Monday, September 27, 2010

SFGate: Charter schools defy recession - 89 set to open

This from SFGate:
Public charter schools in California are skirting the worst impact of the state's budget crisis while traditional public schools shorten the school year, increase class sizes and lay off teachers and staff by the thousands.

Nearly 90 more charter schools could open this fall, helped in many cases by an infusion of federal government and philanthropic support. Many of the schools are cutting costs by hiring less-experienced teachers who earn lower salaries than veteran teachers.

The expansion of charter schools is a key element in the education agenda of the Obama administration, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has enthusiastically backed the movement. The original goal of charter schools was to develop new education models that regular public schools could emulate. Now they are generating new strategies to survive tough economic times.


  1. The one thing that excites me about the charter school movement is the principal's ability to hire and fire teachers.

    At the end of the day, I don't care about anything else but the quality of the teachers.

    The charter schools can do what the rest of SFUSD can not... move swiftly to fire and replace a poor performing teacher. Whether they do this well, will determine the quality of the program. Some will do it well and be successful, some will not.

  2. The biggest obstacle to firing bad teachers is the lack of principal leadership at many schools. There is a process in place for getting rid of bad teachers, but few principals elect to use it.

    At my kids' school, we have a relatively new principal who is an excellent administrator and leader. Among other reforms, he is implementing a strong review and probable layoff process for a few teachers using the existing process. He supports the protections that teachers have and is using the process that he has. He has the support of the vast majority of teachers at the school.

    There is an article in the NY Times today about Brockton High School in Massachusetts. This is a poor, working class city south of Boston whose large high school has been turned around in part through the efforts of teachers, with the backing of their union. Some teachers were let go in the process because they were not on board with reform--but they were let go through the process in place. It's an interesting article, also because it makes the point that the school size fetish of recent years is not the panacea.

    I agree that there are bad teachers out there. And burned out ones. At all schools and types of schools, including parochial and private by the way. Principals (and headmasters) need to step us and lead on this one.

    On the flip side, one criticism of charters is that they use up and burn out their cadre of young, low-paid workers who are asked to go above and beyond, working late every day, on weekends, etc., with fewer job protections. Many leave the profession before they gain the experience that (imo) is needed to reach the sweet spot of still energetic but also really good at classroom management, experienced with which lessons really work, and so on. Charter schools are filled with youngster teachers who will work an exploitative job. They may be enthusiastic, but are they really the best teachers?

    There is a huge ideological debate going on, and understandably reform-minded parents are being drawn into the fight to support union-busting organizations. "Waiting for Superman" is a tear-jerker, but is misses some of the realities of charter schools (which overall perform no better than traditional schools despite their advantages of a self-selected and school-selected population). You could easily make a movie about the families that got suckered into one of the many horrible charters that populate our core urban cities these days (but they are charters, so untouchable). Caveat--yes, there are some good charters. I don't bash the experimental model or having some alternatives. But they are not a scalable model for most districts.

    Here is my more moderate view. School reform needs to happen. But it will never happen, ever, without the support of the teachers who will be the ones to carry it out. We will do better as parents if we engage the teachers in a collaborative way to do what Brockton High School did, and work with their representative organization, their union, to ensure that they have adequate protections and good jobs in the process. Then use the process to let go the ones that are not engaged or capable. Good teachers want this too.

    If you hear people talking reform while bashing teachers, then know they are not serious about reform.

  3. I see your point, but I also think that having too much teacher churn (in any school) is a bad thing for a school. I think that evaluating teachers is a hard thing to do, because each group of students is different. I hope that a charter school can effectively evaluate it's teachers, and not become a politicized game of "favorites" of the principal, because I can't see how that would be useful.

    What disappoints me about charter schools is that they were supposed to be a way to find new, better ways of teaching, and it seems that they found them: kick out (or "counsel out") difficult or underperforming students and attract money from private donors. It seems that this is what what private and parochial schools have been doing for a long time, but "regular" public schools don't do this. The Special Ed inclusion program is the opposite of "counseling out" and the district doesn't have any logical way to attract philanthropic donations (though I did see that the Gates foundation will be giving some money to SFUSD).

    So, we've "learned" the lesson, but have chosen to ignore it. Interesting choice.

  4. 11:52,

    Well said. Bravo!

    Re: SF Gate article - Charters are impacted by the recession as much as traditional public schools. The difference is that the laws have been loosened to make it easier to start them and there is both targeted public and private funding available.

    The other giant issue is the top heavy bureaucratic mandates that suck up half the education dollars. People talk about paying teachers more. Where is that money going to come from? There is very little public support to increase taxes for public education when there is a 24/7 media blitz about its failures. We need to rewrite the education code and deliver the dollars directly to the schools. This will help to eliminate a tremendous amount of red tape and waste. It will also prevent central office politicians from funneling money in order to buy votes as SFUSD is doing with this year's budget.

  5. I need to clarify this statement:

    "The difference is that the laws have been loosened to make it easier to start them and there is both targeted public and private funding available."

    This funding was available long before the recession. When the cost of real estate is factored into charters, they are operating at somewhat of a disadvantage.

  6. Speaking of charter hype, here is a great point-by-point debunking of the documentary film "Waiting for Superman," on The Answer Sheet blog at the Washington Post:

    I found this link over on Rachel Norton's blog, where she also links to her own review of the movie--and to the New York Times article on Brockton High School cited above. Apparently she'll be talking on Michael Krasney's show on KQED about this film.

  7. Charters are not hype. There is hype within the industry just as there is in every industry. But the idea of charters is simply a way to cut through much of the red tape that bogs down reform on so many levels in traditional public schools.

  8. Don, I think that was the original idea, and why it was supported by key leaders in the teacher's union including Al Shanker. And some schools do indeed incubate good ideas when given more flexibility.

    However, charter schools are certainly being hyped to the max--not just like any old industry right now. From Obama to Duncan to Gates, Broad and the Walton family with all their bucks, now NBC and Waiting for Superman, charters are the "answer."

    Except that they are not in fact the second coming: not scalable for one thing, as most schools can't counsel students in or out, most schools don't have big philanthropy money, and anyway it's not clear what difference "charter" per se means in terms of achievement. Some charters are great and many are "meh" and others are awful. I can find some great traditional public schools too, many that are "meh" and some that are awful.

    Geoffrey Canada's organization in Harlem is so well-funded by private philanthropy that it is basically a private school in a low-income setting. Now, the wrap-around services they provide, along with (crucially) the strong leadership, are to be emulated.

    If ONLY Obama had money on the table when he said the other day that schools should have a longer school year and lots more services to offer. I mean, a longer school year? Does he not realize that his own state of birth cut 17 days last year? And we know about the 4 here in SF.

  9. 11:33,

    What you hear about is the hype on both sides. Most of the 5,000 plus charter schools in the US are not part of this old boys network, but independents. You say charters aren't scalable, but with the low levels of academic proficiency demonstrated across the nation, it seems that traditional public schools aren't scalable either, or they are limited in their scalability.

    It is late, but being no fan of Obama I would like to ask - why, if education is the number one priority as he says, did he spend only $4 billion of the 800 or so billion on education?

    I do not believe that public school money should go to any for-profit managers or operators.

  10. The teacher's union will defend a bad teacher to the grave no matter how bad he/she is.

    It takes a major commitment by parents and a principal working together to get a teacher removed.

    The "Dance of the Lemons" follows. The teacher is merely transferred to another school.

    I would be a much bigger union supporter if it didn't blindly defend incompetent teachers.

  11. But everybody, please keep in mind that the states where union protections are non-existent tend to be the states with the lowest academic achievement -- and the converse is true too. That completely debunks the entire premise of "Waiting for Superman."

  12. I'd like to see some statistics, Caroline.