Tuesday, August 21, 2012

I remember saying to a teacher friend once that I wanted to work at a charter school. I didn't really know why, I was just sick of public school drama, and after only two years in it. They asked why on earth I would want that, and I thought it was weird for them to ask with such incredulity. I guess I didn't really know much about them besides the things I had heard from movies and the general media. "The best charter schools are the only viable solution to America's failing public school system." "Charter schools are more progressive." Large companies like Wal-mart fund the growth of charter schools, making them spread like a cancer throughout urban areas that have poor schools. Waiting for Superman shows students and parents clutching raffle tickets tearfully hoping to snag one of the few open spots in a new charter school.

In her article, Ravitch points out that only one in five charter schools actually achieves the "amazing results" it claims. A Stanford economist ran that study, looking at student progress on math tests at 2,500 charter schools. They found that only 17 percent of those schools were "superior to a matched traditional public school;" surprisingly, "37 percent we worse than the public school." So what about charter schools make these poor families think that these schools are their son or daughter's only hope?

I've seem this movie myself, and it really does gloss over this glaring fact. Which makes me think about the "central dogma" of the film which purports that the teacher is the most important part of a child's success. If charter schools are hiring "the best teachers" then how is it that these schools are not making a significant difference in achievement? This is where we must turn to education reform and not educational "silver bullets" like charter schools. Ravitch points to several different studies that show external factors to be far greater risk factors for lower student achievement. Another economist found that 60 percent of achievement is explained by things such as family income that teachers and schools have no control over.

I think it is fascinating that the president of a labor union for teachers (American Federation of Teachers, AFT) is considered the founder of the idea of charter schools, but not in the way we recognize them today. In 1988, Albert Shanker wanted to collaborate with public schools to create small schools that would focus on the highest risk children. When the idea was snatched by for-profit organizations, he changed his mind. And that's really crappy too, because schools fot at-risk children seem like they could be beneficial... until you bring profit and business into it. Charter schools are definitely not looked at as a collaboration with public schools, but as a better alternative to them. This article has really opened my eyes to charter schools and the myths propagated about them.I don't want to be part of a school system that pushes their students because of NCLB, or one that has greater funds than any given public school. I don't want to be part of a school system that drops or expels students because they will bring a test average down. Reform has to start with the children, not the testing.

So I think it's important to look at those "other factors" when considering education reform. If 60 percent of achievement has nothing to do with the school, then we have to look at things another way. Finland is a great example of reform that went in the right direction. They didn't fire bad teachers, they worked to make them better. They built a national curriculum that includes more than just math and reading. As a science teacher, I whole-heartedly agree with this, and just downright love it. They also boosted welfare programs for families. To me, this is a key factor in their success. By strengthening aid to families, you minimize that gap that exists, at least financially. I don't know whether Finland's aid program involves helping parents find jobs or anything like that, but I think that's really important as well. I have seen welfare abused in many different situations and many different ways, and it pains me to know that children are watching their parents be dependent and learning from that. I want education and assistance to parents and families so they can get back on their feet; not become dependent on, and take advantage of, the system.

Of course, we don't have welfare reform yet, and so we have to look at education from where we are. My new school has a program in place this year called BARR (Building Assets, Reducing Risks) that comes from the Search Institute and is funded by some fancy grant we won. The school had been piloting it with a few small groups last year, and now they're prepared to go "whole hog" with it. It follows a social-emotional curriculum that aims to create a positive school climate for children. It helps teachers to be aware of factors such as home life, self-esteem, substance abuse and economic status that could have a detrimental effect on a student's successful development of "assets." These assets are broken into two categories: those that students have from birth (such as family support), and those that can be developed (such as commitment to learning). The focus is 100% on freshmen, who are the most at-risk according to the program. As teachers of freshman, there will be teams who have the same set of kids, and we'll meet weekly to discuss each of them and any concerns we have.

This is very different than any other teamwork I've done in schools, and much like horizontal teaming that I've heard about in middle schools. Since I've worked only in high schools, I've only ever experienced vertical teaming, where all the science teachers get together to complain. This format is really only helpful to upper level teachers who could potentially ask the previous year's teacher about a student, which they generally don't bother to do. And of course, they don't get input from any other current teachers. At the training for BARR, I compared these meetings to IEPs, because I feel like that is the only place I have ever been able to "compare notes" with a student's other teachers. I have high hopes for it, I just hope it doesn't take up too much of my valuable prep time!

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