Monday, May 24, 2010

Charter and public schools side by side

Steven Brill had an amazing story in the New York Times Magazine within a longer story about how we might actually be approaching a tipping point on school reform. Brill is optimistic that somehow Race to the Top plus the pioneering work of pioneering school reformers aided by the contributions of philanthropists is starting to win ground in the states as support for true reform. But there are still those politicians who are so indebted to the teachers unions that they will still oppose the sorts of reforms that Race to the Top is supposed to support: using data to evaluate how successful teachers are instead of seniority and then rewarding teachers based on those efforts. The unions are still fighting such reforms in every jurisdiction they can. New York is a prime example where the unions forced legislators to block any lifting of the cap on charter schools. Brill tells of a charter school that exists in the exact same building as a regular public school. The contrast is telling.
A building on 118th Street is one reason that the parents who are Perkins’s constituents know that charters can work. On one side there’s the Harlem Success Academy, a kindergarten-through-fourth-grade charter with 508 students. On the other side, there’s a regular public school, P.S. 149, with 438 pre-K to 8th-grade students. They are separated only by a fire door in the middle; they share a gym and cafeteria. School reformers would argue that the difference between the two demonstrates what happens when you remove three ingredients from public education — the union, big-system bureaucracy and low expectations for disadvantaged children.

On the charter side, the children are quiet, dressed in uniforms, hard at work — and typically performing at or above grade level. Their progress in a variety of areas is tracked every six weeks, and teachers are held accountable for it. They are paid about 5 to 10 percent more than union teachers with their levels of experience. The teachers work longer than those represented by the union: school starts at 7:45 a.m., ends at 4:30 to 5:30 and begins in August. The teachers have three periods for lesson preparation, and they must be available by cellphone (supplied by the school) for parent consultations, as must the principal. They are reimbursed for taking a car service home if they stay late into the evening to work with students. There are special instruction sessions on Saturday mornings. The assumption that every child will succeed is so ingrained that (in a flourish borrowed from the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, a national charter network) each classroom is labeled with the college name of its teacher and the year these children are expected to graduate (as in “Yale 2026” for one kindergarten class I recently visited). The charter side of the building spends $18,378 per student per year. This includes actual cash outlays for everything from salaries to the car service, plus what the city says (and the charter disputes) are the value of services that the city contributes to the charter for utilities, building maintenance and even “debt service” for its share of the building.

On the other side of the fire door, I encounter about a hundred children at 9:00 a.m. watching a video in an auditorium, having begun their school day at about 8:30. Others wander the halls. Instead of the matching pension contributions paid to the charter teachers that cost the school $193 per student on the public-school side, the union contract provides a pension plan that is now costing the city $2,605 per year per pupil. All fringe benefits, including pensions and health insurance, cost $1,341 per student on the charter side, but $5,316 on this side. For the public-school teachers to attend a group meeting after hours with the principal (as happens at least once a week on the charter side) would cost $41.98 extra per hour for each attendee, and attendance would still be voluntary. Teachers are not obligated to receive phone calls from students or parents at home. Although the city’s records on spending per student generally and in any particular school are difficult to pin down because of all of the accounting intricacies, the best estimate is that it costs at least $19,358 per year to educate each student on the public side of the building, or $980 more than on the charter side.

But while the public side spends more, it produces less. P.S. 149 is rated by the city as doing comparatively well in terms of student achievement and has improved since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took over the city’s schools in 2002 and appointed Joel Klein as chancellor. Nonetheless, its students are performing significantly behind the charter kids on the other side of the wall. To take one representative example, 51 percent of the third-grade students in the public school last year were reading at grade level, 49 percent were reading below grade level and none were reading above. In the charter, 72 percent were at grade level, 5 percent were reading below level and 23 percent were reading above level. In math, the charter third graders tied for top performing school in the state, surpassing such high-end public school districts as Scarsdale.

Same building. Same community. Sometimes even the same parents. And the classrooms have almost exactly the same number of students. In fact, the charter school averages a student or two more per class. This calculus challenges the teachers unions’ and Perkins’s “resources” argument — that hiring more teachers so that classrooms will be smaller makes the most difference. (That’s also the bedrock of the union refrain that what’s good for teachers — hiring more of them — is always what’s good for the children.) Indeed, the core of the reformers’ argument, and the essence of the Obama approach to the Race to the Top, is that a slew of research over the last decade has discovered that what makes the most difference is the quality of the teachers and the principals who supervise them. Dan Goldhaber, an education researcher at the University of Washington, reported, “The effect of increases in teacher quality swamps the impact of any other educational investment, such as reductions in class size.”

This building on 118th Street could be Exhibit A for that conclusion.
I'm not as optimistic as Brill that Race to the Top will provide the necessary leverage to break the unions' chokehold on our nation's schools. I'm afraid that RTTP's requirements all involved sign off on a proposal have given the unions a veto pen over any true reform. So we'll get the appearance of reform without real reform.

But this story about the two schools sharing the same building is remarkable. Time and time again we hear of successful charter schools that all share similar approaches to school success: longer hours, a focus on college-preparation even for the youngest students, strict discipline, teacher availability after hours, and a reliance on data to target student weaknesses. Note that the regular public school is hamstrung by union rules from doing anything that would require teachers to spend extra time with students. Note that the charter school spends about $1000 less per student, but that the money they spent is targeted at facilitating more teacher contact with students while so much of the regular public school's money goes to teacher benefits and having to actually paying teachers overtime to attend a faculty meeting. That's a perk that I've never heard of.

It takes a lot out of a teacher to work in this sort of charter school to put in those long hours, but the payoff is clear. My daughter works at such a charter school in D.C. so I've heard first hand about the frustrations and rewards of being a teacher at such a school. I can well understand that ordinary teachers don't want to put in such efforts. But there are people who are willing to work that hard and who are inspired by the results. And their numbers are growing.

Perhaps Brill is correct that we are reaching a tipping point. I'm not so sure. But what is encouraging is that we now know what works. All we lack is the will to do more of it.