chosen to measure this primarily by test scores. There have been many arguments made against the use of test scores as a valid measure of successful education. Some have argued that the measures are too narrow. Some have argued that it's easy to cheat. Some have argued that it leads to an education of memorization and not of real thinking. I believe it is also flawed because there are so many other characteristics of a successful person than just what is measured by academics. A school that develops academically accomplished criminals is not a good school. Likewise, a teacher who develops academically accomplished criminals is not a good teacher.
The second is what makes a good teacher. You can probably guess that I don't think that a good teacher is simply a teacher who develops students who attain good test scores. Moreover, I do not believe that a teacher has enough control over student test scores to be judged primarily (or even partially) on his or her students' test scores.
While largely agreeing with the new education reform package in Tennessee, union President Earl Wimon said, "Teachers do not control all the factors that go into a successful test score. We don't think it should play an overarching factor.”
Wiman also said "that the union is still considering whether to push for language to be inserted into the legislation capping the weight of test scores in evaluations at 35 percent. Others have suggested test scores should account for 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, a level Wiman called 'immoral.'"
I don't know that I'd call it immoral. I'd use the word foolish (that's being polite). Although it probably is immoral in the sense that it's unfair. Often morality and reasonable go together.
The reason that it's unfair is that teacher's don't control enough of the factors that lead to high test scores for them to be judged on the scores, especially not when (as some in Tennessee are after) the percent of evaluation is 50%.
If school leaders (and teachers themselves) do not understand enough about what makes a great or even a good teacher, then they ought to find someone who does. There are plenty of studies about what makes good teaching. There are good rubrics for evaluating teacher skill, knowledge, ability to engage students, and other characteristics that can be observed that teachers can be rewarded on those characteristics. If those teachers who are determined to be good according to these rubrics are not effective in bringing up test scores over time, then it becomes pretty obvious that the rubric isn't right or that there is something in their student population that is wrong.
I realize that this takes more thought than developing some matrix that says that if a teacher's students achieve a certain level of test scores, then he or she receives a specified bonus or raise. The point is that if we are going to commit to a strategic pay system, then let's make it really strategic. Let's use the factors that affect value created. Let's use characteristics such as student engagement, affect on overall school morale, affect on student morale, self-motivation for professional improvement, use of techniques to invite student participation, and, yes, even things such as comparative marketability of the teacher's subject. Until we abandon a system that pays based on things that don't improve teaching, such as longevity and advanced degrees, we'll continue to get what we pay for. Strategic pay systems don't pay for student performance. They pay for teacher performance. The two may be related, but they aren't synonymous.
I saw Confessions of a Shopaholic recently. I know that I'm a bit behind, but it really wasn't worth seeing in the theaters. In fact...well, let's just leave it at that. However, as a finance geek, I started thinking about the underlying message (you mean there was one??) of cost and value. I've always applied those principles to my personal financial decisions. I also tried very hard to implement those principles when I managed the finances of a large charter school. So, as I began to think about the way we managed our school and the way most teachers are paid in districts, I realized that there are some real upsetting things about the way that districts spend money on teachers (probably on a lot of other things too, but what I don't know won't hurt me, right?).
When we look at cost and value, we think about a strategic decision. When we go to buy a pair of Prada shoes (I know I do), we have think about how much money we have, how we plan to wear them and what the benefit will be. If we have nearly unlimited resources, then the other two questions aren't really that important. However, for the average person, those last two questions are absolutely important to good financial decision making. We want a pair of shoes that fits our needs, and we don't want to pay more than we have to. We don't want to pay for too much fluff. We want to get what we pay for. We don't determine what to pay based on what the shoe salesperson or the shoe store needs to survive.
Now, let's imagine that a school district wants to buy things based on what created strategic value for the students (stop laughing, it could happen). What would that pay system look like? Would it look like the current step and lane system that unions continue to prefer?
Would you buy a pair of shoes at a given price just because someone said you have to? In other words, let's say that there are four pair of shoes. I'll use men's shoes because that's what I know. One pair is a nice pair of Teva sandals. The next pair is a comfortable pair of Rockport casual shoes. The third pair is a pair of Allen Edmonds dress shoes. The fourth pair is a pair of synthetic material Rockport knock offs. It's pretty clear that the value of each of these choices is highly dependent on the intended use of the shoe. If you are planning on a Hawaiian vacation, you probably will prefer the sandals, even if they are more expensive than the others (probably not more than the Allen Edmonds, but you get the point). I don't have to run through the uses of all four pairs of shoes for you to understand how to buy a pair of shoes.
So, now let's imagine that we have four teachers. Let's even make it easy and say that they all teach high school science. The first has ten years of teaching experience and is an adequate teacher. However, he doesn't want any AP courses and doesn't work overly hard at engaging students, but there are no complaints from students or parents. He really doesn't do well teaching physics courses. The second teacher can teach the full range of science courses, but is not very engaging at all. Again, there have been no major complaints. This teacher has twenty years of teaching experience and a master's degree. The third teacher engages students and loves to find new ways to engage students. She has an adequate knowledge of all of the sciences and is certified in all of the sciences for AP teaching. She has three years of experience. Our fourth teacher only teaches chemistry and general sciences, but is an outstanding teacher. He has six years of experience and has sent previously under performing students to MIT. Twelve of his students have won science awards at the state and national level. He defines teaching.
Now, let's talk cost and value. In most single salary schedules, the second teacher is making by far the most money, but what is the value to the school, to the students, to the taxpayers? Let's say that in my community this teacher would likely be making $70,000. That's probably not exactly right, but it's close.
The first teacher provides a bit more value, but not much, and is likely making about $55,000.
The third teacher creates a lot more value, but is likely only making about $42,000.
The fourth teacher creates even more value, but is likely only making about $46,000.
While all of those salaries are estimates, the gaps are not far off. If this were a personal finance example, we would all laugh at those who were paying $70,000. In fact, if this were a business, we would laugh at the business. If we worked at that business, we would complain about Henry down the hall in the corner office, who doesn't do anything, but still makes more than all the rest of us, and Henry would laugh all the way to the bank every Friday.
The really funny (or sad) thing is that in education this is normal, and we like it! In this way districts display all of the characteristics of a shopaholic. Even though some teachers provide far less service and quality than is being paid for, districts continue to buy. Every year that same teacher is bought again and, not at the same price, at a higher price.
So, next time a district official claims that he or she is being efficient with district resources, ask them to take a second look. In the movie, the main character and her shopaholic friends solve the problem by holding a huge clearance sale of all of their mistaken purchases. They then reform themselves (at least the main characters does), and choose to purchase only what provides value. Perhaps school districts should learn a lesson.
By the way, to read a young teacher's opinion on this subject, click here.
Monday, January 11, 2010
As a charter school advocate, I emphasize the aspect of charter schools that says they ought to be innovative. I am, I guess you could say, an educational libertarian. I'd gladly put myself in a school run by Steve Jobs. So, as I hear more and more that charter schools need to be research based, I cringe a bit. In fact, it strikes me that an innovative and research based program of anything may very well be an oxymoron.
Innovative means something that is new and untried or a major change to something that exists. Research based, seems to imply that something has been tried. Even though it may not be fully implemented, it seems that for something to be research based means that it is established and has a track record.
So, I guess my question is "Doesn't it defeat the purpose of having charter schools, if we require that they be innovative, but also research based?" It seems to me that the very reason for having charter schools is that they implement ideas about which research is later done.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the bureaucracy that seems to be creeping into the charter school world. Perhaps I'm in the minority, but I want my kids in an experiment. As long as it's an experiment that I choose and that isn't chosen for me, I don't have a problem with it. Experiments are how innovation takes place.
Thomas Edison didn't discover the light bulb immediately. He had to experiment. He had to try things that no one else had tried before. Steve Jobs didn't know that Apple computers would be accepted (in fact many laughed at him), but they started a revolution. The iphone is incredibly popular, but it's not because there was lots of research done to demonstrate that people would love it.
Disruptive innovation isn't found by just doing some small things better. Disruptive innovation is made when someone breaks the mold. Call me strange, but I'd rather let a charter school break a few molds in the hopes of finding something truly innovative rather than trusting the same old educators that have a vested interest in the current bureaucracy make minor "research based" changes a little at a time.
I'd rather seek true innovation rather than settle for an oxymoron.
As I thought about the New Year and my series on New Year's Resolutions, I've been reading a lot in the continuing discussion on the "privatization" of public education. This normally focuses on Educational Management Organizations or EMOs. The accusations are that these companies prey on public money with little regard for real education. For the benefit of the charter school movement, but especially for these companies, I decided to put together a few recommended resolutions to quell at least some of the naysayers.
So, EMO leaders, repeat after me:
- I will always look out for the interest of the local schools that our company establishes
- I will create curriculum that not only meets state standards, but that provides a data based educational model
- I will communicate with my local schools in a timely and clear manner
- I will provide clear and transparent financial reports
- I will provide clear and appropriate financial advise to the local board
- I will not operate at arms length from the local board but consider myself a partner with the local school
These resolutions may seem common sense to some readers, but based on my presentation at last year's national convention in our nation's capitol, there are many local charter school leaders who have not received this kind of service from their EMOs. This is part of the reason that charter school opponents find this issue such an easy target. If EMOs continue to provide examples of poor service and mediocre curriculum and guidance, then public school leaders and teacher union members will continue to point out the easy examples. EMOs must be accountable to the public for the public monies they receive.
In most states, schools are required to make sure they purchase services and products in such a way that the best value is obtained. Often because of the way EMOs set up schools, this same process doesn't take place. There are many ways that additional legislation could change the existing processes, but the best way for EMOs to assure the taxpayers that schools are getting the best value is to actually provide it. In other words, EMOs should strive to have the best performing schools with the most accountable processes and financial controls (including on themselves).
If EMO leaders follow these resolutions, they'll not only create value for the taxpayers and their students, but also for themselves.
The only teacher job fair exclusively for charter schools will take place for the second year at Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette, Colorado. Thirty charter schools attended last year to meet the three hundred fifty teaching candidates who attended. The event takes place on March 13th.
Teaching candidates can meet various charter schools from around the state with different demographics and philosophies. Schools have the opportunity to meet candidates who may have a special passion for charter schools.
To register for this event you can click here if you are a teaching candidate or here if you are a leader of a charter school. For further information contact Jen Dauzvardis at Peak to Peak Charter School: email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 303-453-4730.
Saturday, January 9, 2010
As we get closer to the New Year many charter school leaders are back in the office as the teachers and students enjoy their last few days off. They are beginning to look at second semester, plan for hiring, figure out how to keep the discipline problem kids from getting suspended yet again between now and the end of the year. Those are the issues if there aren't major problems. Of course, the other issue is to plan for the 2010-11 budget that most states are struggling with.
I'd also like to suggest that the leaders take some time to reflect on another important issue-their own personal improvement in their position. Charter school leaders come in all shapes and sizes. Most come from an academic background. Few come from a district leadership position and yet are thrown into some district type decisions. Often charter leaders are not prepared for the challenges. Here are a few resolutions to consider.
- I will take more time to observe and mentor the teachers
- I will learn the methods of good instruction if I don't already know them
- I will create strategic plans that prioritize the methods and activities that drive results
- I will prioritize my calendar in such a way that the time spent maximizes support for teachers and students
- I will be gracious enough to allow for mistakes, yet strong enough to take serious action when student safety or educational progress is jeopardized
Perhaps you can see the emphasis on priorities and strategy. Charter school leaders are pulled more directions from traditional principals because in additional to being a principal, they are often instructional trainers and politicians. They must satisfy board members in ways and with time commitments that principals in most schools rarely have to think about.
I salute anyone who takes leading a charter school seriously. They open themselves up to criticism from community members, district officials, and parents. The often operate in hostile environments with many eyes looking for mistakes and not tolerating anything sub-standard.
This doesn't mean that all charter leaders are as professional and competent as they need to be. Professional growth can continue and can be fostered, but it's the charter school leader who will have to recognize during this week's opportunity for reflection that self-improvement may be the greatest gift a leader can give to the staff and the organization.
This was originally published in my Colorado Charter School Examiner Column.
Thursday, January 7, 2010
Stage One: Bliss
Stage Two: Inkling
Stage Three: Desperation
Stage Four: Dawn
Stage Five: Darkness
Stage Six: Acceptance
Stage Seven: Celebration
I'll start with some background information on stage-based processes and the Johari Window before diving in to the stages themselves. Check back for more info through January.