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Friday, March 16, 2012

Charter Schools: History and Racism


Why the Racist History of the Charter School Movement Is Never Discussed

By Christopher Bonastia, AlterNet
Posted on March 9, 2012, Printed on March 16, 2012
As a parent I find it easy to understand the appeal of charter schools, especially for parents and students who feel that traditional public schools have failed them. As a historical sociologist who studies race and politics, however, I am disturbed both by the significant challenges that plague the contemporary charter school movement, and by the ugly history of segregationist tactics that link past educational practices to the troubling present. 

The now-popular idea of offering public education dollars to private entrepreneurs has historical roots in white resistance to school desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The desired outcome was few or, better yet, no black students in white schools. In Prince Edward County, Virginia, one of the five cases decided in Brown, segregationist whites sought to outwit integration by directing taxpayer funds to segregated private schools.

Two years before a federal court set a final desegregation deadline for fall 1959, local newspaper publisher J. Barrye Wall shared white county leaders’ strategy of resistance with Congressman Watkins Abbitt: “We are working [on] a scheme in which we will abandon public schools, sell the buildings to our corporation, reopen as privately operated schools with tuition grants from [Virginia] and P.E. county as the basic financial program,” he wrote. “Those wishing to go to integrated schools can take their tuition grants and operate their own schools. To hell with 'em.” 

Though the county ultimately refused to sell the public school buildings, public education in Prince Edward County was nevertheless abandoned for five years (1959-1964), as taxpayer dollars were funneled to the segregated white academies, which were housed in privately owned facilities such as churches and the local Moose Lodge. Federal courts struck down this use of taxpayer funds after a year. Still, whites won and blacks lost. Because there were no local taxes assessed to operate public schools during those years, whites could invest in private schools for their children, while blacks in the county—unable and unwilling to finance their own private, segregated schools—were left to fend for themselves, with many black children shut out of school for multiple years. 

Meanwhile, in less blatant attempts to avoid desegregation, states and localities also enacted “freedom of choice” plans that typically allowed white students to transfer out of desegregated schools, but forced black students to clear numerous administrative hurdles and, not infrequently, withstand harassment from teachers and students if they entered formerly all-white schools. When some segregationists began to acknowledge that separate black and white schools were no longer viable legally, they sought other means to eliminate "undesirables."

Attorney David Mays, who advised high-ranking Virginia politicians on school strategy, reasoned, “Negroes could be let in [to white schools] and then chased out by setting high academic standards they could not maintain, by hazing if necessary, by economic pressures in some cases, etc. This should leave few Negroes in the white schools. The federal courts can easily force Negroes into our white schools, but they can’t possibly administer them and listen to the merits of thousands of bellyaches.” (Mays vastly underestimated the determination of individual black families and federal officials.)

These nefarious motives may seem a far cry from the desire of many charter school operators to “reinvent” public education for students whom traditional public schools have failed. In theory, these committed bands of reformers come with good intentions: they purport to bring in dedicated teachers who have not been pummeled into complacency; energize their students by creating by a caring, rigorous school environment; and build a parent body that is inspired (in some cases compelled) to become more involved in their children’s education both inside and outside the school. And in some cases, charter schools deliver what they promise. In others, however, this sparkling veneer masks less attractive realities that are too often dismissed, or ignored, as the complaints of reactionaries with a vested interest in propping up our failed system of public education.

The driving assumption for the pro-charter side, of course, is that market competition in education will be like that for toothpaste — providing an array of appealing options. But education, like healthcare, is not a typical consumer market. Providers in these fields have a disincentive to accept or retain “clients” who require intensive interventions to maintain desired outcomes—in the case of education, high standardized test scores that will allow charters to stay in business. The result? A segmented marketplace in which providers compete for the “good risks,” while the undesirables get triage. By design, markets produce winners, losers and unintended or hidden consequences. 
Charter school operators (like health insurers who exclude potentially costly applicants) have developed methods to screen out applicants who are likely to depress overall test scores. Sifting mechanisms may include interviews with parents (since parents of low-performing students are less likely to show up for the interview), essays by students, letters of recommendation and scrutiny of attendance records. Low-achieving students enrolled in charters can, for example, be recommended for special education programs that the school lacks, thus forcing their transfer to a traditional public school. (More brazenly, some schools have experienced, and perhaps even encouraged, rampant cheating on standardized tests.)

Operators have clear motives to avoid students who require special services (i.e., English-language learners, “special needs” children and so on) and those who are unlikely to produce the high achievement test scores that form the basis of school evaluations. Whether intended or otherwise, these sifting mechanisms have the ultimate effect of reinscribing racial and economic segregation among the students they educate -- as the research on this topic is increasingly bearing out.
A 2010 report by the UCLA-based Civil Rights Project, "Choice without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards," uncovers some troublesome facts in this regard. “While segregation for blacks among all public schools has been increasing for nearly two decades, black students in charter schools are far more likely than their traditional public school counterparts to be educated in intensely segregated settings. At the national level, 70 percent of black charter school students attend intensely segregated minority charter schools (which enroll 90-100 percent of students from under-represented minority backgrounds), or twice as many as the share of intensely segregated black students in traditional public schools.” 

In the first decade of the 2000s, charter school enrollment nearly tripled; today around 2.5 percent of public school students are enrolled in charters. Blacks are overrepresented in charter schools (32 percent vs. 16 percent in the entire public-school population), whites are underrepresented (39 percent versus 56 percent), and Latinos, Asians and American Indians are enrolled in roughly equal proportions in charters and traditional public schools. These snapshots mask considerable variation. In the West and some areas of the South, it appears that charter schools “serve as havens for white flight from public schools,” according to the Civil Rights Project. 

There are also preliminary indications that some charter schools under-enroll students qualifying for free lunch and English-language learners, thereby reducing the enrollment of low-income and Latino students, but data is limited in these areas, as it is on non-test-related factors such as graduation rates and college enrollment. How can we compare the performance of charters versus traditional public schools if we don’t know whether they are enrolling the same types of students? At the national and state levels, policymakers are pushing for the rapid expansion of charter schools on the basis of hope rather than evidence.

This points to a larger historical issue. The widespread enthusiasm for and rapid proliferation of charter schools also appears to mirror a persistent issue in American education: expanding new programs before we know if they work, and how successes might be replicated on a larger scale. As the historian Charles M. Payne observed, “Perhaps the safest generalization one can make about urban schools or school districts is that most of them are trying to do too much too fast, initiating programs on the basis of what’s needed rather than on the basis of what they are capable of.” As charter schools face the uncertainty of contract renewal (which occurs typically at the three- to five-year mark), they may be tempted to overlay a multitude of seemingly innovative instructional strategies without sufficient monitoring of effectiveness.

Some schools do adopt approaches that seem to help students make demonstrable gains in achievement tests. (There are ongoing debates about the extent to which increases in test scores reflect authentic hikes in skills and knowledge, as opposed to a mastery of test-taking techniques.) But even when we identify charter schools that appear to improve performance in relation to students with similar characteristics in the public schools, the question becomes one of scaling up. The concept of charter schools is that they will all be distinctive, with different mixes of students, teaching philosophies, school environments and so on. In theory, other schools—traditional public and other charters—will learn what works, and replicate these innovations.

This has proven terribly difficult to do with successful public schools; doing so with a small, idiosyncratic charter school geared toward students who love the cello poses even greater hurdles.  When researchers from the RAND Corporation studied charter schools in Philadelphia, they noted that “with so many interventions under way simultaneously…there is no way to determine exactly which components of the reform plan are responsible for [any] improvement”—though ultimately they found that privately operated schools produced no more successful outcomes than their traditional public counterparts.

As important as applying successful techniques to other schools is an issue at the other end of the spectrum: when to conclude that a charter has failed. Policymakers such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg who have sold charters as the route to educational salvation may be reluctant to pull the plug on failures. The Big Apple has closed roughly 4 percent of charters since its first one opened in 1999, well below the national closing rate of 15 percent. The appropriate rate of charter revocation is anyone’s guess.

By all appearances, charters will remain on the educational landscape for the foreseeable future. While charter skeptics can’t merely wish them away, they can push for greater accountability—after all, isn’t this the whole point of charters? Anyone who blindly accepts that competition will improve education for students in charters and traditional public schools alike should remember that other articles of faith about the market—like cutting taxes on the rich will make all of our yachts and rafts rise—have proven illusory.

The market is not a self-regulating mechanism: players need rules to guide their behavior. Educational history offers some valuable lessons to keep in mind. First, when public schools have great influence in selecting their student body, this can either lead to greater diversity and opportunity while retaining choice (as in some magnet schools), or it can exacerbate persistent problems of racial and economic segregation. Businesspeople respond to incentives, and the impetus for charter-school operators is to “skim the cream” and avoid undesirables. Tangible rewards for charter schools to offer free transportation and lunches, and to craft racially and economically diverse student bodies, could be a step in the right direction.

Educational history also teaches us to be wary of the deep and authentic desire to find the “secret sauce” that produces hard-working, high-achieving students and committed teachers.  It is not easy to identify the factors that make a school great, and it is even harder to disseminate these reforms widely. If, for example, we discover that Charter School X produces exemplary outcomes because of exceptionally talented, committed teachers and unusually industrious students, how do we go about replicating that -- and at what cost? Are all teachers and students capable of reaching these heights, or is there a limited pool? It would be nice to think the former, but evidence for such optimism is scarce.

There is no magic elixir that will fix our educational system. Of course, we should continue to be open to fresh ideas about improving school organization, teaching and learning. But if we continue to ignore important historical lessons about the dangerous consequences of educational privatization and fail to harness our desire to plunge headlong into unproven reform initiatives, we may discover that the cure we so lovingly embraced has made the patient sicker.

Christopher Bonastia is associate professor of sociology at Lehman College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of "Southern Stalemate: Five Years without Public Education in Prince Edward County, Virginia" (University of Chicago Press, 2012).

Regent Merryl Tisch: "Turnaround" is a Political Strategy, Not An Educational One

Merryl Tisch: Turnaround plan “has nothing to do with the kids”

Tisch spoke on a GothamSchools panel in 2011.
Breaking her silence on the city’s plan to overhaul 33 struggling schools, Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said late Wednesday that she believes “turnaround” is a political strategy, not an educational one.
“There’s a fight going on here that has nothing to do with what’s going on at the school,” she said. “It’s a labor dispute between labor and management and has nothing to do with the kids.”
Tisch was referring to the stalemate between the Bloomberg administration and the teachers union that gave rise to the city’s turnaround plans. Bloomberg announced the plans in January as a way to get federal funds for the schools even though the city and union had not been able to agree on new teacher evaluations, a requirement of less aggressive strategies already in place. The turnaround strategy, which require the schools to be closed and reopened after changing their names and half of their teachers, has only deepened enmity between the city and UFT.
On Wednesday, Tisch visited one of the schools, William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School, and said she was impressed by the changes underway, which she attributed to its principal, Geraldine Maione. The school received millions of federal dollars in the last two years while undergoing “transformation,” which funded extra tutoring, additional programs, and new technology.
“This is a school that is moving in a really fine direction,” Tisch said of Grady, which received a B on its most recent city progress report. ”This is the wrong message to this school at this time. Don’t be so dismissive of the efforts going on in that building.”
It was Tisch’s second visit to the school. Last week, she brought fellow Regent Kathleen Cashin for a visit that was scheduled after she met Maione in February at a principals union event featuring Diane Ravitch. On Wednesday, Maione said, Tisch and Cashin brought State Education Commissioner John King along with them.
Tisch’s support would be a boon to the school, whose teachers and students have been protesting the city’s plans for weeks. But King’s presence was especially significant because he must sign off on the city’s turnaround plans in order for the schools to receive federal funding. So far, he has only commented on the technical viability of the city’s strategy, calling the concept “approvable.”
The city has not yet submitted formal turnaround applications to King and has said that it will go through with the turnaround plans with or without the federal funds. Still, if King denies or pushes back against a turnaround application, it would strike a blow to the Bloomberg administration and could leave the city on the hook for paying for school improvements it has promised.
Maione said she is hopeful that the officials’ presence would help her school get a fair consideration as the city’s turnaround plans move forward.
“I enjoyed having them and I think they saw a Grady they didn’t think they would see,” Maione said Wednesday. “I think they were pleasantly surprised.”
In the past, Tisch has said other schools on the turnaround list were not improving quickly enough under the city’s interventions. When she visited Automotive High School last fall, she said the city was using the school as a “warehouse” for high-needs students. Now, Automotive is set to be closed and reopened just as Grady is.
“I believe in closing schools,” Tisch said. “I will not defend failure, but I’m also not going to sit back and watch” a school such as Grady be closed.

Newsday on Teacher Data Reports

Experts, LIers weigh in on teacher evaluations

Michael Dawidziak, left, and Arnold Dodge are answering questions about the
 pros and cons of New York State teacher evaluations

Thanks for joining Newsday’s web chat. Tonight,
 we’re going to be talking about teachers’ new job evaluations, which
 the state plans to launch in June. Joining us are two distinguished 
panelists — Dr. Arnold Dodge, chairman of the Department of 
Educational Leadership and Administration at the LIU Post campus
in Brookville, and Michael Dawidziak, a Long Island-based political 
consultant and frequent contributor to Newsday’s opinion pages. I’m 
John Hildebrand, Newsday’s senior education reporter and tonight’s 
John Hildebrand- MODERATOR: 
Mike and Arnie, every time we 
report on the subject of teachers' job evaluations, we can expect at 
least 100 comments on Newsday's website. Why is there so much 
debate on the subject?
Michael Dawidziak: 
The bottom line is that the taxpayers are 
paying a lot of money for a quality education system.  Overwhelmingly,
the voters say they are willing to pay for it as most school budgets pass.  
But, they want to know they are getting quality.
Arnold Dodge: 
There is so much debate because there is so much misinformation.   I believe that the public is not fully aware of what 
happens in schools and what is the definition of "quality" teaching.
Comment From Guest 
How will teachers in non testing grades, including special area teachers, 
be evaluated?
Arnold Dodge: 
Special area teachers - including all other subjects 
beyond ELA and math - will have to be evaluated in order for any system 
to be fair.  The question is how will we evaluate teachers in subjects like 
art, PE, etc.  For that matter how will we evaluate librarians, guidance 
counselors and other support personnel?  This is a very difficult issue 
that has only the most prelimary answers being suggested.
Comment From Frank 
what is wrong with the way evaluations are done today...?
Michael Dawidziak: 
All sides agreed that a new evaluation system 
was necessary to replace the current "satisfactory/unsatisfactory" scale 
that has been used for decades to judge teachers.  The main problem 
with the current system is the inability to get a bad teacher out of the 
system which is the real hot button issue among the taxpayers.  in a 
year marked bu historic action, not addressing mandate relief was 
absolutely the biggest failure by Albany last year.
Arnold Dodge: 
As a former principal, I can testify to the fact that 
while the evaluation system that I used was not perfect, it had rigor 
and responsiveness that the current system denies a teacher.  The 
binary system that is used by some districts is not acceptable.  However, 
the alternative that is now known as the APPR is much worse than 
anything that I have seen to date.
MOD: John Hildebrand: 
Here's a question a lot of people are asking us: Should teachers' names be released to the public along with their 
performance ratings?
Michael Dawidziak: 
Teachers' names should absolutely not be 
released to the public along with their performance rating.  The 
idea here is insuring quality and improving the system, not painting 
a scarlet red letter on somebody.
Arnold Dodge: 
Shame is a poor motivator - even Bill Gates has weighed 
in on the negative impact of publishing teachers names along with their performance ratings.
MOD: John Hildebrand: 
Still, New York City did decide to release 
teachers' names last month, under the state's Freedom of Information 
Law. Is the cat out of the bag?
Arnold Dodge: 
This is an unfortunate precedent that will not serve 
the public weal.  If the rest of the state follows suit, we move from 
demoralizing the city teachers to demoralizing every teacher in the state.  
A very poor policy indeed.
Michael Dawidziak: 
Just because New York City went ahead doesn't 
mean that all the other school districts in the state should go along.  
Ultimately, each district will have to answer this question for themselves 
but I believe that most will opt to protect the individual teacher's privacy.
Comment From John 
How will this evaluation process account for such variables as student 
attendance, home life, social issues, disabilities, etc. that are out of a 
teacher's control?
Arnold Dodge: 
It won't.   Not making central the outside influences on 
the life of a child (and how those variables affect learning), may be the 
most significant flaw in the new system.
Michael Dawidziak: 
While you can't come up with a perfect system 
that would address all these situations, the fact that you can't come 
up with a perfect system doesn't mean that you shouldn't try to come 
up with a better one.  That is what this agreement between the Governor 
and Teachers' Unions tries to do.
Arnold Dodge: 
I disagree.  A flawed system that has false negatives 
and positives does damage that will be serious both to the teachers 
who are unfairly targeted and to the entire culture of schools.  We 
certainly should try to come up with a good system  This current version 
is not a good one.
MOD: John Hildebrand: 
And Arnie, getting back to your comment 
that the evaluation system won't account for such variables as student attendance...You would agree, wouldn't you, that the state is going to 
try to use such factors as student poverty and disabilities in the formula 
use to rate teachers?
Arnold Dodge: 
Student poverty and disabilities are so complex, that 
any formula that attempts to account for differences  - and asserts that 
these variables are now controlled - can be very misleading.   As one 
example, children who come to school from impoverished backgrounds 
have an enormous deficit in school vocabulary.   This deficit can follow 
a child throughout his school career.  No formula can possibly account 
for the weight of such deficiency.
Comment From Dave 
As a Special Ed Teacher (Math) I am worried. I teach a 7th grade self 
contained Math class, and my students are performing at the 2nd grade 
reading and math levels. Even if I get the students to go forward to grade 
4 performance (which is a huge leap) it would not be reflected in the 
State Math testing because the students will be taking grade 7 tests, 
and what I teach them in class is not measured by the test. So I fear 
being labeled ineffective... any suggestions ?
Michael Dawidziak: 
Teachers, especially special ed teachers, will 
have the ability to get an "effective" rating even if their students' test 
scores are low, as long as they showed at least some progress. Progress 
becomes the more determining factor over raw test grades in these cases.
Arnold Dodge: 
In fact, a teachers' ratings can be determined as ineffective 
if test scores do not reach a certain level based on the valued-added model.  
The offense to a teahcer who is trying his or her best with a challenged 
population (a population who may not score well on tests) is to be labeled ineffective and therefore be in jeopardy of losing his or her job.  This is fundamentally unfair.
MOD: John Hildebrand: 
Was the state correct in deciding to issue the first new teacher job ratings this June? Or should the state have taken 
more time to perfect the system?
Michael Dawidziak: 
Procrastination and kicking the can down the road 
is usually what elected officials do best.  Albany is showing leadership and 
being an inovative example for the rest of the country.  This spirit should not be discouraged.  Flaws in the system can be addressed as you go and in fact,
 is the only way anything will ever get done.  If you wait for a perfect system,
 it will never happen.
Arnold Dodge: 
No profession or business would use a model that had 
not been fully tested that has such high stakes.   If anything would have 
made sense, it would have been to use the new model in parallel to the 
present model and compare results.  Going on-line with this high stakes 
system, when there are so many questions from the educational community - 
and others -  is sheer folly and is sure to backfire.
MOD: John Hildebrand: 
Shaun by email asks: I work for the NYC DOE 
in a transfer school for kids who have been kicked out of other schools or 
have dropped out and have gaps in there education. They are typically 
overage and under credited. What is the incentive to stay at a school like 
this, our scores are historically low due to our population. I would be 
labeled a bad teacher for trying to help these kids?
Michael Dawidziak: 
Teacher motivation has always been a mystery to 
me and one of the finest examples of excellence for the sake of excellence. 
Let's face it.There are poor techers, fair teachers and superlative teachers.  
The superlative ones choose to do a great job for no greater compensation 
than their poor cointerparts.  You name me any other profession where that 
would be the case.  Great teachers have always been identified as such and 
they will continue to be.
Arnold Dodge: 
Shaun, you are so right to be concerned.  And, at the 
same time, it is so sad that you are asking the question.  A form of this 
question will be asked by even the best teachers, i.e., should I take on 
challenging kids if it means that my scores will suffer?  This is not about 
teacher ethics, but about human nature.  We all want to know that we are appreciated for our work and we all want to keep our jobs.   I would suggest, 
Shaun, that you hang in there, and keep up the good work.  We can only 
hope that there will be a turn of events soon when level heads prevail 
regarding your dilemma.
MOD: John Hildebrand: 
JDarr on asked:

A lot of the commentary about publicizing teacher evaluations is framed as 

an issue of taxpayers' right to know or some philosophical issue. How about 
the practical side? When parents figuratively line up by the thousands to 
demand that their children be removed from the classrooms of teachers 
identified as ineffective and are turned down by beleaguered principals, 
will they then line up outside the superintendents' offices? Then the 
MOD: John Hildebrand: 
We hear that a lot: that parents are going 
to pull their kids out of classes where teachers are rated less than 
perfect. But I'm not sure experience demonstrates that this is the 
case. Take New York City, where they recently released teachers' 
names along with ratings. Many parents interviewed there seemed 
to take the ratings with a grain of salt. So long as their kids were 
happy with their present teachers, the parents seemed satisfied also.
Michael Dawidziak: 
Parents have for years been trying to get their 
children switched out of classes of teachers that either they or their 
children don't like or don't think is effective.  The school principals 
have been dealing with this for as long as there has been schools, 
so this possibility is not caused by the new evaluation system.
Arnold Dodge: 
Yes, they will line up to have their children removed.  
And how else would we expect a concerned parent to behave?   My 
experience as a superintendent in a Long Island school district that 
parents are very demanding - as well they should be.  Quite frankly, I 
do not know what I would say to someone who asked for his/her child 
to be removed.  One more reason why this new system must be looked 
at from all sides before it is implemented.  Remember that the ratings 
are unstable measures and a teacher who is labeled ineffective one year, 
may very well be labeled effective the next year.  But will a parent really 
buy that answer?
Comment From jennie 
Why are so many teachers against this evaluation system?
Michael Dawidziak: 
Almost anybody would avoid being evaluated if 
they could get away with it.  The bottom line is that teachers are working 
in a system that is based on evaluation and preparing children for a 
world where they will be evaluated.  If the teachers themselves had 
come up with a better evaluation system years ago, we wouldn't be 
here talking tonight.  The taxpayers are the end users footing the bill 
and they are demanding accountability.  This is a public system.  It's 
not a private railroad where you can take a "the public be damned" 
kind of attitude.
Arnold Dodge: 
My experience with teachers over a 40 year career 
tells me that the vast majority are dedicated and sincere folks who 
care very much about their students.  When they see an evaluation 
system that is so capricious being used to bludgeon them as professionals 
(and maybe even publicly denounce them) they are shocked and 
overwhelmed.  How can you get up each day and work in a craft 
that requires sensitivity when you yourself are being treated so 
insensitively.   This is not accountability, but as David Weinberger, 
a business writer says, this is "accountabilism."
Comment From Tom 
Here is the real question. Why is Long Island education being 
dragged into this mess when if taken by itself and not with the 
rest of the state our education system is very solid?
Michael Dawidziak: 
Nobody disagrees with the fact that Long Island 
has some of the best schools in the country. That does not mean that 
the voters of Long Island don't support teacher evaluation.  They do in overwhelming numbers. Teachers like to tell me that they have the most 
important job in the world - educating our children. Let's say I agree with 
that. More important than a doctor or a U.S. Senator, whatever. If it really 
is the most important job in the world, now defend to me not getting a 
bad teacher out of the system. That's what the voters feel needs to 
be addressed.
Arnold Dodge: 
And here is another fallacy exposed about the new 
system.  One could ask why is the entire country faced with this 
issue?  The answer is that we have a federal role in education that 
has gone way beyond the original intent of support for the states.  
Race to the Top is a boondoggle that is sure to be the next train wreck.  
Long Island is faced with having to succumb to the dictates of remote 
policy that does little to respond to its individual regional needs.   
If this entire scheme is a smokescreen to get rid of "bad" teachers, 
then we are wasting enormous resources , time and talent on the 
scope and size of this federal initiative that creeps into the lives of 
each school classroom in the country.  There has got to be a better 

MOD: John Hildebrand: 
Well, our time’s up. Thanks for participating, 
and please keep checking Newsday and for more news on this 
important subject. This chat will be posted on Please continue 
to comment!