Sunday, May 27, 2012

The School Choice Dichotomy

The issues of school choice and the use of vouchers represent one of the most vexing controversies in the national debate, vexing because both advocates and opponents have strong, legitimate arguments to be made for them.

The lens with which one looks through says a lot about their general approach to education reform. The dichotomy illuminates one’s belief in the nature of the relationship between the individual and the community. The positions are intractable and so political power and political victory rather than a philosophical triumph are the presumptive goals.
This is School Choice Week, bringing the issue to the forefront of the presidential campaign. Mitt Romney’s visit to a Philadelphia charter school, along with President Obama’s vocal support for public education, shows that their view on these issues could have electoral ramifications.

The problem for people like me is that I support both positions and believe that they are not mutually exclusive. The reason is that advocates of school choice and vouchers believe that parents should have the right to choose which school their children attend, while opponents passionately defend the right of ALL students- not individual ones-to a quality education. They unfortunately see school choice and vouchers a threat, though they are no more a threat than charter schools have proven (not) to be.

It is hard not to feel empathy for parents that are fully engaged in their children’s education, frustrated by the obvious inequities they see every day. Why can’t their children have the same opportunities, the same exposure to exemplary teachers, the same advantage of attending a school with a vigorous culture of learning. The reasons for this inequity are complex, some requiring years of urban planning to rectify. Some are more immediate and addressable.

There are practical impediments to the school choice/voucher plan, the most obvious being the availability of “seats” in quality schools. Where seats do exist, mostly in parochial schools, First Amendment issues invariably get raised. The value of the voucher has also been a hindrance; the tuition gap is still immense and difficult to fund without some dedicated funding. Personally, I feel that parents should receive the same “per pupil” amount of money   that charter schools receive for each enrollee.
Opponents of this plan are rightly concerned that a consequence of school choice will be a siphoning off of the best students at these urban schools, not necessarily the smartest but those who are the most involved, most perspicacious, and  most likely to advocate for themselves. All I can say in response is that these urban schools must do a better job embracing new ideas and must do a better job creating a culture of learning at their school. Right now there is nothing going on at these schools to persuade these “choice parents” to take what they perceive is the risk of keeping their children in the urban public school.

So in my view the advocates and opponents of school choice/vouchers both have legitimate arguments to support their positions, that the positions are not mutually exclusive, and that room for compromise is possible. The one place where I think the choice people are flirting with delusion is the notion that “competition” is the best tonic for fixing what ails the public schools. I really don’t think the people that believe this have ever taken this argument past the stage of concept. In a sense competition already exists, albeit the playing field is not level since those seeking alternatives to the neighborhood school must come up with money for an alternative school. Even if every family wanting to send their child to an existing private or parochial school was able to do so, the number of “seats” to be filled with these new students would hardly make a dent in the dropout rates at the public schools. How would competition work? Are we to essentially eliminate public schools and basically turn all of these schools into charter schools? What happens to kids that attend a failing school, where do they turn? Are parents going to be equipped with all the relevant information so that they can make choices as a fully informed consumer? And what of the teachers’ union, would they have members suddenly competing against each other within a school or between schools?

For the record, those that wrote the original charter school legislation in New Jersey did NOT advocate competition among their rationales for charter schools. Rather, they believed that collaboration and cooperation between public and charter schools, sharing innovative ideas for instruction, would be an important way to improve teacher performance and student learning outcomes.

Individual students have a basic right to a quality education, and their parents should have as much freedom as possible to advocate for their children. At the same time, it is incumbent on our political and educational leaders to design public policy for the benefit of all students, and that can only be done by making a commitment to the neighborhood school. Schools do not exist in isolation; education reform and urban reform are inextricably linked.

I’ve written elsewhere that if the dropout rate were instead an infection rate, New Jersey’s cities would have declared a health crisis, if they were crime rates we would have called in the National Guard. The problem we are facing has its roots in neighborhoods that are completely dysfunctional, with families led by a parent or parents who either won’t or can’t make the effort it takes to help their children succeed. If I was a parent who cared, in a community of parents that don’t, I’d want to get my kid out of that school too. Unlike wealthier parents, they don’t have the luxury of moving, they don’t in essence have “choice.” Unless we improve these urban communities, and unless we as a society do a better job at parenting, in fact confronting poor parenting where it is in evidence, improvement in the inner city schools will continue to elude us, giving more and more credence to families that want to opt out. I share their pain, and I sympathize with their plight. In a nation that cherishes the notion of individualism, their position must be respected.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Tale of Two Trenton High Schools

The recent revelations concerning the dropout/graduation rates at Trenton’s two high schools were disheartening and foreboding of a difficult future for the City of Trenton. It is simply inconceivable that the city, and by extension the State, can support a population of young people with no meaningful education to prepare them for a life of relative independence. There can be no doubt that without some form of training or return to school another generation of dependent citizens will now be residing in Trenton and the surrounding communities. With no industry to speak of, access to the kind of jobs that will generate income high enough to maintain a home, let alone a family, will be next to impossible to find. It is generally accepted as fact that a high school diploma alone is no longer sufficient to open doors to job pathways of any consequence. Compounding this problem is the fact that New Jersey’s graduation test, the HSPA, yields practically no empirical data which would indicate what actual knowledge and skills our teenagers have truly learned in high school. Do today’s graduates have the content knowledge and practical skills to exist in today’s workforce or run a financially sound household; the answer is anyone’s guess!!

So we can all agree that a high school education is far from sufficient for anyone interested in upward mobility in today’s economy. In Trenton, only half of all students even graduate. The challenges being faced by the District are enormous. What is even more disturbing about the graduation rate in Trenton is the huge disparity between the city’s two high schools. Trenton Central’s graduation rate is far below 50%, but Trenton West can “boast” a graduation rate of 75%!!! It is incumbent on city and school officials to dig into these numbers and discern why such a disparity exists. This is a potential minefield, because discussion of the likely “culprits” for this disparity will raise the ire of a great number of people. At first glance, it seems logical to assign responsibility for these numbers to three groups of stakeholders, the teachers, the administrators, and the parents.
There will definitely be those who will point to the quality of the faculty in the two schools and question whether a fair distribution of exemplary teachers has been achieved; a prima facie case can be made that the teachers at Trenton Central lack the relative competency demonstrated by the faculty at Trenton West, but just try to conduct a comparative study of union members at the two schools. That ain’t happening!
Blame can also be assigned to the administrators at the two schools and their ability to inspire and motivate both the faculty and the student body to pursue excellence in what they do. I’m sure that there is plenty of talk of high achievement at Trenton Central, but the outcomes don’t match the rhetoric. I’m sure the administrators are honest, principled, goal oriented leaders, but it is clear that the culture of learning at Trenton Central is clearly dysfunctional.
And finally we need to look at the families of those attending each high school. I am admittedly basing my opinion on observations of the communities that “feed” each school, along with anecdotal information gleaned from extemporaneous conversations with “locals,” but here goes: the families that make up the West community are more middle class, there are more professional parents, more traditional family structures, more home ownership, and older parents. Do these variables correlate with greater academic success for children in these families? I don’t have the figures in front of me, but I’m going to make a leap of faith and say, emphatically, YES!
Awareness of this reality won’t in and of itself do anything to close the gap between the two schools, and it bears repeating that the status quo at both schools is unacceptable. Maybe some form of busing is needed to create a more balanced demographic at each school. I have been arguing for years that the city needs to create some type of incentive to entice middle class families to relocate into the city and have their kids attend public schools. These communities need role models, they need home ownership, and they need racial and socioeconomic diversity.
Reforming these local communities will help provide a long term solution. So will enforcing the law requiring that homes and rental properties be free of lead paint. But the urgency to correct the dropout rate demands immediate action to fix the culture of learning at these schools. That will be the subject of my next post. I’d love to know how you feel about the disparity between the two high schools: what are the causes, and what would you do to correct it?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Give a Reprieve to Emily Fisher Charter School

The case of Emily Fisher Charter School is an intriguing one. By all accounts, the school is definitely lagging behind almost all other New Jersey high schools in its test scores and graduation rate. Its founder, Dallas Dixon, seems to be one of the most sincere, dedicated, compassionate school leaders I have ever read about. There is no doubt whatsoever that he is completely committed to the school and to the lives of the children that attend the School’s two campuses. His compassionate leadership has fostered a climate of care and concern for the kids from among the faculty. From everything I have read they truly believe they are “fighting the good fight” and not just trying to protect their positions.
The public support for EFCS is also astounding. I regularly drive though Trenton and see signs of support in all quarters of the city, whether it be placards espousing support or notices for rallies and fundraisers to help sustain the School and its determination to stay open. The support would seem to come from both EFCS families and many others in the community.

The State has ordered the school shuttered, citing the poor test scores, slow pace of improvement, high absence rates among students, and low graduation rates. The empirical data is clearly stacked up against Emily Fisher. On that basis alone, the School should close.

But like I said this is an intriguing case, and it raises the issue of whether data alone should be the requisite for the life or death of charter schools. As is detailed in the papers, many of the students at Emily Fisher are classified as Special Education students. I know from experience as a teacher, and from listening to stories from my ex-wife, a wonderful Special Ed teacher in the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District, that teaching these students is extremely demanding; these students need individualized instruction, flexibility with assessment design, and an overall level of care that is time consuming, expensive, and complex. It also requires a greater level of parental engagement than with most mainstream students. Their test scores tend to be lower as a group, and in fact these students oftentimes require modifications to the procedures and structures used by assessors.

Many of the students at EFCS also come from troubled backgrounds, forcing them to deal with a host of exigencies that would burden any student, regardless of their academic and intellectual strengths. If there were ever a cohort of students where success must be measured in ways other than test scores, this would be them. I have been moved by many of the stories I have read about students at EFCS. It would be hard for any reasonable person not to see that the School has had a positive effect on their attitudes and their outlook for the future. The School has had a profound effect on their personhood.

The case of Emily Fisher makes it clear that the Department of Education CANNOT simply rely on test scores as the basis for their judgment on Emily Fisher Charter School. I have no doubt that a viable action plan can be developed, one that includes greater communication between EFCS and “successful” charters, greater engagement from the business community and other stakeholders, a commitment to professional development, a strategy to combat absenteeism, and maybe the inclusion of a clinical supervisor to help guide the faculty. With a plan in place, I have no doubt that the students at Emily Fisher Charter School will show improvements in their academic outcomes commensurate with the strong personal growth that few people can deny has occurred. I urge Commissioner Cerf to reconsider; Emily Fisher can be an important case study of what happens when people are given a second chance.