School Choice & Charters Opinion

Moving Ahead on 3 Dreams

By Joe Nathan — January 29, 2015 9 min read
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Joe Nathan replies again today to Deborah Meier.

Deb, let’s begin today with Jennifer, Khalique, Antonia and your encouragement to dream. Jennifer and Khalique are real youngsters with whom I’ve worked, and they figure in the kind of dreams you’ve wisely suggested we discuss.

Langston Hughes wrote a wonderful poem that began, “Hold fast to dreams for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.” Here are three dreams that I hope you and others will consider. They involve

1. Collaboration among district and charter public schools, focused on specific classroom and school strategies to help more students do well.
2. Collaboration among district and charter public schools focused on improving state and national policies.

3. More careful scrutiny of the way money is spent in public education.

Let’s begin with what I think matters most to you, many readers and me: Making a big difference in in classrooms and schools with youngsters.

#1. Collabortion on classroom and school strategies to help more students do well.

Antonia, Jennifer and Khalique were two of the almost 1,000 students involved in a three year collaboration that’s concluding soon, involving four St. Paul District and two St Paul charter public schools, along with our Center. Working together on the Increasing College Readiness Project. We have been able to produce triple digit gains in the number of enrollments in dual (high school/college credit )courses. This is important because I wrote last week, there is considerable and growing research showing the value of students taking such courses, especially student like Jennifer and Khalique who come from low income families and represent potential first generation college students.

Our website includes 60-75 second videos in which these three youngsters describe the impact of earning college credit while they were still in high school. If you don’t read any further, I hope you’ll take two minutes to listen to these youngsters. There are so eloquent, describing their surprise at being able to earn college credit while still in high school, and their pride in doing so. People who care about, and believe public schools can make a difference with young people from challenging backgrounds will find these videos encouraging.

The four district schools are AGAPE, Creative Arts, Gordon Parks High School and Open World. The two charters are Community of Peace and Higher Ground Academy. Each of the schools enrolls mostly low income and mostly students of color. AGAPE enrolls young women who are either pregnant or teen parents.

This collaboration was funded by several local foundations: Otto Bremer, Frey, Morning, Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi, LLP, St. Paul, and Travelers. Funds were most on training high school faculty to offer advanced, college level courses, and on bringing high school and college faculty together during the summer. College faculty described their expectations for what entering students should know in reading, writing, math, political science and biology. High school faculty share unusually successful teaching strategies with eachother and with college faculty. So faculty were resources for eachother.

The summer workshops also included young people discussing the impact of their teachers. The students described the huge difference that their teachers had made. Among other things, many praised their teachers for encouraging them to take more challenging classes in areas of particular interest to the students. The young people explained how this built their confidence, and showed them they could accomplish far more than they thought possible.

Deb, for those of us who believe in the value of teachers, these were wonderful sessions. For those of us who believe in the potential positive impact of public schools, whether district or charter, these were heartening days.

My #1 dream? All over the country, foundations and state departments of education would carry out such projects. They would recognize the insights, talents and skills of classroom teacher and administrators. They would give them time and opportunity to think, plan and yes, dream. They would provide cash to help teachers buy a few things that would help them carry out those dreams.

#2. Collaboration on development of state and national policies that reflect strong research, and help produce more learning. Deb, you may not remember this. But almost 15 years ago you, Ted Sizer, Herbert Kohl and a variety of other progressive reformers joined with conservatives like Jeanne Allen to challenge the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association). It took four years, but a broad national coalition, liberal/conservative, Republican/Democrat, district and charter surprised the nation by convincing the NCAA to change a series of policies that were frustrating families, students and educators.

The NCAA had decided to tell every high school in the country which English, Social Studies, Math and Science courses were acceptable college preparation. Imagine, the NCAA setting itself up as the great “state department in the sky!”

Some of their ideas were bizarre. For example, they said a course that focused on current events was not acceptable for college preparation. A course that spent more than 25% of its time on community service was not acceptable. For some months, it was difficult to even get the NCAA to release its standards.

We battled for three years. We brought together a variety of reformers. Herbert Kohl, then at the Soros Foundation, arranged for a variety of people to meet and develop plans. The Minnesota State Legislature held a hearing and an NCAA official came to explain their efforts. One of my favorite memories was when he insisted that current events classes were not good preparation for college. The chair of the Minnesota Senate committee explained he had been an indifferent high school student until he was inspired by a high school current events teacher.

Anyway, with sustained, collaborative efforts, ultimately the NCAA backed down. Now the NCAA policy is that if a high school regards a course as college prep, the NCAA will accept it as such.

Deb, my second dream is that we would do more of this. We would identify key issues that district and charter, liberal and conservatives could agree on. Then we could work together to convince policy-makers to develop wiser policies.

#3 More careful scrutiny of the way money is spent in public education: You and others have cited scandals in the charter school world. You wrote, in part that some charter leaders, “believe, genuinely or not, that private is good, public is bad, and that the market place is a good substitute for public decision-making (sometimes called democracy).”

No one has been elected by people working in charter schools to be their “leader.” There are literally thousands of charter public schools around the country, and many different views within those schools, as there are within district public schools.

I know and talk with leaders of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the National Association of Charter Authorizers. I don’t think they believe in the blanket assertions that “public is bad and private is good.” It’s more complicated. I’m asking them to respond, and perhaps I’m wrong. But I don’t think they believe what you wrote. I think their views are more nuanced.

Let’s also remember that a central feature of democracy is the freedom to make decisions. So what you criticize as “the market place” IS a part of democracy. And charter laws come from state legislatures. People who write these laws are elected. That’s also a part of democracy.

Unquestionably there are some charter scandals. As I noted in our first exchange, I am sometimes exhilerated, sometimes infuriated by what I see happening with charters. This week the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools released a report on various state laws.

It named Minnesota’s charter number 1, for the fifth time in the last six years. That’s in part because we’ve developed, over a twenty year period, a number of financial safeguards. For example, charters must release a yearly audit. That audit must be public. There are a number of provisions prohibiting conflicts of interest. The Minnesota Department of Education must review and approve all building leases. Among other things, the Department can reject leases that cost more than prevailing rates in the area where the school is located.

The Minnesota Department of Education has this power in part because Minnesota provides funds to help schools lease or in certain cases, purchase buildings. That’s a wise strategy. Some of the charter scandals have happened in states with little or no public support for charter buildings. So clever businesspeople have helped start charters, purchased or leased buildings, and then leased them to schools at excessive rates. That’s wrong. But it sometimes starts with no support for charter buiidings. So support and scrutiny should go together.

There are other examples of questionable use of public dollars by charters. Some of us are working hard to improve charter laws. NACSA, the national group of charter authorizers, has developed many recommendations that states are using to help improve the review of charter applications and the monitoring of existing charters. There’s a lot of debate going on in the charter world about the best ways to monitor student performance. But there’s widespread, though not complete agreement, that charters must be transparent about use of public dollars.

What I find unfortunate is that some of the strongest critics of charters don’t have much, if anything to say about theft or other scandals in district public schools. A few weeks ago I offered examples of theft by teacher union officials. I described the loss of hundred of computers in a district. I’ve been on various blogs and seen many articles where authors are furious about scandals in charters. Some of the people who commented on that blog typically were very critical of charters. But they are silent about district and union scandals.

I think we should be concerned about, and actively working on all of this. One particular area of focus ought to be school buildings. Former Arizona State Superintendent of Schools Lisa Graham Keegan and I talked this week. She pointed to the enormous amounts of money that bond salespeople sometimes make as they help finance new district buildings. I think that’s a subject that deserves much more attention.

It’s deeply discouraging to see how scoundrels and charlatans sometimes take advantage of public education. My third dream is that educators, community members, families and journalists work together to expose and dramatically reduce the ripoffs.

Deb, again, thanks for the encouragement to dream. What you see above are some of my dreams. And we’ll end, with youngsters like Antonia, Jennifer and Khalique. I think the collaborations described above, and the increased scrutiny on how dollars are spent in public education, will benefit those and millions of other youngsters that you, I and our readers care about. Reactions welcome.

Joe Nathan, PhD has received awards from parent, professional and student groups for his work as an inner city public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher and advocate. He currently directs the Center for School Change.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.