Thursday, June 30, 2011
Roger Brainerd, who is quoted in the linked article, has been working for a charter school law in Maine for 18 years. He has been doing so with little or no funding. He is passionate about what he is doing.
While I am a believer that education requires money, good education is clearly not ALL about the money. I'm convinced that the change in Maine will be good for both kids and schools.
Friday, June 24, 2011
OK, so this is really about pensions, in general, but since this is a blog about charter schools and education reform, I thought I'd title it teacher pensions because that seems to be the way to get attention around the subject of pensions.
So, now that many companies have given up pensions amidst the screams of unions and some others, let me simply say that pensions, at least significant pensions, are a bad idea.
I said this to a friend who is working on her master's degree in Russia, a country with a significant pension system, when she was working on a paper on pensions and the Russian pension system. She wondered why they were a bad idea.
I'm a pretty simple person (as many of my critics have noticed, although not with quite the same meaning that I intend). I'm also a mathematician. OK, I don't have a degree in math, but in every standardized test during which I have not fallen asleep (the SAT being a notable exception), I have scored well above the national average. On one admissions test I scored an 800 on the quantitative section. OK, I'm bragging a bit. My point is that I understand math and logic.
So, here goes. Any thinking person understands a few basics, such as future promises are always more or less probable, and not certain. If this were not true, then philosophy would be a lot easier, and it wouldn't have caused Mr. Hume to assert silly things about the possibility that we won't see the sunrise in the morning tomorrow. Science is based on probability, not certainty. Economics are based on probability, not certainty. In fact, unless you are talking about basic math, your conclusion is based on assumptions about the probability of events.
A pension is a future promise. It is based on PROBABILITY. However, the promise is given as a CERTAINTY. Now, in case you haven't caught it yet, here is my simple logic. PROBABILITY is not equal to CERTAINTY. You can't (in a logically reasonable sense) make CERTAIN promises about PROBABLE events. Even a bank understands this when it takes promises from people about things like mortgages. This is why they try to get as much information as they can from borrowers and require the house as collateral or even a co-signer in some cases. When they do their profit projections, they include a calculation for mortgages that go bad. One of the problems in the mortgage crisis is that the calculations were based on bad assumptions.
Of course, this is exactly why pensions and pension managers do stupid things. They've begun by being illogical, so then when the assumptions on which they've built their calculations change, the promise has to change or else the assumptions have to change. You can't have the same output, unless you change the inputs.
So, pension managers do stupid things such as increasing benefit payouts when the pot is overflowing because they have made calculations on what is an appropriate maximum balance. They do not include outlying probabilities because outliers (such as the current crisis) rarely happen. The problem is that when they do, they are no longer probabilities or one could say that when they happen the probability immediately goes from remote to 100%.
So, we find ourselves suggesting more stupid things because if you can't change the result (because the result is based on real events, not on assumptions, funny how real life mucks things up), you can only change the inputs. The inputs that get changed don't require more of the future recipients (usually), but of the government. Of course governments are already scraping by. We pretend that we aren't hurting the government because we require the "employers" to pay up, not the "government." Unfortunately, the employers are the government. In this case, schools get hurt. Less money goes into the classrooms and is set aside for government workers' future benefit. In other words, every child and every parent who has school aged children is paying for this CERTAIN promise based on PROBABLE assumptions. If those who say that hurting education hurts everyone are correct (and I believe they are), then we are all paying.
I hope you all understand, that I'm not coming at this from a politically motivated perspective. I'm not intentionally talking about ethics. I'm simply applying a little logic and math to a problem that seems to be driving some emotional reactions in this country. I'm simply saying that the entire idea that you can have a Defined Benefit Plan is a delusion (illusion is not strong enough). It is faulty logic. It's a lie. You can't change math because you desire a conclusion. You can't make 2+2 = 5 just because you want it to be. This isn't Baskin-Robbins or Burger King.
If I wanted to get political, I'd talk about the fairness of government employee pensions versus private sector employee 401(k) plans. That is an ethical discussion. I'm just talking about math.
Believe me, I'd love to have a fully paid retirement at age 60. I've worked hard for what I've gotten in life and feel like I've created a lot of benefit for people and society. The problem is that you can't pay people money that you don't have.
Sorry, friends, but I just can't lie to people. I can't tell someone that I will promise with certainty that I will pay them a guaranteed retirement amount 25 or 30 years from now. I can tell them that I promise to put away X% for you in each pay period and either invest it for them or allow them to invest for themselves. There may even be a way to smooth some of this out so that some don't benefit greatly more than others. I'm not trying to create a false dichotomy as some do in which the choice is Defined Benefit versus individual Defined Contribution. It's possible that the government could set up some sort of group Defined Contribution plan and make payments based on what is really there based on some other calculations of fairness. But to promise an absolute dollar amount is simply illogical. Pensions are not just a bad idea. They are lies. Let's stop lying to ourselves.
Thursday, June 23, 2011
On the way home from the conference I finally got a chance to watch The Adjustment Bureau. If you haven't seen it, don't go run out to watch it. It's not a great movie. It does ask an interesting question about free will and determination. There are debates about this issue in both secular philosophy as well as in religion. The movie centers on the idea that there is a "chairman" who has created a plan and that this chairman's operatives (some have called them "angels") watch over people to make sure that major events in their lives happen (or not). To cut to the chase, the movie gives the idea that for the chairman, there are some people who can be trusted with free will. Those are the people who love--who love so much that they will give up themselves for another.
So, when I think about charter schools and the dedication that many have, I ask why?
What is it that would cause people to put so much energy into starting high quality charter schools? Some criticize for profit management companies. Perhaps that is an issue, there is not the same level of honor or self-sacrifice. But what about all of those others in the movement who have worked extremely hard to develop high performing schools, especially in traditionally low performing areas? There are far more people in that category than in for profit management companies.
What is it that drives them? There is no doubt that it is tougher to motivate and teach kids in some areas than others. There is no doubt that schools in those same areas have often failed kids. But why does someone choose to battle the system?
In my travel, I met a man from Maine, who has fought 18 years to get a charter school law passed. Why?
I've met people who have moved from traditional district jobs to take 20% pay cuts to work in or start charter schools. Why?
Within the accusation that charter schools take advantage of teachers by paying them lower salaries, is the burning question of why? Why would a teacher take such a big pay cut to teach in a charter school? Often the buildings are not as nice. Sometimes the benefits are not as good. In many cases the students are more difficult.
The burning question is why. The only answer that I can come up with is that these people have free will. They aren't following the herd. They aren't just going with the status quo. They aren't accepting the traditional answers, especially in urban and low income communities. They are believers in other people. They believe enough to give up themselves.
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Yes, President Bill Clinton spoke at the National Charter School Conference today, and while the event was well attended, the crowd thinned noticeably by the time the 42nd president of the United States of America left the stage. Mr. Clinton began by recounting some of his efforts to fund charter schools and motivate educational advancement. He talked about the fact that a monopoly has no reason to change or move forward and compared this to public education in America. But while he had many significant points, his speech often wandered and many conference goers seemed to agree that the former president just was not his former self on the stage. He slipped into a long analogy about medicare and the school system, taking jabs at the Republican party and its views of government. He always came back to education, but the speech lacked luster and staying power.
Stealing the show was Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker. Citing improvements in public education and constantly going back to examples of the way Americans have achieved the "impossible," Mayor Booker gave a rousing ending to his speech and left the stage to a standing ovation. Mayor Booker gave examples of ways that Newark has improved families to improve education, joking that they started a fraternity in Newark called delta alpha delta sigma (DADS). This mentoring program for dads who have been in prison has drastically reduced recidivism rates and improved homes that were once broken.
By contrast, President Clinton caused the session to go over a half hour past its time slot, meaning that people poured out of the auditorium, even as the Pine Lake Preparatory (a 1,500 student charter school in Mooresville, NC) PRIDE Percussion took the stage for its performance. The band played to an auditorium that was far less than half full.
Another highlight of the program was Mariana Guzman from Ivy Prep Academy. Singing about miracles was a near miracle herself. Coming from Mexico less than five years ago, knowing not even a word of English, the young Ms. Guzman spoke almost without an accent introducing her song. This 8th grader seemed a bit nervous at first, but once she began singing, she demonstrated amazing stage presence throughout. The audience rewarded her with a standing ovation as well.
While budgets are low for schools this year, the conference is still well attended with some 4,000 attendees. My personal meetings went well with more on the way tomorrow. In addition, there seem to be many topics in the breakout sessions of great value to schools. Most of the sessions seem to be receiving positive reviews.
Monday, June 20, 2011
Ok, so tonight's reception was at the aquarium here in Atlanta. It's a beautiful place and talking with friends and eating BBQ snacks with a large shark swimming just behind you is a bit strange.
I ran into many friends among this crowd of 4,000. Saw a bunch of fellow Coloradoans as well as got to talk with Nelson Smith for a few minutes and friends from around the country.
I'm looking forward to President Bill Clinton's plenary speech tomorrow as well as time to meet various members of state associations.
This is a great gathering for charter school leaders to grow, but I do wonder in this time of budget cuts about some of the people attending. Friends of mine have told me that some of their client schools are not attending this year because they cut it from their budget. While it's nice to see people face to face, it does make me wonder why many of these sessions can't be hosted as webinars for those who are truly interested. Still, I have to admit, it's nice to see such a large group of charter school people in one place.
Perhaps the most interesting surprise is that I'm staying at the same hotel with a gentleman who has worked for 18 years to get a charter school law passed in Maine. It's still on the governor's desk for signature, but it passed recently. He and I walked together from the hotel to the convention center and it was interesting to hear his story and plans for Maine.
Friday, June 17, 2011
The interesting thing about the exchange is that our first comments on each others tweets were not as nice as they could have been. In fact, in some circles it would be a near miracle that we are still talking together. The important part is that due to a few clarifying comments, we reached the ability to converse. It almost made me hopeful that such a conversation might take place on a national level. In other words, that national representatives of various positions about education could actually talk to each other kindly. Sure, they might never completely agree, but at least the conversation could get civil.
I say almost hopeful because then Derrell Bradford posted a link on Facebook that criticized him without mercy. I was going to add the link here, but it wasn't worth giving the blogger the hits on his blog. The point is that I can't believe that people don't understand that the only way to resolution is talking and trying to understand anothers view point. I'm not always great at it, but I try.
I urge all of us to try to make the battle into a conversation. Certainly, we need to hold to our views if we think we are right. I'm not asking those of you who disagree with me to agree just because I say so, but I am asking you to listen. And in turn, I'll do my best to listen to you.
Friday, June 3, 2011
I hope that you read and reread the posts with Alexander Russo because I think the Locke High School story is such a great story. I think that even if the experiment ultimately fails (and I don't think it will), it is a great test of a lot of things:
- Green Dot's system
- Potential for good charter school management corps to take on turnaround projects
- Examples for school turnaround even without a charter school structure
- Opportunity to use the strategies for schools before turnaround is necessary
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
So, tell me a little bit about your new book.
The book is meant to read like an action novel or a police drama. It doesn’t dwell on the history of education reform or use a lot of education jargon. It’s the story of a startup CMO named Green Dot and a cockamamie idea that it could -- and even should -- take over a full sized district high school rather than starting a charter school from the ground up like charters almost always do.
What was the attraction of this school’s story?
It was the idea that a CMO would try to get into a traditional school environment and take over a high school and try to turn it around. The goal was sort of a neighborhood school, run by a CMO with a “thin” union contract. It was so new and different from the way charter schools are usually done.
What’s your background and how did you come to this story?
I’ve been in education for about 20 years and been writing about it for about ten years. As you know, a lot of reform has been taking place outside of the regular schools system for a long time. Many reform folks get lost in Charterland and forget that there is a mass of kids that need help. I met Steve Barr and found that he was a rare and interesting person, and I began to follow him for a while, and it turned out that I was right about how unusual he was and how interesting the school rescue effort would be. I didn’t know at the time that there would be a national effort to turn around schools or that Obama would win the election and support turnaround programs.
What is unique about Locke?
Fixing broken schools has been around a long time. There’s nothing new about that. But the Locke is a community in transition. So, part of the story is the transition from one minority to another. Also, conversion made a lot of sense for this school. There aren’t a lot of conversion efforts, but it’s clear to me that one way or the other you have to break away from bad habits when rescuing a school. You need to break with bad parts of the past. Having some autonomy from the school district was essential. People and organizations often slide back into the way they used to do things.
What was the difference between “old” and “new” Locke??
Being semi-autonomous [from the district] was important to transform “Old Locke” into “New Locke.” One example that I came across was of security guards at the school who started talking on their cell phones while signing people in, not paying attention, and were being disrespectful to people visiting the school. The new principal challenged this with the guards. The guards resisted at first, but the culture had to change to bring hope for the school.
What made teachers sign on to the petition?
Teachers believed in the kids in the community and had a role in the decision. California has a conversion law, if 51% of tenured teacher sign a petition, the school can be converted. The turnaround wasn’t announced from the central office. Teachers had a chance to be a part of it. They didn’t always feel like they had a voice. Some felt later as if the district was taking over, but in the beginning they had a say.
How did the community feel?
There was always suspicion and skepticism about outsiders. The community has seen a lot of outside help not go well. A key was relationship building. Enough people felt good about Green Dot to support the petition. There was far less protest against the turnaround than often happens. The union opposed it, but the community largely supported Steve Barr. There weren’t many other options. There were not a lot of other reformers who would have taken on such a project.
What lessons can be learned from this example?
The most important thing is that schools can be substantially improved from the condition they are in. I was not sure at the beginning. There wasn’t a miraculous change, but there have been a lot of improvements.
Second, you need a lot to change --change the habits and culture of the work place. The kids will respond to what they get. They broke the school into five campuses. They made every principal responsible for hiring and firing and budgets. All are accountable. Green Dot knew that teachers needed a safety net. They needed protection from being overworked, from stressed out principals,
from unfair termination. They set up a situation in which teachers can picture staying around for three years. Teachers don’t have to worry about being fired on a whim. Unfortunately, no one is really paying attention to the message. Charter school people don’t like unions. Unions don’t like charter schools or thin contracts. People can take gobs of federal money and not do things much different. So, education reform doesn’t really spread like this, especially in
turnaround schools. Green Dot was trying to show that charters could and should be in low income neighborhoods, bilingual, should be more open, should even break their own habits. Charter schools have a reputation for not
doing everything that a public school has to do, but Green Dot was doing all of that with SPED, bilingual education, and open enrollment. The challenge is that taking and keeping those kids makes you look less successful than if you let those kids leave. They experienced the challenge of trying to achieve
lower dropout rates. Test scores do not go up as fast. There is no doubt that charters need to be proactive about addressing a regular public school demographic.
What about the current issues in Los Angeles?
It’s unfortunate that the teacher’s union has gone back to its old habits of blocking people from doing things in new and different ways. Clay Middle School and Jordan High School have been opened to the idea of charter school turnaround. The teachers union is blocking it. A lot of that has to with economics and some of the teacher bashing that has been going around, but still it is blocking what appears to be positive change.
How would you summarize your book and the real message?
We have to try to make schools work better for kids, but to stop looking for Hollywood miracles. People were asking about results six months out. We make fun of kids for the unrealistic career expectations that they articulate, wanting to be models, or superstars, or professional athletes. We sometimes have unrealistic expectations for school improvement speed. We’ve watched Stand and Deliver too many times. We discredit people’s work that takes longer than three years. Real reform is work, and even in Los Angeles, not everything is Hollywood.
It's still not clear if Green Dot's initial success will last, but Russo's observations seem to indicated that there are some positive steps that turnaround organizations can take to improve even the worst schools. I am hopeful that both charter school leaders and traditional district leaders will take note and move forward to fix these schools. Let's have a change of culture that leads to a change in learning. Let's get beyond what can't be done and get to what can be done.