Education Opinion

When Should Teachers Have Opportunities to Create New Schools?

By Deborah Meier — April 16, 2015 5 min read
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Today Deborah Meier and Joe Nathan continue their discussion about giving educators the ability to create new public schools. Deborah begins, and Joe responds.

Dear Joe,

Thanks for sending me the information about the charter school sponsored by Chapman University. I met with their faculty some years go and discovered we were on the same page. My son, Nick, has done some online courses for them. I get so mad when I realize that the regular systems have not embraced such young people and found ways to help them within the system. How come there are so few Tony Alvarados to start such districts, or unions like Boston’s to initiate Pilots? Of course, both were started 20 years ago before charters really picked up steam.

I’ve become a complete nonbeliever in all numeric data. Not because it’s all bad, but because I’d need to know too much to tell the frauds from the honest research. Having done my own manipulating with data--picking the ones I liked, finding the data that would make us look best, and probably unconsciously a few other sins. It’s just too darned easy to cheat. And there are too few researchers who are agnostic on the issues--or can put their biases truly aside.

And the long-run kind of research that would be most useful (like the eight-year study done in the 1930s) is now out of fashion. I only once got any grant money to do that--it was from Exxon, of all places. David Bensman, of Rutgers, carried the research out and it was very reassuring. We tried to do it again 10 years later and couldn’t find a funder. It’s expensive, although it would not be quite so if we kept in touch with our graduates from day one. Tracking what happened to students who leave earlier is also vital but harder still. Although no one paid much attention to the eight-year study, focused on high schools, in fact.

And, as you know, early childhood studies are based on the assumption that one’s instructional reading model is based on explicit teaching of phonics, blending, etc. etc. Since ours isn’t/wasn’t, we actually looked good over time since our early scores were so bad!!!

I’m tired of hearing about the absence of alternatives. They mean equally cheap tests that also make money for test makers! For large-scale data, they could sample. But for the use of families, schools, and teachers, the ones now in use are useless, and the alternatives are teacher/child/family friendly.

Yes, it would be cheaper to evaluate new drivers without a road test.


Joe responds:

Deb, first some good news and then a few comments on what you wrote. Yesterday the Minnesota Senate K-12 Education Finance Committee announced it was proposing $1 million to help district teachers start teacher-led schools. That’s very encouraging. The Minnesota House Committee suggested modifying the current site-governed school law to include the teacher led phrase, but has not included any startup funds. Differences will be worked out In a House-Senate conference committee in the next month.

Second, you ask a terrific question about why what happened in Boston with the Pilot Schools and with Tony Alvarado in East Harlem is not more common. I want to respond next week as I think it’s a critical question.

Now, as to your skepticism about numerical data that various authors and groups use to support their points: I agree. There are so many examples.

Our Minnesota Department pointed out that statewide reading test scores declined and pointed out that the test had been changed, and become more difficult. Fair enough.

This was followed in a year or so by the Department pointing out that high school graduation rates were up. But the press release did not mention that the rules had changed. Minnesota students are no longer required to pass reading and writing tests, which they had been previously.

A local school district noted its graduation rate had increased, again without noting that the rules had changed as mentioned above.

People have cited the same study and used their interpretation to support or oppose a variety of reform efforts.

The Minneapolis-based Star Tribune recently published a story criticizing collaboration between the school district and the Minneapolis Urban League. The story suggested that the Urban League may have charged twice for the same students in two different programs, and that our state department was not able to supervise the program.

The Urban League responded that last year only six of 119 participants were in both programs, and that there was nothing in the contract prohibiting students being in both programs. The Urban League also said that the state department had audited the program and reported no problems. I don’t know the truth in this situation, but it does appear to be complex.

You and I could give many examples. Bottom line, I agree with your skepticism about research. One other point of agreement--you urge longitudinal studies to see what happens with students after they graduate. I wrote a blog with you earlier this year strongly supporting the value of doing this.

Deborah responds:

Dear Joe,

We’ve got to watch out with all this “agreeing.” There’ll be no point in this exchange!

I was hoping Bryk’s work in Chicago could (a) be trusted and (b) spread to other localities. But how can I tell if (a) is true? And it hasn’t spread--as far as I know. I’m sure there are others! But how does one know?

Let me hear more about how they define “teacher-led"--is it “teacher” or “teachers,” for example?

I find it fascinating to contemplate why our concern about charters is so different given how much we agree about. I suspect we are each focusing on different consequences, and comparing x to y can be difficult if one is measuring by a different list of concerns.

I suspect one of our differences is how dangerous we see the privatization of K-12 public education as--or whether we even see it. I see it as a far more likely vision of our future than the spread of small self-governing schools of choice. I am also less interested in “choice” per se and more worried about the many likely impacts that widespread school choice can have on our democracy. Choice has been infected with too many glorifications of the sort that that Ayn Rand might favor--a straight-forward support for selfishness as the highest value--which I know you would not agree with. But I think we live in an age when, not quite so openly as Rand, we see capitalism as the highest form of freedom of choice, and accept the idea that individual selfishness is good for the world. Everyone should reread that woman because her ideas are not so “far out” as I once thought, although equally abhorrent.

In short, I think we interpret the period of history we are in perhaps differently, which makes us appear to have more differences than probably we do--if you count them one by one. Am I way off base, Joe?

Your turn next--so I wait with bated breath for Tuesday’s response.


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