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Charter School Data Wars, Pinching Teachers' Pockets in Calif., and Taking It on the Chest for Physics

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Teacher Magazine's take on education news from around the Web, August 9-20.

Often staked on competing educational ideals, the battle over charter schools focused instead this week on a slice of test-score data unearthed from the U.S. Department of Education's Web site. Researchers with the American Federation of Teachers discovered that results from the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress collected by the department show charter students faring poorly compared with their counterparts in traditional public schools. The AFT's use of the federal data had a certain stinging irony—since the department itself, in keeping with the Bush administration's emphasis on school choice, has been an ardent supporter of charters. A number of charter backers, including Education Secretary Rod Paige, countered that the AFT ignored a number of important variables, such as that charters often serve the students who are most at risk. Even so, David Winnick, the chairman of the board that oversees the federal assessment, suggested that, in and of itself, the assessment data was basically solid: "The data is probably what it is," he said.

Adding to a rough PR week for charters, California Charter Academy—that state's largest charter school operator—announced that it has shuttered some 60 of its campuses, leaving nearly 10,000 students without schools as September approaches. The move was propelled by a new state law banning long-distance oversight of charter schools—CCA ran all 60 of its campuses under the auspices of four schools in three districts—as well as a state investigation into questions about the organization's finances and academic controls. Not surprisingly, the closings have generated a groundswell of resentment, not least among charter supporters. "Do not underestimate how frustrated the rest of the charter school community is with this one bad apple who abused the process," said Gary Larson of the California Charter Schools Association.

Meanwhile, many teachers in California are preparing to take a financial hit as they get their classrooms ready for the new school year. Under Governor Schwarzenegger's new, girlie-man-defiant budget, the state's $1,500 tax credit for teachers' out-of-pocket expenses for school supplies was suspended. A survey conducted by United Teachers Los Angeles found that its members spent an average of $1,047 on school supplies this past year. Some teachers and education advocates argue that now is an especially harsh time to lose the credit because, they say, many cash-strapped schools have had to cut spending on essential supplies—even, it appears, on things like mops. "Over the past few years, pay raises have been virtually nonexistent," reflected Michael Day, a veteran Long Beach teacher. "We've been fighting to keep health benefits. This is just another thing that cuts into [our] salaries."

Following up on a testing-scandal story highlighted earlier this summer in Web Watch, a Boston elementary school principal who was suspended for allegedly directing a class of 4th graders to redo their responses on a section of the Massachusetts standardized exam has been reinstated following district and state investigations. A district investigator determined that the evidence of Antoinette Brady's alleged misconduct—including testimonial letters handwritten by 17 of the students—was "inconclusive," a ruling supported by the state's education department. "I wouldn't want to be a kid in that school," lamented Jennifer Day, the teacher who initially reported the alleged incident. "They told their version of the events, and the district didn't believe it." Shortly after blowing the whistle on Brady in May, the teacher was pink-slipped—a move both she and her union believe was retaliatory, though the district denies it. Day would like to teach in Boston again.

Finally, if you're looking for ways to make an impression at the start of the new school year, you might want to look to Florida high school physics teacher Mark Torche for inspiration. (Then again, you might not.) Seeking to rivet his students' attention and teach a memorable lesson on the equalization of force, Torche had himself sandwiched between two really scary-looking nail beds. "It feels uncomfortable," Torche observed, in perhaps the understatement of the year, after three girls from the class stood on the top bed, but the educator emerged unharmed. Known for opening the school year with a bang—last year he walked on glass—Torche said the bed-of-nails lesson was meant to get students to question their assumptions. Lesson accomplished, we assume.

—Anthony Rebora

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