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, April 4, 2012

Noble Charter Update

Earlier this week, I took a look at the exercise in union-bashing propaganda that Juan Williams and Kyle Olson put out, disguised as a documentary about Noble Street Charter Network schools in Chicago. It turns out Noble is serving a substantially different student population than the rest of the CPS public high schools, which may well account for its higher test scores. There's also evidence that Noble has very high attrition rates.

Two days before my post, Noble had come under some harsh criticism from Congressman Danny Davis:

I found that in 2009:
  • Noble Street suspended 51 percent of its students out of school at least once – almost 3 times the 18 percent rate of Chicago Public Schools (CPS). 
  • Although Noble Street has a lower percentage of African American students than CPS – only 30 percent in the sample – 53 percent of students suspended at least once were African American.  Moreover, nearly all African American students – 88 percent– were suspended out of school at least once, compared to only about one-third of African American students in CPS.
  • Noble Street suspended out of school 68 percent of its students with disabilities and 48 percent of its students without disabilities, compared to the respective CPS rates of 38 percent and 15 percent.
These statistics clearly demonstrate a striking, systemic problem with the Noble Street discipline practices. Student misbehavior cannot justify these numbers. 
Noble's co-founder, Michael Milkie, has responded. I urge you to read his entire piece; for my money, Milkie still has a few questions to answer, which I'll get to below. What I really want to point out first, however, is what Milkie has to say about Williams and Olson's film:

Juan Williams’ video
 When Juan Williams of FOX News asked to film a documentary at Noble, we were happy to share Noble’s story, but were not aware of how the video would so negatively portray the Chicago Teacher’s Union.  We would not have agreed to participate if we had known. I have already publically expressed my problems and disappointment with the content of the video. I believe in a positive debate and that video was not helpful.  I also know and respect the outstanding work that thousands of CTU members do every day for their students. [emphasis mine]
Ouch. Not exactly the sort of thanks I'm sure Williams and Olson were looking for. As Geoff Dougherty reports, it looks as if Milkie is worried about being tarred with the same brush as Williams and Olson:

Milkie says he was disappointed after watching the film. "We thought it was going to be about Noble Street, and it was more like they thought: 'We're going to use Noble to attack the teachers union' ... It wasn't about the issue as much as it was demagoguery and lampooning the union. I don't know why the film was not more nuanced."
Williams is no stranger to controversy. In 2010, NPR severed its contract with Williams, who had served as a national correspondent, for comments he made about Muslims on Fox News.
Last week, I asked a Fox News spokeswoman if the network had any policies addressing journalistic standards for outside work by its on-air personnel, and also requested that she put me in touch with Williams so that I could ask about his role in "Two Missions." I have yet to hear back from Williams and the network.
It's tempting to give Williams a pass for his role in this faux-journalism project. After all, he appears on Fox News, a network that conflates propaganda and news on a more-or-less hourly basis. But Williams, relying on his background at NPR and as a staff writer for the Washington Post, has styled himself as more of a reporter and political analyst than a party shill. Apparently those days are over. [emphasis mine]
Oh, dear. Well, what about Olson, the film's producer?

The film was produced by the Education Action Group, a Michigan nonprofit that was involved in the epic anti-union battles fought last year in Wisconsin and Indiana.
EAG's founder, Kyle Olson, says the film was the product of extensive research. "We do our homework," he says. "We asked around to make sure there weren't any land mines."
Olson's homework apparently did not extend to reviewing test scores for other charter schools in Chicago, or looking at studies like those published by Wong. Olson told me he'd seen neither study and wasn't aware of the lackluster performance many Chicago charter schools have posted.
Not only had Olson not looked at the other Chicago charters; it seems as if he didn't even look closely at Noble. For example:

In his op-ed rebutting Congressman Davis, Milkie echoes a point made in the film:
I absolutely respect the enormity of the job of neighborhood high schools, who must take students at any time of the year and in any year of high school.  However, Noble admits (by random lottery when needed) all students regardless of test scores, grades or any other factor.  It is true that self-selection, inherent in the application process, does make a difference. However, our demographics (89% free and reduced lunch and 98% African-American and Latino students) suggest that our campuses are much closer demographically to neighborhood high schools than to selective enrollment high schools. [emphasis mine] 
That's pretty slick: he's putting African-American and Latino students together, when the real issue is how many of each Noble has. And he completely evades this:

Further, Milkie claims:
But even compared to district averages, including selective enrollment schools, Noble loses fewer students. The following statistics (compared to the district) are from the 2011 Illinois State Report Card.  Noble’s graduation rate is higher (89.7% to 73.8%), drop-out rate is lower (2.9% to 5.5%), and mobility rate is lower (7.8% to 17.6%).  Noble loses fewer students than the average district high school, and much of that retention is because of a discipline system that provides a safe environment, involves parents, and promotes self-discipline (e.g. learning to arrive on time or complete tasks).
Interesting, because Milkie objects earlier to being compared to all CPS schools, not just high schools, when looking at suspension rates. Yet he compares Noble to all CPS schools when looking at mobility.

According to the state report card, "mobility" is only counted during the school year; if you transfer over the summer, it doesn't count. And students who transfer from Noble to CPS schools aren't included in Noble's drop-out rate, even if they drop out later. So this:

still raises a lot of questions.

Now, I think it's worth having an honest conversation about all this. No matter what the numbers say about Noble, at least Milkie is willing to make his case in a civil, open forum. We can, and we should, debate what all this means.

But I would have thought Juan Williams, journalist that he purports to be, would have wanted to look into all of this before he put out his film. I would have thought Kyle Olson, as the film's producer, would have anticipated these rather obvious points I'm making.

So what does Olson, a regular tweeter, say about all this now? (I compiled this from several clips to make it coherent, but click the link to check for yourself)

To recap: Olson and Williams put out a film that used a controversial charter school to make the case that the Chicago teachers union is responsible for "failing" schools. Not only does the founder of the school disavow the film; it turns out many of claims in the film of the school's "success" are questionable.

And yet, when confronted with this, the producer not only won't address the issues; he pawns off the questions to the school founder who disavows him.

I'll close this out with a thought: many of the educators who work in charter schools are good people with sincere motives. I do think Milkie isn't being totally straightforward about how he has achieved his "success," but I also have no doubt that he believes in what he is doing and that Noble may, in fact, be a good fit for many of his students.

We need to have a serious discussion about education in low-income communities. We need to seriously talk about the impact of schools like Noble - for better or for worse - on systems like CPS, and on the children who attend schools both in and out of Noble's network.

Olson and Williams's film is not part of that discussion. Its simplistic view of education is not worthy of the deserving children of Chicago or our nation. It is clearly an exercise in union-bashing that used the staff and students of Nobel to take a swipe at Chicago's teachers. Mr. Milkie, I'm sorry, but you were played (not that you're totally innocent).

How many more of you out there supporting the "reform" agenda are being treated in exactly the same way? 


Anonymous said...

(migraine) You attempt to surround the drumbeat of necessary change with a cacophony of BS designed for paralysis by analysis.

You know who you suspend? Kids that do something to get suspended. You don't divvy it up by disability and race and wring your hands if the percentages are out of line with the catastrophic public schools or if they tick off some Chicago community activists.

You can't encourage those Chicago community activists, no telling what damage they could do.

Anonymous said...

"paralysis by analysis"? I have to use that one when my students read Orwell's "Politics and the English Language"! A handy phrase, indeed. You didn't make it up though, right? Why find out what's really going on? You deserve a cracker, Polly!

czarejs said...

Lol anon. Finally I have to say you are right about something. You do suspend students that deserve it. What you don't do is suspend students so much that you "encourage" them to leave your school. You also don't try to convince others your system is better based on skewed numbers and poorly concealed propaganda films.