Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Invention of Lying: The Two Sides of the School Choice Debate

I caught an interesting film on HBO the other day entitled, The Invention of Lying. And though the liberty and luxury of watching an afternoon movie in the middle of the weekday should have made me further entrenched into summer vacation bliss, it actually got me thinking about the issue of school choice.

Here's why.

The Invention of Lying is a black comedy, starring Ricky Gervais, playing Mark, and Jennifer Garner, playing Anna. Amazingly, in Mark and Anna's world, there is absolutely no lying. No one lies, either on purpose or accidentally. The truth, ugly, unkind, and unrefined is the rule. No one even possesses the knowledge of how to lie or the desire to lie.

The film immediately takes advantage of this device by opening to a blind date between Mark, rather pudgy and unnatractive, and Anna, quite the opposite. When Anna opens the door to greet Mark, she immediately sighs and tells him that she's frustrated and disappointed, obviously displeased that Mark is not what she'd hoped for. On their dinner date, she proceeds to tell him very politely that she definitely won't be sleeping with him, and that she finds him to be boring and no match for her. Even the waiter tells him bluntly, "She's way out of your league."

The twist of the movie begins when Mark, recently fired from his job as a documentary film script writer (remember no lying, so no Inception or Alice in Wonderland), needs $800 to pay for rent or face eviction. He knows he only has $300 in the bank. But, through some cosmic force, he invents a lie and informs the unsuspecting bank teller that he has $800 in the bank. To his amazement, the Teller apologizes for the error in the system and hands Mark the $800.

Ah, if only that worked in our world!

Mark's biggest lie (albeit truth to many in our world) comes about when he comforts his mother on her hospital death bed. In a touching moment, Mark tells mum that when she dies, there will be a Man in the Sky waiting to welcome her to a place of no pain. She will have a mansion and will see all of the other friends and family members that passed before her. And, she and everyone with her will live on in perpetual happiness & bliss. She slowly fades away with a gentle smile on her face.

Barring a debate on the origins of religion, what on Earth does this film that have to do with the school choice debate?

Well, to put it rather harshly, both sides are Mark. Both sides are lying. Or, as John Kerry would mildly put it, not telling the truth.

Now don't get me wrong, lying isn't all sinister and malevolent. When Mark lied to get the $800, he was simply trying to avoid being homeless. Avoiding homelessness is a good thing, right?When he lied to his mother, he did so out of the fondest of loves, trying to comfort her in her final moments. Who doesn't want to comfort their mother?

So I will not indulge in the usual charged political rhetoric in labeling the usual suspects in the school choice debate, other than calling them liars that is. I will not say that school choice opponents want to keep poor, black children in decrepit, failing schools. I will not say that school choice advocates want to dismantle public education and hand over schools to greedy corporations. I'll admit, pretty compelling arguments can be found to support both of those statements. But, you won't find them in this blog (well, at least not yet. It's early).

I will assume for the moment that all sides in the debate have Mark's heart; they lie not to harm but to help. Both sides have a genuine desire to improve educational outcomes of children and it is their passion for children that makes them inclined to lie to garner support on their behalf. It is not this blogger's intent to demonize traditional education reformers or conservative education reformers.

What I will do is attempt to bring some of the more common platitudes of the two sides of the school choice debate into Mark's world, a world where Convalesent centers are known as "A Sad Place for Old People." Yes, a world of unrefined ugly truth.

Lie #1 - Charter schools are better than Traditional Public Schools.

Not really. But, it's a complicated answer.

You'd have to define what you mean by "better." If by better, one points to standardized test scores, then no, most charter schools aren't better than traditional publics. Study after study has proven this. Most charters nationwide perform at about the same levels as the traditional public schools of their host cities. This is true in Detroit too where charters perform nearly the same as traditionals. Some are pretty good, and some are pretty terrible. They run the whole gamut.

Also if by better, one points to extra-curricular activities, then that also is false. Because charter schools receive even less funding than their traditional public school counterparts, they have less program dollars to fund many sports or extra curricular activities. They may have special partnerships with their charter organizers, corporate sponsors, or interested civic groups, but by and large charters are a mean, lean bare-bones operation. No frills.

If by better, one points to enrollment trends or parent satisfaction, then the answer is yes. Most parents who enroll their children in charter schools are so fed up with the inadequacies & incompetence of their available traditional public schools, the nearest charter school is a breath of fresh air. Many charter schools make it a point to be very accommodating to parents, because their continued financial operation depends so much on having those parents keep their children in their schools. Also, charters are routinely closed for poor performance, so charter schools regularly attempt to provide support to parents in reinforcing educational goals in the home. Charters are also more likely to cater to select student populations poorly served by traditional public schools, like special needs, second chance, at-risk, or strict discipline students.

If by better, one points to safety, then I'd say the answer is yes to that too. Because charter schools have open enrollment, they attract students from all over the city, even across multiple cities. So, it is likely that the crime patterns of the local community are not being reflected into the school. In fact, there are some charter schools that are located in suburbs near the city border, so they're not even physically in the neighborhoods where their students live. That's not the case in traditional schools. If there's a fight at a birthday party on Saturday somewhere in the neighborhood, chances are, those students who were at that party (and their cousins, siblings & friends) will continue that fight on Monday when they arrive to school.

Lie # 2 - Charter school teachers are better than Traditional Public School teachers.

This one, like Lie #1 is can't be answered easily. But, I'm going to have put 2 points up for traditional public schools.

For better or for worse, compensation packages at union represented traditional public schools are likely to be far better than those of charter schools. Keep in mind, charter schools are funded less than traditional public schools, because charter schools do not get the added tax dollars of the municipality in which they're located. Here's a quick primer on Michigan school funding. Feel free to skip if you already know the skinny.

In Michigan, all schools receive the same base per pupil funding allocation, which is around $7,600 (depending on if the legislature had their coffee & are in a good mood). This funding plan, Proposal A, emerged in 1994 to address the huge disparities in district funding between cities. Previously, nearly 70% of school funds were raised through local property taxes. That meant that very affluent cities like Birmingham or Gross Pointe could raise lots of money on low millage rate because of high propery values.. Poorer communities, like Highland Park or Flint, could not raise anywhere near the amount of funds as their much wealthier peers. In an effort to keep up with the Jones', urban city property tax rates were frighteningly high, by today's standards. So, Michigan raised its sales tax from 4% to 6%, with the extra 2% going to the School Aid Fund for all districts to share equally, according to their respective pupil enrollment count. All cities saw their property tax rates drop, though all kept a modest few mills to allocate towards schools. A few districts, 20j districts, spent so much over the state average in 1994 that they were labeled "hold harmless" districts and allowed to keep a greater portion of their property tax funding streams in tact. But, no city could henceforth raise taxes for school funding for operating costs.

So charter schools don't get the added mills from their municipalities for operating costs, nor are any of them 20j schools. So, they get the basic per pupil grant of around $7,600. Since they take in less money than traditional schools, they can't pay as generous salaries. And, because charter school teachers are technically the employees of their respective Education Management Organizations (EMOs), they can't participate in the state's pension system for public employees. They are limited to 401(k)s, which are subject to all of the market volatility you've seen on TV.

What does all of that look like on a recruitment sheet? Well, consider this. A traditional school can offer an experienced teacher with a Master's degree around $80,000, participation in a pension system that in retirement will guarantee them around 44% of their last 3 years average salary ($35,200 a year for life), and a health insurance plan that has either no or very low premiums & deductibles.

What can a charter school offer? Because charter schools are run like private corporations, their compensation packages vary greatly and aren't published publicly. I don't know of any charter school teacher that makes more than 45-50K (If you have a primary source documenting a charter school compensation package, please e-mail me). I once received an offer from a charter school for $35,000, which would have been a VERY significant cut in pay for me. I'd definitely have to cancel HBO and give up my iPhone, and anyone who knows me knows that that cannot come to pass. Also, compensation packages at charter schools are limited to 401(k)s and have health insurance plans that are likely to have high premiums & deductibles.

So what happens?

As charter school teachers are checking papers late at night, they also have their laptops open, searching for job postings at traditional schools. This is confirmed by national studies that show that teacher turn over rates in charter schools are twice as high in charter schools than they are in traditional public schools. This is especially true of positions that are hard to fill, like math, science, & special education.

It could be that many of those leaving the charter schools aren't good teachers and have found themselves poorly suited for professional teaching. But, I think that it is more likely that the most talented teachers in those charter schools see the better working conditions in the traditional schools in middle class & affluent communities, and take their talents elsewhere.

Bottom line: Better compensation packages tend to attract better prospective employees. And if that is true, then traditional schools, particularly affluent schools, are attracting the best teachers.

However, that is not always the case. I know this is beginning to sound like I'm bi-polar, but I'm really not. No, really.

Charter schools may well be attracting the next generation of dream team teachers. As enrollment in traditional urban schools is on the decline, new teachers, trained under reformed university teacher training guidelines, often see that charter schools are the only ones hiring. Also, as traditional schools lay off the younger teachers, charter schools are picking them up. If you subscribe to the notion that today's teachers are more knowledgeable, skillful, and effective than past generations of teachers, then charter schools are sitting on a gold mine. Charter schools also have the freedom to implement non-traditional teacher evaluation systems, so it is possible that those who remain in those charters are some truly remarkable teachers.

Lie # 3 - Charter schools don't have certified teachers.

This one is answered much more easily than the previous two. Not true.

As apart of President Bush's No Child Left Behind, states were required to modify their education laws to meet a provision known as Highly Qualified Teachers. States had to revamp what qualifications teachers would be required to have and those qualifications would have to meet a loose Federal rubric. In Michigan, as in most states, a Highly Qualified teacher meant an individual had to possess 1) a BA college degree Major or Minor in their teaching assignment and 2) A state teaching licence, usually granted after passing a standardized test. However, certification testing is a somewhat recent tool, so older, veteran teachers are likely to have certifications that did not require them to take a test or have a specialty in a particular subject area.

So you can roughly conclude that all teachers in Michigan, unless their employers are doing something illegal (not at all unlikely), are indeed certified.

However, it should be noted that there is competing evidence rating the efficacy of state certification programs. Some studies show that certified teachers produce better performing students, while some studies show no difference at all between certified & non-certified teachers. There is more consensus that experienced teachers who were top performers in college are likely to yield better performing students.

Lie # 4 - Traditional schools, because they are community based schools, are more accountable to parents than charters schools.

This one is tricky, but I've got to hand it to charter schools.

Typically, charter schools are located in urban communities that have large school systems. The Detroit Public Schools, though it has scuttled over 100 schools in the past few years, still has nearly 140 schools, thousands of employees and a whopping $1.2 Billion budget. That's a big 'ol system for a single mom to get a word in edge wise. In big city systems, only individuals who are apart of an advocacy organization tend to get their voices heard. Labor Unions, Commerce Groups, Civil Rights Organizations & PACs usually have heavy weight to throw around, drowning out the lone voices.

Charter schools on the other hand tend to be smaller shop operations. Though most are managed by medium sized to large EMOs, the board of directors of these schools often oversee one or a few schools in that charter. There are also no labor unions to contend with, nor are there PACs or Trade Groups to influence board members. So, that single mom or guardian grandma who has concerns that the school's textbooks are inadequate is probably more likely to get a response and action from a charter school than a traditional public school.

I do want to make two small caveats to that claim (no, I am no schizophrenic). Boards of Directors of charter schools are not publicly elected and are usually appointed by the charter authorizer. So, parents and community members do not have electoral control over individual board members.

Also, the nature of charter schools & school choice is for parents to choose which schools they like best for their children. Duh, right? So, with that in mind, parents who have great dissatisfaction with a charter school are likely to move on to another school. They are not as likely to fight for improvement in their schools as parents in traditional schools. They usually don't stick around & raise a raucous at a Board of Director's meeting or in the Principal's office. They just..well leave.

Lie # 5 - Traditional Schools have unions and unions protect lazy teachers & make it difficult to fire bad teachers.

Yes & Not exclusively & Somewhat.

There are many union represented charter schools in the country. Virtually none in Michigan. Al Traditional Public Schools are union represented.

As colleague Bill Boyer (great teacher, ex-officio rock band member) pointed out to me once, the union is much like a teacher's lawyer. The union represents the teachers' interests in the operation of the organization. The union protects teachers against biased, capricious acts of administrators and in come cases, students & parents. Unions negotiate with districts, on behalf of the teachers, to create collective bargaining agreements that dictate working conditions. And, unions are fairly aggressive at making sure those work rules are followed.

The lazy teacher and the bad teacher are entitled, by Michigan law & union contracts, to the same protections as the industrious teacher and the good teacher. Remember, a lawyer represents all types of clients, from Al Capone to Al Gore. In this country, we have a presumption of innocence and it is the burden of the state to prove guilt. I, for one, like that policy and it seems to have worked pretty well these 234 years.

That same philosophy is extended to the teaching profession. It is the burden of the district to prove that a teacher is lazy or bad. Contrary to misconceived popular belief, the unions don't run the schools, the administrators do. A school administrator must document evidence that proves that a teacher is "bad." This is not unlike other professions, such as law & medicine that have procedures for its professionals who engage in malpractice. In all of these professions, as in teaching, it must be proved to an oversight body that the "bad" teacher is indeed worthy of removal. This process takes more than a year and can be very complicated. So too are the procedures against doctors & lawyers. But, the law does state that a teacher can be immediately removed from the classroom, albeit with pay, until the arbitration is concluded.

But, perhaps more central to the problem is the way in which teachers are evaluated. In this Blogger's opinion there has yet to be implemented in most schools, traditional or charter, a truly effective teacher evaluation tool that objectively measures teacher performance, especially at the high school level. Sure, plenty of universities & think tanks have offered up many models. I'm still waiting on one to be used in an objective, fair & effective manner. If you know of any I'd be glad to hear it. But I've seen plenty and they all come up short.

Even in the DC schools, for example, the evaluation system is somewhat flawed. The IMPACT evaluation tool, which led to the removal of 165 "ineffective" teachers is a very robust evaluation system. Among other things, the IMPACT required 5 30 minute observations by administrators and curriculum experts, based on a standard rubric. Most teachers only got 2 or 3 observations. Furthermore, the document explaining the IMPACT rubric is 65 pages long and there are 20 different groups with unique evaluation criteria. Can anyone, anyone tell me with a straight face that the IMPACT evaluation tool was used accurately, hell even half-way decently?

In fact, in a union generated teacher survey, the vast majority of participants responded that they did not receive any training or professional development on IMPACT. Over 94% of teachers indicated that "There is a lack of uniform understanding among teachers, principals, supervisors and Master Educators of the performance expectations in the 9 Teach modules to earn a 1,2,3, or 4." Translation: HELLO MCFLY! NO ONE KNOWS WHAT THEY ARE DOING!

The IMPACT is rare among evaluation systems in that it uses a value added assessment tool, based on student performance on standardized tests. Teachers have to demonstrate that their students have made progress on these tests from year to year, in order to get a good evaluation. But, a study from Education Statistics, a government funded research arm of the US. Dept. of Ed., found that value added evaluations have a 25%-35% chance of giving a false positive. That means that of the teachers rated ineffective because of lagging student test scores, up to 35% of those teachers aren't really ineffective. It works on all ends of the spectrum too. Of the teachers rated highly effective in a value added evaluation model, a minimum of 25% aren't really "highly effective." This is more indication that IMPACT is more like a DUD.

But, let's assume that every single one of those 165 teachers were truly "ineffective." They were just God awful. As some of my students might say, they were garbo or lame or ham. One thing is still true though. The District of Columbia Schools is a union represented district & it seems Chancellor Rhee had no trouble identifying & firing those lazy, bad teachers. All it took was fierce, bold leadership. If Chancellor Rhee can do it, why can't most school leaders follow suit?

Now here comes my personal revelation, where I too enter the Mark's world. The world of complete truth & disclosure.

I have always known that I wanted to be an educator. Since entering my 9th Grade Pre-AP English class, taught by the masterful Mrs. Rita Sitron, I discovered that I wanted to empower the lives of young people through education. Urban school systems are a great place to embark on such a mission, because they are in most need of great teachers. Charter schools are great places to accomplish this as well, because they are often on the cutting edge of education innovation.

But I don't like Charter Schools. Sorry. I just don't.

My disdain for charter schools chiefly arises because of their lousy compensation packages. I have become accustomed to my union inflated teacher salary & benefits. I look forward to having a secure retirement. If that makes me the villain of education reform, then so be it. Perhaps the compensation packages of traditional schools are unsustainable in this new, global economy. That's certainly a valid criticism. But, in my mind (I'm no megalomaniac. This is supported by years of evaluations, student feedback, parent comments, and student data), I'm a great teacher. I work very, very hard and I expect to be compensated accordingly. How's that for high expectations, aye?

And while we're on the subject of expectations, I'd have too say I'm none too warm on unions either. Unions are notorious for fighting new reform efforts that effect teachers. They fight efforts at measuring individual accountability. They play politics in the schools. I was once even threated to be blacklisted from Detroit by a building union representative who thought I was crossing a teacher strike picket line to work (More on this in a future blog). I do like many of the benefits of being in a a union: the compensation, the fair work rules, the protection, the advocacy. But man, if there isn't a downside.

This brings me to the final lie.

Lie #6. Because unions negotiate for complicated, strict work rules that put the needs of adults ahead of children & because unions foster an antagonistic relationship with administration, the flexibility of charter schools lends them to be more successful.

This is a loaded and overblown assertion.

Attributing a school's success to any one factor is not a credible foundation on which to base an evaluation. Unions are not the sole determinant of a school's quality. In California, for example, many good charter schools are unionized, such as the Green Dot Schools. In Michigan, there are hardly any unionized charter schools, so it is difficult to compare. In traditional public schools, including Detroit, the best schools are typically unionized. Cass, King, & Renaissance are all union represented high schools that are high achieving. In the region, the best suburban schools are unionized too, some even outperforming expensive & moderately priced private schools.

To be fair Cass, King, and Renaissance are all examination schools. A student must pass an examination in a pre-determined score range to be enrolled on one of these schools. And, if students don't adhere to specific academic and discipline standards while in those schools, they are kicked out. In a charter school, this is somewhat different. A charter school is legally prohibited from making a test score a qualification for enrollment. However, charter schools may kick students out if they don't meet non-academic standards, like discipline or attendance. In my own experience, I have taught many ex-charter school children, who despite some problems in the past, turned out to be great students.

Again, it is not my intention in this post to be an advocate for traditional schools or charter schools, but rather to bring clarity to many of the assertions both sides make in this ongoing debate. There are plenty of pundits & prophets who want to see the demise of one or the other. There are plenty of Marks & Annas who want the best for children, and in the process of doing so, glide over the flaws in their own points of view to push their positions.

It is high time that the adults in the school choice debate acknowledge that neither of their positions are the panaceas they'd like them to be. Adding more charter schools will not be the savior of urban education. Simply flooding traditional schools with more money won't accomplish this goal either.

The truth is complicated. It is not sexy or marketable. It cannot be made into bullet points on a brochure. It cannot be a sub-paragraph in a collective bargaining agreement. The truth is likely to make many people angry, as the most taboo truths often do.

But, if we are ever going to fix public education in this country, the truth is that huge, smelly pill your doctor prescribed that you dread swallowing. You have to take it. It will make you better.

And, you are finally going to have to admit to yourself that you were not that cool in high school and that you fibbed on your last tax return.

But now, this post has come to an end and I must leave Mark & Anna's world, bereft of falsehoods.

So in that light, I am logging off to go snack on some fresh, organic vegetables and later I'll do a few hundred crunches to tighten my rock hard abs.

Log on next week Sunday for my next post: A Tough Nerd Returns to School: A primer on Republican Rick Synder's education platform.

1 comment:

  1. The most honest and balanced tome on charter vs. regular public schools I've read.