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, January 13, 2013

Segregation By Behavior: Chartery Secret Sauce

Diane Ravitch points us to this piece by Michael Petrilli, where the wonk-in-chief of the reformy movement finally comes clean:
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In my view, we should be proud of the charter schools that are identifying and serving high-potential low-income students—kids who are committed to using education to escape poverty and are often supported in that effort by education-minded parents.
The reason to celebrate these schools and the role they play is because the traditional system has been downright hostile to the needs of such striving children and families—as have been many charter critics. Magnet “exam schools,” such as those recently profiled by Checker Finn and Jessica Hockett, are viewed with suspicion; tracking or ability grouping is seen as elitist; any effort to provide special classes, environments, or challenges for motivated or high-achieving kids is cast as perpetuating inequality—even when all the kids are poor, and even though there’s a ton of evidence that high achievers do best around other high achievers.
And now these “social justice” types want to berate schools for asking disruptive students to leave. For sure, there should be checks on pushing kids out willy-nilly. Thankfully, charter officials in D.C. are already on the case, publicizing discipline data and prodding the handful of schools with sky-high expulsion and suspension rates to find better approaches.
But let’s not forget about the needs (even rights) of the other kids to learn. Isn’t it possible that U.S. public schools have gone too far in the direction of accommodating the disruptors at the expense of everyone else? Or been guilty of “defining deviancy down,” in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s words? As Eduwonk Andy wrote this week, it’s probably because charter schools are willing (and able) to enforce discipline that they are so popular with parents. That wouldn’t be true if they had to retain chronic disrupters. [underline emphasis  mine]
Well. Let me get a broom so we can sweep up after I've knocked Petrilli's straw men to the floor...

Let's start with this: at least we're finally getting some of the charter cheerleaders to admit to what is really going on. Because, for far too long, these people have been pushing the transparently ridiculous notion that charters get their gains because they are "free" to "innovate," and "don't have to worry about bureaucracy," and "set high expectations," and "don't have to deal with unions," and so on. And it's all been nonsense.

Rahm Emanuel looks into Juan Williams's camera with a straight face and says the Nobel Charter Network in Chicago has found the "combination to the lock," ignoring the obvious truth that Nobel's high attrition rate and differing student population are responsible for at least a large part of its "success." Steve Perry gets paid (until recently) by CNN to go on TV and bash unionized teachers for setting low expectations, conveniently forgetting to mention the stark contrast in student background between his school's student body and the neighboring public schools. Ben Chavis pulls essentially the same trick. KIPP twists itself into knots to obscure its practices of student attrition. Chris Cerf lauds Newark's charters, ignoring the overwhelming evidence that they engage in high rates of attrition and serve different students.

This is just a small sample of the prevarication, obfuscation, and outright lying that comprises most of the charter cheerleaders' arguments. So it's a big deal when a reformyist like Petrilli finally comes clean about what's really happening: "successful" charters engage in a pattern of skimming the students who are easiest to educate. I can only hope this is the first of many dominoes to fall, although I think many of these folks are far too intractable to admit that they've been pushing a phony line all this time.

So, good on Petrilli for finally coming clean. Too bad about the the rest of his argument...

Let's start with the idea that "THE LEFT" has a problem with differentiating instruction by ability. As evidence, Petrilli links to another piece of his where he blithely makes the same claim, yet provides no evidence to back it up:
First, there's nervousness about elitism. This is fed by the small percentages of low-income black and Hispanic youngsters in many gifted-and-talented classrooms and specialized schools. In reality, however, this underrepresentation reflects the education system's own failure to identify such kids and counsel them into a sufficiency of classrooms, schools, and programs—a failure that inevitably advantages upper-middle-class youngsters with pushy, well-educated, well-connected parents.
Second, there's the widespread belief—originating on the left but no longer confined there—that "equity" should be solely about income, minority status, handicapping conditions, and historical disenfranchisement. Most of American society does not seem to believe that giftedness constitutes a "special need" or that inattention to it violates some children's equal rights. 
Care to show us an example of this phenomenon "originating on the left," Mike? Couldn't even find some obscure blogger somewhere to make your point? It is, of course, standard operating procedure in the reformy world to accuse "THE LEFT" of the bigotry of soft expectations; it's a convenient way to avoid addressing our complaints.

Look, there is a serious and legitimate discussion occurring among educators about ability tracking. Carol Burris doesn't have tracking at her high school, but that's because so many of her kids take challenging courses anyway. But I don't think you can say the top of her bell curve is hurting when the school has an extensive IB program.

In any case, any discussion of gifted and talented education is besides the point here: charters are not G&T schools. Over and over again, the charter cheerleaders tell us that they are open to all kids, that their lotteries ensure fairness, and that they go out of their way to recruit kids who are struggling. By their own admission, charters aren't schools just for the best and the brightest.

By conflating G&T education with charters, Petrilli plays a slick game: he pretends that charters are identifying students with high potential. But what charters are really identifying are the children who are compliant. If a child has the personality that allows them to conform to the charter's particular style - a style that is often based on authoritarianism - they can stay. That is not the same thing as identifying a child with high academic potential.

Further, even if charters were schools for the gifted, I couldn't think of a worse way of identifying those children than the current lottery/attrition system used by "successful" charters. That system basically says to parents: "Take a chance on getting your kid in here, then take a chance that he's going to fit in." No standards for admission, and arbitrary standards for retention: that's hardly a fair and equitable process for identifying and retaining talented children.

So, no, charters are not about serving the gifted. But I'm actually going to give Petrilli credit here, because he is addressing an issue that neo-liberals admittedly don't want to deal with (even if I think he's being more than a little disingenuous in how he's going about it):

The sad fact is that we already do segregate the students in our public schools: we segregate them by the ability and willingness of their families to pay high prices for housing. If you can afford to pay in the high six-digits for a house in the leafy 'burbs, then you can send your kid to a fabulous school that will not segregate her from high-achieving children, even if she's struggling academically or behaviorally. That school will be well-resourced and have a broad and rich curriculum; you'll also have much more influence on its administration through democratically elected school boards that will be far more responsive to your concerns than autocratic urban school leaders.

These are rights and privileges that come from wealth. They are not available to parents living in urban areas where school resources are being drained by both regressive tax structures and the proliferation of charters, and where citizens are increasingly disenfranchised from having a say in how their schools are run. We currently have a two-tiered system of eduction in this country, and it has nothing to do with how "gifted" the students are in each tier.

Again, I give Petrilli credit for finally addressing all of this. But let's take it to its logical conclusion:

If we are really saying the issue in urban education is that the "disruptors" need to be separated out, then charters are a terrible way to do so. Folks like Petrilli who want to segregate the children this way have an obligation to propose a fair, transparent, and broad-based system of evaluation at the developmentally appropriate time to track children not just by ability, but by classroom behavior. That system needs to be free of racial, ethnic, gender, and socio-economic bias.

But, perhaps most importantly, it needs to be applied uniformly across our society. There should be no more recourse for wealthy parents to buy their way into a public school district that mainstreams their disruptive, underachieving child with the high-flyers, while poor children in cities are separated into castes.

Good luck trying to sell that one to the PTO, Mike.

Until Petrilli is ready to roll out his system, let's at least all agree on his premise: the secret to "successful" charters is that they serve different students than neighboring public schools. That's a big step forward in the debate, and one I'd be happy to see many others take.

So, who want to be the first to agree with Petrilli? Anyone?

ADDING: I drafted this before this article about G&T in the NY Times came out. Stand by...

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