Anybody who knows me knows that I’ll pretty much talk to anybody, anytime, about anything. It doesn’t matter if you agree with me or not; I just like dialog and am fascinated at how people arrive at their positions. Therefore, when Superintendent Chris Barbic invited me to tour one of the charter schools that is part of the Achievement District, I said sure. I also asked Rep. Gloria Johnson and MNPS PAC chair Chelle Baldwin to join me.
The Achievement District, if you’re not familiar, is the brainchild of the state of Tennessee where the state will take over the bottom 5% of schools in TN and over 5 years move them into the top 25%. It’s a very noble endeavor, and of course involves all kinds of bold, new ideas with engaged classroom rockstars guiding the children. The state can’t do this alone so some of the schools get turned over to charter schools. Which means more bold ideas and more superstars of the classroom.
As a disclaimer, I’m sure you’ve picked up on it by now, I’m not a fan of charters or the particular idea of an achievement district. Tennessee’s ASD is modeled after Louisiana’s Recovery School District. Someday, if you have a couple of weeks, we’ll discuss the failings of the RSD. Though I must admit that it has been very successful in generating lawsuits. One other thing I should point out is that achievement districts are now popping up all over the country, Kansas and Michigan being the latest. Chief benefit seems to be the ability to by pass locally elected school boards.
All that said, I was very interested in seeing this experiment with my own eyes. I prepared myself to be wowed. After all I’ve read the testimonials and watched the uplifting Hollywood movies about the transformational power of Charter schools. My biggest argument has always been they may be good for some children but were they good for all children? What about the populations they traditionally underserved? I’ve never argued against their quality. So I was sure that I would witness some transformative classroom performances.
Upon entering the building I was immediately impressed with the curtesy and friendliness I was greeted with. I’ve heard political opponents mumble Chris’s name under their breath but I found him to be very open and engaging. Truth is, I like most of the people that I’ve met on the reform side. If we were just going to a BBQ I’d be quite happy to spend an afternoon with them. It’s only when they start talking diversity, best practices, failure of the public school system, teachers,… that I have to start taking exception.
To get a better understanding of the underlining principles and practices of the ASD and LEAD schools we sat down with Chris and LEAD CEO Chris Reynolds. They were very informative and, for the most part, quite transparent. Things got a little murky around test results and answering to locally elected officials, but, in their defense, talk to any schools administrator about test results and things get a little murky. I appreciated their candor and taking the time to help us understand better. To be honest though, some of their defenses and counter arguments sounded familiarly like my wife’s experiences in a traditional school.
Yes, children from a lower economic class move around more often. They do tend to start from a lower baseline. There is no magic bullet. Getting them up to grade level in a reasonable time is extremely difficult. None of this should deter these folks though. They were…CHARTER SCHOOL operators. I’ve seen “Waiting for Superman.” All this was just filler until we saw the jaw dropping results, right? Maybe this wasn’t Hollywood.
After about 40 minutes of talking, we decided to go see the rhetoric in action. We were allowed to observe actual classrooms. This is were I was hoping to see Michelle Pfeiffer. Alas, it was not to be. To be honest, what I observed was not at all what I expected. What I saw was a typical middle school in action, not that different from any other middle school I’ve been in.
I watched teachers conduct classes in rooms filled with students of varying degrees of engagement. There were some good lessons but I didn’t hear anything transformational. Truthfully some of it was fairly pedestrian. It was obvious that all the adults in the school cared deeply for the children, but then again every school I’ve ever been in has been populated by adults who cared deeply about kids. Kind of goes with the territory. You don’t go into the restaurant business if you dont like food.
I did get a pleasant reminder about the nature of children. The practice of “eye tracking” is something I’ve always found particularly abhorrent. Of course like many I was underestimating children and pictured it consisting of a classroom of children’s eyes locked on the instructor in zombie like fashion. I should have known better. Middle school children by nature never buy into anything that fully.
The reality is, the teacher calls for eye tracking and a few students instantly comply, a few sort of comply and some ignore. The teacher repeats her request and a few more comply. Those who initially ignored, bring about their eyes partially. The teacher once again repeats the request, and then moves on. Accepting the response she gets. Nothing Orwellian about it, but some good old fashion teenage rebellion and a lesson on remembering that children are more then just caricatures and sometimes subvert the best laid plans of adults.
After observing the class rooms, I asked point blank, “Whats the difference?” I received a response involving greater intensity, better parent buy in, extra hours, increased teacher accessibility, but all that is rhetoric for the most part. Teacher’s in traditional schools are just as accessible. Lesson plans can be just as intense. Depending on the school and parents capabilities, you can find parents just as engaged. Look at the incredible Dad’s group at Dan Mills.
It was also pointed out that school leadership was especially strong. Well, nobody has ever argued that strong leadership is not essential. Traditional schools with strong leadership do better then those with out. It’s interesting that so much focus has been placed on the effect of a quality teacher, while a disproportionate amount is focused on the leadership. Leadership is probably the single most important ingredient in creating the culture of a school.
My biggest take away from the whole experience was, why all the energy focused on a model that is already in existence? Instead of attempting to break down public education, why are charter school advocates not putting that energy, focus and experience into strengthening our traditional schools? Am I supposed to believe that no one would hire Chris Barbic, Chris Reynolds, Ravi Grupa or Todd Dickson as superintendents? I find that hard to believe.
Now they may have to spend some additional time climbing the ladder so to speak. They may have to put some extra time into “hands on in the school hallways” work before being elevated to these positions, but would that be a bad thing? These are extremely bright dedicated young men. When I think of the impact they could have if they were to use those gifts to strengthen our public institutions, it makes me sad to realize that they choose to work in systems that limit their scope.
Maybe I’m supposed to believe that traditional schools wouldn’t give them the avenues to practice their particular skill set. I don’t buy it. I can think of very few educators that wouldn’t relish the opportunity to apply their abilities to our most difficult schools. Again, if they went that route, they might not be courted by the mayors office or have their picture in the paper. They might not have the autonomy they now are afforded. However, they would be working to preserve a greater good.
When I think of the amount of resources and energy focused on creating a similar system outside an existing system, it infuriates me. Look at the state Race to the Top scope of work and see how much money KIPP has raised and received through state grants and you’ll be shocked. They are expected to raise 1 million dollars by June 1. Name me one other school in MNPS that would have that capability and then receive 600k from the state. There is even a plan currently being pitched in Nashville to give charter operators start up money if they go into South Nashville. Maybe our kids wouldn’t have been cold during the last cold snap if our local schools had that kind of resources.
This is where I start to think about motivations and question why the need for charter schools? What is the real reason supporters are pushing so hard to create even more charter schools? What is the end game? If we keep adding charters and closing traditional schools, what our educational system of the future look like? We only have to look at New Orleans to get a glimpse of a system were the vast majority attend a charter school. A system where a parents has to go to the state level to get any redress because they have no locally elected official.
Perhaps we need to step back and evaluate the whole system, instead of focusing just on select schools. Perhaps we need to more closely examine why we educate our children? Is it for democratic or capitalistic purposes? Is there not room under the current system to foster more of the innovation that transpires daily? Instead of getting Race to the Top dollars to refurnish old Malls, why couldn’t we be useing that money to repair damage in our existing schools? Instead of picking sides and calling each other “Charter Zealots” and “Defenders of the Status Quo” couldn’t that energy be better focused on strengthening our public school system?
Let’s never underestimate the importance of that system. Advocates for education reform often like to say that it is all public education and that it should not matter what form a school takes, just that its a good school. That’s not necessarily true. While it’s may be true that individual schools can have a different look, what the system itself looks like is critical.
Our education system is a pillar of our democratic society. It is overseen by locally elected officials who are charged with ensuring that it produces graduates who are not just employable, but capable stewards of the world we’ve created. A separate system that answers to board members or state officials while by-passing locally elected officials does not uphold that pillar.