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

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

School "Choice": A Failure of Honesty and Will

It's starting to feel like the Summer of School Choosiness.

Here's Nick Kristof, making the case that privatizing Liberia's schools is the only sensible way to ensure they are stocked with books.

Here's Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, telling her personal story of how her mother snuck her into a "better" school, which widened the "narrow funnel that leads to the nation’s elite institutions" for her.

Here's a story on Megan Kelly's new show (which, like the rest of America, you almost certainly missed) about a "successful" charter school in Philadelphia. Give reporter Craig Melvin credit: he does push back on the platitudes that are standard fare for such reports, even if he misses one of the biggest parts of the story (hang on...).

And of course we have the steady stream of laudatory essays about charters and school vouchers from outlets like The 74 and Education Post. Similar to the pieces above, they almost all revolve around stories of how students are being saved from "bad" schools because they are being given a "choice" to attend "good" schools.

The clever thing about this construction is that anyone who challenges the narrative is immediately put on the defensive: Why are you against helping people get a better education? Why don't you care about these children? It must be that you care about your own interests more than theirs...

And so on. It's a neat rhetorical trick, but it keeps us from asking and answering the questions that really matter. For example:

What, exactly, makes a "better" school? Lemmon says her mother risked arrest to get Lemmon into "... what she judged to be the best public elementary school in our area." OK -- on what basis did her mother make that judgment? Test scores? We know these correlate tightly to family socio-economic status. Peers? That's obviously problematic: peer effects matter, but you can't have everyone attend a school where their peers are above average. Resources? It's easier for a wealthy community to tax itself to provide more resources for its schools. Was Lemmon's new school more economically advantaged?

The easy answer we often get about what makes "good" schools from the "choice" industry is that charter and voucher schools are free from bureaucracy, which allows for innovation. But there's very little evidence these schools are engaging in practices that are truly "innovative."

It's becoming increasingly clear that those "no excuses" charters that get some gains -- and, understand, many of them do not -- do so because of longer school days and years, resource advantages, peer effects, "free riding" on public school teacher wages, student attrition (often exacerbated by extreme disciplinary policies), and a focus on test outcomes.

It's perfectly fine to argue in favor of these things; I happen to be in favor of some of them (resource advantages) and against others (student attrition when prompted by extreme discipline, overly focusing on test prep). Some are logically impossible to bring to scale (peer effects, "free riding"). But even if we agree on the benefits of some of these advantages, it's a leap to claim that "choice" is the only way to deliver them. Which leads to...

How, exactly, is "choice" creating "better" schools? Kristof claims that Bridge International Academies, the for-profit company delivering schooling in Liberia and elsewhere, hasn't yet turned a profit, so fears about monetizing children are "misplaced." So why, then, does BIA have to be structured as a for-profit company? 

"In fact, it’s a start-up that tackles a social problem in ways similar to a nonprofit, but with for-profit status that makes it more sustainable and scalable."

Sorry, but that answer is far too facile. Why would a for-profit be more sustainable? What about BIA's for-profit model makes their schools more "scalable"? Could it be related to this?
How do you improve education, make it cheaper and also make it profitable? May and Kimmelman have come up with an “innovative pedagogical approach.” The possibility of setting up a few thousand standardized schools within a few years is to be the first innovation. The profit made from each school may be low, but once half a million pupils are recruited — the number of enrollments that Bridge needs to break even — business really takes off. The plan is to reach two million pupils by 2018 and 10 million by 2025.
This rapid growth would be made possible by using Bridge’s second innovative method, namely its very own approach to the role of teachers and their salary scale. May believes that “qualities such as kindness” are more important than diplomas and this allows for significant savings. In Kenya, where the starting salary for qualified teachers is around US$116 dollars a month, Bridge teachers usually earn less than US$100 a month. However, as Kimmelman explains in a presentation, teachers can earn bonuses by recruiting new students themselves. Marketing is a core task for both teachers and school principals. [emphasis mine]
This is disturbingly similar to the charter/voucher "advantage" in the United States: teachers earning less while forced into marketing roles for their employers, all while being touted as superior in some unspecified way to teachers who bargain collectively for better wages within public district schools.

Gary Rubinstein, a Teach For America alumnus, has often described TFA's construction of the myth of the "miracle" teacher: that some select schools (and, by extensions, their leaders) have figured out the "combination to the lock" and that we should just all go along with their methods, never stopping to question what exactly is going on, or...

What, exactly, is the financial cost of "success" in "choice" systems of schooling? Again, I give Craig Melvin credit for pointing out that the "miracles" of schools like Boys Latin in Philadelphia are not available to all. What he failed to uncover, however, is that schools like Boys Latin almost always have resource advantages over their public school counterparts.

Remember that Philadelphia's public schools have been under state control for years, and are chronically underfunded compared to suburban schools a few miles away. Boys Latin, however, has found a way to make up the difference:
PHILADELPHIA >> Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia hosted its newest event, “Magnum Opus,” April 27 at the Please Touch Museum in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. The benefit raised vital funds for the school so it can continue to offer world-class educational experience and pays tribute to the great work of David Hardy and Dick Williams. The achievements of the school would not have been possible without the leadership of these two men, both of whom are in their final year of service at Boys’ Latin. 
“Magnum Opus” welcomed comedian Jay Pharoah, Saturday Night Live alumnus, as entertainment for the evening’s festivities. The fundraiser has already raised over $500,000 in sponsorships and ticket sales. The school relies on these funds to support areas of college counseling, enrichment programs in engineering and the arts, technology programming, academic interventions and athletics. [emphasis mine]
According to its 2015 tax forms (available at Guidestar), Boys Latin pulled in $1.1 million in government grants and $1.7 million in charitable giving in a single year.* That's in addition to the revenue they get from the Philadelphia school district. In 2014-15, Boys Latin enrolled 747 students; that's an extra $1,464 in government grants and $2,228 in philanthropy per pupil.

And again: extra funding is only one way to gain a resource advantage if you're a "choice" school. If you don't enroll many Limited English Proficient students, your costs stay lower. If the few special needs students you do enroll have less-costly learning disabilities, your costs stay lower. If you employ a less-experienced, less-credentialed staff, your costs stay lower. If you only enroll students who choose to attend, your costs probably stay lower.

Money matters, and in education it matters a lot. I can certainly sympathize with the parent Melvin interviewed who declared that she was willing to do whatever it took to get her child a good education. But let's be clear that part of what makes an education "good" is having adequate resources. 

Even Kristof acknowledges this: "It would be odd if schools with teachers and books didn’t outperform schools without them." OK, great... Are you saying that the only way to get teachers and books into African schools is to turn them over to for-profit companies that can't turn a profit?

That brings us to the last question:

What, exactly, must students, teachers, families, and citizens give up under a "choice" system to get more resources into their schools?

As a long-time observer of all things reformy, this is the one argument from school privatizers that frustrates me the most: that extra resources can only come if schools slip away from governmental control. That the hope for competent, corruption-free governance is so far-fetched -- be it in Nairobi or Philadelphia -- that the only chance schools have is to move away from democracy and towards market models dominated by providers with ties to Wall Street or Silicon Valley.

In fact, this is exactly the case reformy CEOs like Reed Hastings of Netflix make: school boards, which allow citizens a direct say in how our society's children are educated, are actually an impediment to educational improvement. In other words: we have no "choice" but to move school governance away from governmental structures and put it in the hands of the not-really-all-that-free market.

So how's that working? It hasn't helped Detroit, or the students of cyber charters of Pennsylvania, or the taxpayers who subsidize the charter school land grabbers in Miami. It hasn't helped the citizens looking for transparency from Gulen-linked charters, or the taxpayers of Ohio. It hasn't helped students and families who lose due-process rights when enrolling in charters. It hasn't helped those who care about good government in North Carolina, or those who want to control school administration costs in New Jersey, or students left in the lurch in Michigan, or all those affected by numerous examples of waste, fraud, and abuse throughout the nation's charter school sector.

Are there examples of bad behavior in our public schools? You bet. Are there decent charter schools getting good results? Sure. But it increasingly seems as if there are at least as many bad apples in the charter barrel as there are good.

Carol Burris, who spent years as a public school principal and now advocates for public education, has been putting examples of charter school malfeasance on her twitter feed lately with the intro: "Another day, another charter scandal..." She's almost literally right; I'll bet she could put up a new scandal a day if she really tried.

There's a very good case to be made that the "choice" system our reliquishy friends in the reform industry tout actually encourages this sort of behavior. Self-dealing, profit-taking, cherry-picking... it's not necessarily a part of "choice," but it does seem the odds of such behavior increase when the market becomes the primary mechanism through which we hold schools accountable.

* * *

Let's bring this all together:

There is little evidence that the fraction of "choice" schools that appear to get better results do so because they are "innovative" in their educational practices. But the "choice" schools that do get gains all seem to have structural advantages, starting with resource advantages -- gained through a variety of strategies -- that allow them to offer things like longer days, longer years, smaller student:staff ratios, and extended educational programming.

By all appearances, we seem to be able to adequately fund our schools in the affluent, leafy 'burbs, even as we shrug our shoulders at the prospect of doing the same for urban centers enrolling many students who are in economic disadvantage. Millburn has what it needs; Newark does not. Gross Point has plenty; Detroit doesn't. New Trier is fine; Chicago is not. Lower Merion thrives; Philadelphia withers.

It's a story that plays out across the nation. Somehow these affluent communities manage to scrape together enough to provide adequate educations for their children, even when burdened with unionized teachers and step contracts and democratically elected school boards. Somehow they manage to get their schools what they need without giving up transparency and governmental accountability and agency for all of their citizens through the democratic process.

School "choice" is the result of a failure of honesty and will. 

The failure of honesty comes from failing to fully acknowledge that structural inequities -- inequality, chronic poverty, racism, inadequate school funding -- lead to unequal educational outcomes. It also comes from failing to acknowledge that the advantages a select few "choice" schools have accrued to themselves are directly responsible for their outcome gains.

The failure of will results from a failure to act collectively in ways that would move adequate resources to all schools where they are lacking, without giving up democratic governmental control.

Neither Kristof nor Lemmon nor Hardy nor anyone else has given us any reason to believe that the only way to get more resources into schools that need them is to abandon governmental control. There is, however, plenty of reason to believe shifting school control to private entities will reduce transparency, student and family rights, and efficiency -- both here and abroad.

When children live lives free of want and attend well-resourced, government-controlled schools they do very well. Certainly, there are problems and room for improvement. But communities don't need to give up control of their schools if the pre-conditions for success are in place.

Instead of upending the entire system, why don't we try that?

ADDING: I've been looking at the data, and we need to talk about student attrition and Boys Latin. Stand by...

* At the same time, David Hardy, founder of Boys Latin and prominently featured in Melvin's piece, took in $200K in salary and another $66K in benefits; again, Boys Latin had 747 students in 2014. In contrast, William Hite, the superintendent of the entire Philadelphia district, reportedly makes $300K/year running a district with over 130K students.

Just saying.


laMissy said...

"Millburn has what it needs; Newark does not. Gross Point has plenty; Detroit doesn't. New Trier is fine; Chicago is not. Lower Merion thrives; Philadelphia withers."

Brookline, Newton and Milton (MA) have what they need; Boston is being systemically defunded by its mayor, who is a founding member of a charter school. Boston is flush with cash, and considered by many to be the best public school system in the nation. For the next school year, there will be cuts of $11 million to 49 schools. The mayor is exercising school choice.

Duke said...

laMissy, I could have had that paragraph go on for days. MA, like NJ, is better than most states, but there has been a retreat from equity. It doesn't help when the state doesn't fully fund its charter reimbursement policy.

Diane Payne said...

And Scott Gordon of the Philadelphia "Mastery Empire" pulls in about $250,000. This insane multi-tiered system only makes sense to the money grabbers.