Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Revolutionary education reform

Bobby Jindal is going all in to push education reform in Louisiana. Already, New Orleans has the most charter schools in the country with 80% of students enrolled in charter schools. The results have been a marked improvement in how students are doing and a narrowing of the racial gap in student achievement. Now Jindal wants to take those results statewide and he wants to use choice and limits on teacher tenure to totally reform the education system. He is proposing to offer vouchers (or as they're now being called "scholarships") to all low-income student whose school gets a C, D or F grade from state administrators. They could use those vouchers for "private or virtual schools, career-based programs or institutions of higher education" using money from what the state would normally spend on students.

Jindal would increase the number of charter schools statewide to follow the success of New Orleans. And he would take a whack at teacher tenure.
As for tenure, Mr. Jindal would grant it only to teachers who are rated "highly effective" five years in a row, meaning the top 10% of performers. And tenure wouldn't equal lifetime protection: A tenured teacher who rates in the bottom 10% ("ineffective") in any year would return to probationary status. Ineffective teachers would receive no pay raise. Louisiana would also ban the "last in, first out" practice under which younger teachers are dismissed first, regardless of performance.
Of course the teachers unions are all over this. But they're having a harder time trying to argue that parents shouldn't have choice in picking their children's education.
Louisiana Association of Educators leader Michael Walker Jones took to insulting Bayou State parents: "If I'm a parent in poverty I have no clue because I'm trying to struggle and live day to day," said Mr. Jones of parental choice. How's that for faith in self-government?
This just reeks of paternalism. Jindal's message is that parents care enough about their children to look for the schools that will provide the best opportunities for those children. Just watch any of the documentaries such as Waiting for Superman or The Lottery that have been done about the agonies that parents go through as they wait to see if their students will win the lottery to get out of the regular public schools and into a charter. And teachers will have to depend on their performance rather than seniority or tenure to maintain their jobs. What a revolutionary concept for education.

Governor Jindal is pushing for revolutionary education reform on the state level. If his bill passes, we will have a real-life laboratory of democracy to assess whether such reforms, which conservatives have been pushing for years, actually make a difference. The Republicans have majorities in both houses of the state legislature so we can hope that the reforms will pass. Then I imagine that researchers will be keeping their eyes on the results to assess if the reforms make any difference.

Here in my area we're witnessing a small example of how the education blob opposes change. Since the Republicans took over the North Carolina legislature, they loosened the limitations on charter schools. A good friend of mine is involved in the creation of a new charter school, Research Triangle High that sounds as if it will offer marvelous opportunities for students. It will be focused on STEM education, that is science, technology, engineering, and mathematics using experiential learning and giving students opportunities to intern with businesses in the area. The teachers will also be collaborating with teachers around the state to bring their educational techniques to schools that need help with teaching those subjects. It sounds very exciting and a great opportunity for area students. So of course, the existing school system, Durham Public Schools, is furiously trying to block the opening of the school.
“RTHS will function effectively as a de facto private school supported by taxpayers,” reads a draft of the board’s resolution.

Board member Natalie Beyer, who drafted the original resolution, said she’s particularly concerned by what she sees as barriers to low-income students attending the school: the need for at-home technology to utilize a “flipped learning” model in which students listen to lectures at home; a location “away from where students of need live”; and a requirement that students complete at least Algebra I by the end of their freshman year.

Board members are also concerned by what they see as small transportation and nutrition budgets, $22,200 and $16,650, respectively, for 160 students in the 2012-13 academic year.

....“We’ve yet to successfully create separate but equal. We’ve never been able to do that as a society, and that is what this is creating,” said board Vice Chairwoman Heidi Carter, noting that more than 75 percent of DPS students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. “We need [RTHS] to share the burden of educating children with social challenges.”

Board member Leigh Bordley said she’s heard concerns about RTHS from Durham County residents, dismayed by what they see as a re-segregation of schools unfolding in the Wake school system.

“I can’t count the number of people [who have said] if we allow things like this to go forward, we’re deepening the segregation of our own community,” she said.

Blizzard [who wrote the school's charter application] said diversity is important to RTHS and that she’s not worried about the potential for homogeny because “we’re working so hard to that the school is working to recruit from a really diverse and broad student population.”

She said the proposed school is interested in collaborating with DPS programmatically, noting that the Contemporary Science Center has long worked with DPS schools to enrich students’ education. Blizzard is also interested in partnering with DPS on resources, infrastructure and transportation, but she said she hasn’t had conversations with the district about a potential collaboration since the school’s application has yet to be approved.

Concerns about students having to take Algebra I by the end of the ninth grade aren’t valid, she said, noting that most North Carolina teenagers already take the course by that point.
Since Pamela Blizzard also helped found the school where I teach, Durham Public Schools is also upset about our school's success.
The school’s application was filed by Pamela Blizzard, executive director of the RTP-based Contemporary Science Center and a founder of Raleigh Charter High School – designated by the state as an Honor School of Excellence since 2005 and a fixture on national rankings like Newsweek’s America’s Best High Schools list.

But those accolades come at the cost of diversity, board members suggested. Data on the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools website shows that Raleigh Charter’s student population in 2010-11 was 73.1 percent white, 13.2 percent Asian, 6 percent black, 2.5 percent Latino and 5.2 percent other. That contrasts with demographics from the same year in the Wake County Public School System: 49.3 percent white, 6.3 percent Asian, 24.7 percent black, 15 percent Latino and 4.7 percent other.
Like all charters in our state, admission to our school is by a blind lottery. Siblings receive preference. The only requirement is that students be able to enter Algebra I in 9th grade which is the minimal goal of North Carolina's math curriculum.

What is striking to me is that the Durham Public Schools, instead of being happy to have an exciting public school opportunity offered for their students, all they can do is complain and try to block the reform. They could embrace the new school and try to work with it. They could encourage their middle school students to apply. Then they see about adopting successful methods. But they'd rather keep the status quo than try to see how experimental reform could offer new opportunities for their area's students.

The more that such reforms as this school or Louisiana's statewide plan, the more that the existing schools are challenged to change and improve. And they're being dragged kicking and screaming all the way.