I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Civil Conversations Are Honest Conversations

Via Peter Greene, I see that Andy Smarick, formerly of the New Jersey Department of Education, is quite vexed at the idea that someone's feelings may get hurt when discussing the expansion of charter schools:

I have two concerns with the way these things are trending. The first is that our field needs someone who consistently makes earnest, objective, sturdy philosophical arguments against chartering. With rare exceptions, when I go looking, I instead find mostly snark, ad hominem attacks, and condescension. The source I had hoped would evolve into the dispassionate voice of studied dissent has instead reliably produced invective.

My second concern is that, increasingly, what at first blush appears to be a category-one contribution (a discussion of policy and practice designed to improve chartering) is just strident philosophical opposition in disguise. This long magazine article on Newark, NJ, could’ve been an invaluable contribution to our understanding of one of the nation’s highest-profile initiatives. Instead, charter-friendly reformers are painted as villains. This piece about Camden could’ve shed important light on the role of charter operators in reimagining a system of schools. Instead, it hurls nasty accusations against just about everyone involved. Similarly, what could’ve been a terrific, extensive look into Michigan’s charter sector and its relation to district schooling gave the impression that its goal was uncovering scandal and intrigue.

Here’s my request. If you think chartering is, at root, a threat to public education and believe that it must be brought to an end, please make that case publicly and straightforwardly, with conviction and tact. You’ll find a more receptive audience than you might suspect.

If you aren’t obdurately anti-charter but think there are aspects of chartering that need serious improvement, marshal the data and make your case. You’ll find a long list of organizations willing to listen because they exist to improve policy and practice. (Excellent Schools Detroit modeled this good behavior after the charter-critical newspaper series.)

But when philosophical opposition takes the form of venom, the debate is poisoned and open-minded charter supporters tune out. And when unbending philosophical opposition masquerades as commentary on policy, the standing of practical critics is undercut because advocates have reason to distrust the motives of those writing in opposition.
Mercy! Andy is so very, very concerned about the nasty tone people are taking! Why, don't they know that pointing out the utter failure of State Superintendent Cami Anderson to gain the trust and respect of the Newark community with her ill-advised portfolio plan is little more than "poison"?! Can't they see that discussing the questionable behavior and disturbing history of charter operators in Camden is just "venom"?! Don't they realize pointing out the rampant corruption of the charter industry in Michigan -- and elsewhere -- only serves to put off the "open-minded"?!

Quickly! Someone get the smelling salts!

Andy Smarick (artists's conception)

Peter, thankfully, gives the rather obvious rebuttal, and gives it well:
If charters are tired of press about how they get sweetheart deals with politicians to strip resources from public schools in order to enrich themselvesif they're tired of stories about how some charter operator got caught in crooked deals, if they're tired of being raked over the coals for using politics to grease some moneyed wheels-- well, their best move would be to stop doing those things.

If charters are tired of being attacked, they could stop attacking public education, as in the recent charter gathering in which the recurring theme was "Charters are great because public schools suck." I'm not a fan of "they started it" as an argument, but it's also specious to declare "all I did was keep calling him names and stealing his lunch, and then he just hit me for no reason!"

I'm not a fan of Smarick's first posited conversation (let's just assume charters are great), I think the second one is valuable (let's talk about how and if charters can work), but I think both are being drowned out by the third conversation, which is a mass of local conversations about the damage being done and the attacks on local schools that people feel they are suffering through. That conversation is, I believe, a direct result of the injection of huge amounts of money into the process. It's hard to have the conversation because the stakes on all sides are so high (ROI vs. local concerns for children).

I'm actually a fan of old-school charters, and it makes me sad that their promise has been swept aside by the current wave of money-driven charter chains. But asking people to please be more polite and reasonable and please stop pointing out where we've screwed you over is not likely to get the conversation back on track or reclaim the benefits that charter schools could provide.
Amen. But let me add another point:

A civil conversation requires honesty. And the conversation these days about charter schools -- and, indeed, about tenure and test-based teacher evaluation and seniority and vouchers and standards and just about every other education policy on the table today -- is anything but honest.

Let me give an example of this: Andy Smarick himself.

Here's a video clip from 2013 of Smarick talking about his latest book, The Urban School System of the Future, in which he makes the case that the urban school district as it is currently construed is a failure, and should be replaced by a "portfolio" system that would greatly expand charter schools.

How does Smarick know this will work? Starting at 29:50, Smarick cites three instances of charterizing that he claims have produced results that are "pretty extraordinary": New York City, Newark, and New Orleans.
Andy Smarick: Overview, The Urban School System of the Future from Bellwether Education on Vimeo.

Let's leave aside the fact that Smarick cherry-picks his examples under the guise of claiming these are instances of chartering "done well," and instead test the validity of his claims. Are these results "pretty extraordinary"? Well, it would only make sense to make that point if the student populations the charters served were equivalent to the populations in the public schools to which they are compared.

Note that I wrote "student populations," not "students." I will concede that the CREDO studies have found some -- some -- instances where demographically matched students did better in charters (although I would argue CREDO ran their findings through the Mountain-Out-Of-A-Molehill-Inator to make the effects seems larger than they actually are). But segregating students demographically or academically so some students can enjoy a peer effect is not a strategy that can be scaled up: it's logically impossible for everyone to go to a school where the student population is above average.

Differing student population characteristics is the central issue in charter school expansion -- and it's an issue Smarick chooses to completely ignore. I'll let others who are better informed speak to New York City and New Orleans; let me, instead, concentrate on his example of Newark, which I know quite well. As a former Deputy Education Commissioner in New Jersey, it's hard for me to imagine that Smarick doesn't know the following facts:
  • Newark's "successful" charters do not serve equivalent populations of free-lunch eligible, special education, or Limited English Proficient students; they don't even serve equivalent populations of boys.
  • The certificated educators in the Newark charter sector have less experience than their counterparts in the Newark Public Schools.
  • North Star Academy, considered by many charter cheerleaders to be the highest-performing charter in the city, has a student attrition rate so high a black boy only has about a 1-in-3 chance of making it through the school from Grade 5 to Grade 12.
  • When accounting for student differences by using standard statistical techniques, many of the "successful" charters in Newark just aren't that impressive.
  • TEAM Academy, often cited as one of Newark's best charters, spends considerable amounts of money, much of which is used apparently to recruit its staff (this is a good thing -- but shouldn't NPS have the same opportunity before we label it a failure?).
  • Perhaps most disturbing, the district, which is run by the state, has not given an honest account of the effectiveness of charter schools compared to district schools, feeding a misperception that the charters get better results when accounting for student (and resource) differences.

Again: I just can't imagine that Andy Smarick isn't aware of all this (if he isn't, he never should have held a high position at NJDOE). And yet he chooses to ignore these realities; he chooses not to address the central issue in the expansion of charter schools.

I'll be the first to admit I have, in the past, been rough on Andy and his former boss and others who are on the reformy side of the education policy debate. But it's hard to have respect for these reformy folks when they refuse to even acknowledge these basic truths, let alone respond to them. And it's more than fair for folks like me to point out that reformers like Andy Smarick are being either ignorant or mendacious when they build their cases without taking into the account basic truths that are at the core of these debates about public education.

Look, I'm all for civility; but civility starts with good faith. As Peter says: if the charter sector doesn't want folks like him and me pointing out their corrupt practices, they ought not to engage in them. Likewise, if Smarick wants a more measured tone in the debates over charters, he would do well to raise his game and stop engaging in sophistry.

Andy, any time you want to debate charters, say the word. But don't expect me to or anyone else to simply sit back and let you make specious arguments without challenge. You and Chris Cerf made this a high-stakes debate during your tenure here in New Jersey; you are the guys who have put educators' careers, schools, districts, and, most importantly, children's futures at stake with your plans.

So if you really believe you are in the right, stand by your arguments and defend them; don't just take your ball and run home because the game isn't going your way.

ADDING: Smarick repeats the famous "Scarsdale-Harlem gap" meme that NYC charter cheerleaders love. I had forgotten that Matt DiCarlo did an excellent post about this:
Now, it bears mentioning Hoxby doesn’t actually follow any student or group of students from kindergarten through grade eight (nine years). Actually, since her data are only for 2000-01 to 2007-08, we know for a fact that she does not have data for a single student that attended a NYC charter for nine straight years (K-8). She doesn’t report how many students in her dataset attended for eight straight years, but does note, in the technical report (released months later – see below) that only 25 percent of her sample has 6-8 years of “charter treatment.” The majority of her sample is students with 3-5 years in a charter school (or less).
So, how did Hoxby come up with the “Scarsdale-Harlem” finding? Well, her models estimate an average single-year gain for charter students (most of whom have only a few years of “treatment”). Those one-year estimates are her primary results. She ignores them completely in the executive summary (and I mean that literally – she does not report the single-year gains until page 43 of the 85-page report).
Instead, she multiplies the single year gain (for math and reading separately) by nine years to produce a sensational talking point. It’s kind of like testing a new diet pill on a group of subjects, who take the pill for anywhere between one and 9-10 months, finding that they lose an average of ten pounds per month, and then launching an advertising campaign proclaiming that the pill will make people lose 120 pounds in a year.
In fairness, months after the report’s release, Hoxby and her co-authors replicated their analysis on students with different durations of charter treatment, and found that there are still large, cumulative effects among those students who have attended charters for 6-8 years. In other words, the annual effect of attending a charter schools does not necessarily depend on how long the student has been there. [emphasis mine]
Sorry to be so tactless and point this out...

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