Thursday, September 07, 2006

Hiding choices from poor families

Clint Bolick has a very distressing column in the Wall Street Journal today looking at how the education bureaucracy, including the federal Department of Education, have been neglecting to inform parents of the over 300,000 students in failing schools in Los Angeles that they have the right to transfer to a different school. As a result, fewer than 2 out of 1000 students have applied for transfers.
In L.A., the district has squelched school choice for children in failing schools by evading deadlines for notifying families of their transfer options; burying information in bureaucratese; and encouraging families to accept after-school supplemental services (often provided by the same district employees who fail to get the job done during the regular school day) rather than transfers. Still, the district insists that the reason for the low transfer numbers is that parents don't want their kids to leave failing schools.

That explanation rings false because, well, it is. The Polling Company surveyed Los Angeles and Compton parents whose children are eligible to transfer their children out of failing schools. Only 11% knew their school was rated as failing, and fewer than one-fifth of those parents (just nine out of 409 surveyed) recalled receiving notice to that effect from the districts--a key NCLB requirement. Once informed of their schools' status and their transfer rights, 82% expressed a desire to move their children to better schools.
Unfortunately, NCLB does not provide the opportunity for these students to move to private schools, so that freedom of choice is not open to them. Attempts to add private schools to NCLB have not gotten far. But it is still infuriating that the Los Angeles Public Schools are ignoring their legal requirement to inform these families of their options or even that their children are attending failing schools. The Secretary of Education has talked big about threatening the school district, but so far has done nothing more than talk. Bolick calls on Secretary Spellings to take action.
Were Ms. Spellings to yank federal funding and make an example of LAUSD, it would be the shot heard round the education world. School districts across the nation finally would have to enlist all possible options--interdistrict transfers, charter schools, private schools--to aid children stuck in failing schools. And, if past experience holds true, those schools finally will have a spur for improvement as their students leave and take funds with them.

But for now, LAUSD is calling Ms. Spellings's rhetoric. The California media seems to agree: Not a single major newspaper has reported on the secretary's threat to withhold federal funds, which if taken seriously ought to constitute front-page news.

NCLB is a flawed law in many respects. Still, it may represent the last true hope, at the national level, to ensure that our education system truly leaves no child behind. The establishment is chafing furiously under the tethers of accountability. If these slip away, it is unlikely that any politician will have the courage to buckle them back down again.
No one hates NCLB more than teachers. They can't stand having to prepare kids for the tests and having their students' achievement levels being used as a measure for the success of their own teaching. Any time I've been in a meeting of teachers, all I hear are complaints. The assumption is always that, if I'm a teacher, I must oppose such accountability measures. When I ask the teachers how they would prefer to be held accountable for their teaching, they have no suggestions. They would actually prefer to go back to the old ways when no one really looked at whether their students were learning or not.

So, I'm that rare anomaly of a teacher who doesn't shudder and make the sign of the cross to ward off the evil NCLB. My concerns are that the tests sometimes are poorly designed or that the pass rates are not evenly designed around the country. But these defects can be addressed. The basic concept of accountability is sound. But it only works if their is a viable stick for schools that are consistently failing their students. That is the great beauty of charter schools. If the charter school fails, it can be shut down. If a regular public school fails, nothing happens. That is the true tragedy as these students are warehoused in failing schools and just passed along year after year until they drop out or are graduated without knowing how to read adequately.

My daughter links to this letter by Mark Lerner about charter schools and the opportunities they offer for introducing competition and accountability into education.
Competition for students is a healthy phenomenon. The central tenet behind school choice is that pressure from the threat of departing students will force all schools to improve. Unfortunately, experience has shown that traditional public schools lose about 25 percent of their students before they react. Fear of competition is exactly why D.C. School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey has called for a moratorium on new charters at this time.

· Failing charter schools are closed. Education malpractice has gone on in the District for years, yet not one traditional public school has been shuttered for poor performance. Charter schools face a level of accountability from their authorizing bodies that public institutions do not.

· One solution does not fit all. This has been a central problem with mainstream educational institutions. Students are presumed to learn the same way and at the same rate. But parents know this is not the case, and children who have struggled in their neighborhood schools have excelled in charters that distinctively fit their needs.
Right now about a quarter of Washington D.C.'s students are in charter schools. We will have a real opportunity right in the nation's capital to see the strengths of the charter movement and the opportunities it provides for students in a failing school district.