Category Archives: Values

Don’t sacrifice the truth about charter schools in order to be agreeable

The New York Times just wrote a positive editorial about charter schools.

The editorial opened with this sentence [emphasis mine]:

“New York City is one of the rare places in the country where charter schools generally have made good on the promise to outperform conventional public schools in exchange for flexibility from the state that lets them lengthen the school day, alter the curriculum, do away with tenure and change how teachers are compensated.”

As a reminder, here’s the average effect of urban charter schools – from a study by the same researchers that the New York Times linked to in the above lead!

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So why did the New York Times write such a factually incorrect lead?

I think they probably did it to disarm those who might oppose them. By saying that most charter sectors have failed, they are aligning themselves with those suspicious of charter schools, which perhaps increases their ability to influence those on the fence.

This is a bad tactic. And it’s a habit I’ve been trying to kick: I too sometimes publicly hedge on the actual facts in order to relate to an audience.

This type of hedging is doubly dangerous.

First, it prizes short-term affiliation over the truth, which will eventually reduce your credibility when people find out what you really believe.

Second, you risk starting to believe yourself. It’s very difficult to maintain thoughtful and evidence driven policies under the best of circumstances. If you consistently say things you don’t really believe, you’ll soon forget what you really believe.

Here’s a better tactic: be expressive about values while you’re being direct about your beliefs.

Constantly talk about why you care about children, poverty, and the future of our country – at the same time you defend policies (like charter schools) that are controversial but impactful.

It’s good practice to expand the tent through shared values.

But don’t trade the truth for agreeableness.

It’s dishonest and counterproductive.

Having the Conversation Beforehand

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I spent the past two days in Charleston, South  Carolina.

My father, who recently passed away, is from South Carolina, so the visit had deep meaning for me.

More importantly, the conversation going in Charleston is steeped in meaning because of the city’s historical racial injustices and the recent horrific shooting at a house of worship.

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In education reform, a common critique is that reform is done to a community.

And, to be honest, when I visit cities I often give a talk or two, meet some political and philanthropic leaders, and then fly out.

This is probably the wrong thing to do.

On this trip, our hosts had us spend two hours with teachers and families at a public meeting before we opened our mouths.

I got to hear what some educators and families were going through; what their struggles were; what their hopes were.

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The picture above is from a panel that took place at a church the next day.

Before the panel began, an African-American high school student gave an overview of the data of the achievement of his peers.

It was not a white business leader telling a community that the schools weren’t good enough.

It was a black male teenager.

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A quick look at the picture above will make it clear that the panel had a diversity of views.

I’m associated with the charter school movement.

The leader sitting to my right, Kaya Henderson, is rightfully considered to be one of the best district leaders in the country.

We’re flanked by Dana Peterson and Chris Barbic, each of whom having been shaped by their own experiences: Dana as a labor organizer and Chris as a charter school founder and superintendent.

It’s rare that you get a former labor organizer, a sitting superintendent, a charter proponent, and a former charter and district CEO sitting on one panel.

All of the panelists, in my opinion, did a great job of being honest about what worked has worked in their cities, being open about what has failed, and clearly stating that the Charleston community has to blaze its own – and inevitably unique – path.

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In many cities, panels like this focus on what has happened. Local and national leaders opine on recent reforms efforts.

In Charleston, they are having the conversation beforehand.

Their community has yet to put forth a vision of what the coming years will hold for their schools.

But whatever path they choose, it will have been formed through robust and open public debate.

They are having the conversation beforehand.

Value Tensions in Education Reform

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Jennifer Berkshire (@edushyster) and Kristen Buras did an interview piece over at Huffington Post.

Both myself and the term relinquishment are mentioned, neither in a favorable light.

Towards the end to the interview, this exchange takes place:

Berkshire: …Isn’t there anything that you think is better about the new system?

Buras: No, not really. There is very little evidence that things have improved.

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There is a lot of evidence that things have improved, though there is still a long way to go.

I won’t rehash the student achievement arguments here.

I’ll just note what I’ve said before. Ignoring these results comes with the same risks as ignoring other scientific findings: those who are most vulnerable to bad policy will suffer the most. In this case, as in most cases, those most vulnerable are those living in poverty.

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Buras makes other points that are unrelated to the value of student achievement. These values, such as racial equity, community, and democracy, are also important.

Buras notes that the racial composition of teachers in New Orleans is now less African-American; that strict neighborhood zoned enrollment has been eliminated; that communities have not always been consulted in terms of facilities and program models; and that local democratic institutions, such as the Orleans Parish School Board, have had their power reduced.

This is all true.

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If, like Buras, you believe that there have been no gains in student achievement data, then evaluating the New Orleans reforms is an easy exercise: you will deem the effort a failure.

If, like me, you believe there have been significant gains in student achievement, then the question is more complicated.

On the question of the composition of the teaching force, I believe that, in aggregate, the teaching force in New Orleans before the storm was not strong enough. That being said, I think for both community and sustainability reasons, the long-term goal should be to develop strong local pipelines of diverse teachers.

On the question of zoned enrollment, I’ve written previously that fully zoned enrollment is an inequitable practice. I believe the current model in New Orleans is more just than the previous model.

On the question of community engagement, I agree that, at times, the Recovery School District has gone against the wished of community representatives. It is unclear to me that these representatives always spoke for families, but I do think they represent the opinions of a subset of the public. In cases of stark disagreement, I have been in favor of valuing the government’s gauge of predicted student achievement over vocal dissenting voices. I’m probably most conflicted on this value tension.

On the question of local, publicly elected education governance, I do not place major value on school board authority. Pragmatically speaking, I view local choice as a much more effective democratic power than local voting. Choice allows a family to allocate public tax dollars to educational institutions that work. Voting does not. Additionally, the constitutional duty to provide a sound public education is most often an enumerated responsibility of state government. I do not view the exercising of this authority as antidemocratic; rather, I think the opposite is true: abdicating this responsibility is a violation of a public duty.

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Any time public institutions are overhauled, values will collide.

The best we can do is articulate the tensions in these values, openly declare our reasons for weighing certain values over others, and try to be honest brokers of the data that might justify these conclusions.

In New Orleans, I believe the weak state of public education before Hurricane Katrina, coupled with the significant achievement gains post-Katrina, have justified putting student achievement as the primary value of the reform efforts.

Each will have to come to her own conclusion.