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

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Myth of the Heroic Charter School - Part V (Final)

Here's Part I of this series.

Here's Part II.

Here's Part III.

Here's Part IV.

And finally, Part V.

I've been taking a deep data dive, looking at this claim by Stephen Chiger, the "Director of Literacy" for Uncommon Schools, one of the best-known charter school operators in the country:
Take the most recent PARCC exams in New Jersey. About 41% of the state’s 11th graders met or exceeded expectations on the test. 
In Essex County, high-income Millburn High School (2.2% economically disadvantaged) saw 57% of students scoring proficient or advanced on the assessment. The juniors at Livingston High School (1.5 % economically disadvantaged) earned 56.5%. 
A few miles away, the juniors at Newark-based North Star Academy (83.7% economically disadvantaged) earned an 80.6% pass rate. 
The school achieved it through more systems and strategies than I could possibly recount here. The good news is that I don’t have to. 
Uncommon Schools, which manages North Star, publishes books — and books and books – to share its practices. It regularly films teachers to “show” and not just “tell.” It opens its doors to hundreds of visitors every year. It runs professional development for external audiences and sells trainings so they can turn-key them locally. 
And, there’s good evidence it’s working.[emphasis mine]
As I've shown, this claim is factually correct, but it masks a larger truth. The pass rate on the PARCC was no doubt affected by the high opt-out rates in suburban schools. Those students almost certainly knew the PARCC didn't mean diddly to their futures, so they blew it off.

We can confirm this by looking at the pass rates of high school tests that actually matter:

As I've further shown, the education a teen in an affluent suburban school gets is completely different from the education offered by "no excuses" schools such as Uncommon's North Star. AP course offerings are far more extensive. Teachers are much more likely to be college-trained and much less likely to be inexperienced. More staff in the arts, foreign languages, and counseling are available, all very useful for students striving to get into elite colleges. Suspension rates are much lower in the suburbs:

Remember: Uncommon is the former charter management organization (CMO) of our new Secretary of Education, John King. Even though the USDOE frowns upon suspension as a practice, Uncommon's schools in three different states have high suspension rates. Is this one of the "systems and strategies" Chiger credits for Uncommon's success?

Chiger notes that Uncommon's leaders have published plenty of books describing the "systems and strategies" they employ. One of his links is to Doug Lemov's Teach Like a Champion, 2.0. Lemov is the "Managing Director of Uncommon Schools’ Teach Like a Champion team" (whatever that means).

I haven't yet read Lemov's latest, but I did read the original Teach Like a Champion, published in 2010. Frankly, it comes across like it was written by a cookbook author who believes he's the first guy to ever think of putting cheese on top of a hamburger. For example:
In order to make engaged participation the expectation, call on students regardless of whether they have raised their hands. (p.112) 
Dude, seriously? You're writing this in 2010 -- please tell me you don't actually think you're saying something innovative. Teachers have been warned about only calling on kids who raise their hands for years. OK, sometimes it's good to be reminded of things that reek of common sense... but is this really one of the "systems and strategies" that sets Uncommon apart from other schools?

Other teacher training leftovers presented like nouvelle cuisine include "wait time," making students do things over and over again until they get it right, and framing things positively. There's really nothing innovative or unique in all this; it's all stuff I saw when I was a novice teacher going through my traditional, university-based training. Understand, it was only a small part of that training; developing a comprehensive teaching philosophy takes time, a variety of coursework, and intensive scrutiny of a developing teacher's practice.

But it actually makes sense that Lemov would write a book with such basics when you think about who teaches in an Uncommon charter school:

Unlike teaching staffs in affluent suburban schools, North Star's teachers are more likely to be provisionally certificated,* receiving training outside of colleges & universities, and surrounded by fewer experienced colleagues who could serve as mentors, official or unofficial. Teach Like a Champion, full of standard teaching tricks of the trade, is exactly the book you'd want to give to teachers who are thrown into classrooms with minimal preparation...

Except it isn't.

Let me first refer you to more extended reviews of the book by Ray Salazar, Sam Chaltain, and Peg Robertson before I give my take, which really comes down to two related things:

First, there's a disquieting thread that runs through Teach Like a Champion that is reflected in this passage (p. 53):
  1. Content is one of the places that teaching is most vulnerable to assumptions and stereotypes. What does it say, for example, if we assume that students won’t be inspired by books written by authors of other races? Or by protagonists of different backgrounds than their own? More specifically what does it say if we are more likely to assume those things about minority students? Do we think that great novels transcend boundaries only for some kids? Consider the novelist Earnest Gaines’s description of the authors who inspired him to write. Gaines, who wrote several of the most highly acclaimed novels of the twentieth century, including Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Lesson Before Dying, and A Gathering of Old Men, grew up poor in rural Louisiana on the same land his family had share-cropped for generations, He was the eldest of twelve children and was raised by his aunt—the kind of kid to whom some might ascribe a limited worldview, probably without asking, and to whom few would assign a diet of nineteenth-century Russian novelists. Yet Gaines recalls: “My early influences were . . . the Russian writers such as Tolstoy, Turgenev and Chekhov. I think I’ve also been influenced by Greek tragedy, but not by Ellison and any black writers. I knew very early what it was I wanted to write. I just had to find out a way to do it and the . . . writers whom I’ve mentioned showed me this way.” 
  1. Let me say that I love Ellison, just as I love Gaines, and am not suggesting we not teach his work (to all students incidentally). But imagine the loss not just to Gaines but to all of us if the teacher who first put Turgenev in his hands and inspired the spark of genius to grow into a flame had looked at the color of his skin, assumed that Gaines wouldn’t find interest in anything so foreign, and thought better of Turgenev. [emphasis mine] 
Let's knock down the straw literary critic first: no one I know has ever said that students of color should only read books by authors who share their backgrounds. Of course black kids should read Tolstoy and Euripides -- just like white kids should read Ellison.

I'm old enough to remember the debate over The Closing of the American Mind in real time. What critics of the "Great Books" curriculum were actually saying was that if the canon only includes white guys**, a lot of great work is going to be excluded, and students are going to rightly wonder why -- especially students whose own backgrounds are not represented.

Is this really such a critical place for Lemov to plant his flag? Would he really be so put out if a school taught Ellison and Baldwin and Morrison and Hughes as its base, with a bit of Milton and Melville added to mix things up? Would students' critical facilities really suffer under that sort of a curriculum?

Or is there maybe another agenda at play here? (p. 54)
This offers a reminder not to assume there’s a “they” who won’t really “get” something, say sonnets and other traditional forms of poetry, and that it’s therefore better to teach them poetry through hip-hop lyrics instead. What happens when they take Introduction to Literature in their freshman year in college and have never read a poem written before 1900? Kids respond to challenges; they require pandering only if people pander to them. 
Again: no one is saying that all students shouldn't read poems by white guys written before 1900. But what happens when students go to Harvard and major in English and find they are expected to take core courses like Migrations: Fictions of America but have only read white, male novelists?

It seems to me that the world has passed Doug Lemov by. The tired debates about "multiculturalism" have become pointless, because the canon has changed, and largely for the better. Why does he feel the need, then, to bring all this up? What's the mindset here?

Which brings me to my second critique: there is no room in Teach Like a Champion for agency -- and that's agency of both the student and the teacher. Lemov's pedagogy, to my reading, is best described by Wayne Au as a form of "New Taylorism":
Additionally, in teaching to the tests in content and curricular form, teachers in the US are also adopting pedagogical strategies that more closely align to the forms of knowledge and content contained on the high-stakes tests. In US classrooms this translates into teachers adopting more teacher- centred pedagogies, such as lectures, to meet the content and form demands of the tests. (p. 31) 
If there was ever a "teacher-centered pedagogy," it's Teach Like a Champion. In Lemov's world, the teacher is a technocrat, gathering up a bunch of tricks and tips so she can fill up her students' heads with the stuff that gets them to pass PARCC tests. Individualizing instruction isn't a concern of a "champion" teacher; to the contrary, Lemov believes that teachers should be "strategically impersonal."

There's little in the book about making personal connections to students. There's little about project-based learning, or other forms of constructivist instruction. There's little about building a learning community, or fostering an environment of healthy debate and respectful dissent.

I've been posting Jean Anyon's picture at the end of this series all week to make a point: the pedagogy that Lemov espouses would never, ever fly in affluent suburban schools. Anyon's classic 1980 study made the compelling case that schools structure their curricula and cultures around societal expectations based on class and race.

Aren't we seeing this in both Teach Like a Champion, and in the data dive I took comparing North Star to Livingston and Millburn High Schools? Let's break it down again:

The 'Burbs:
  • Experienced teachers with university-based training.
  • A broad, rich curriculum with many opportunities for college-level courses.
  • Student-centered learning (at least as a goal).
  • A literary canon that largely reflects students' backgrounds.
  • Shorter class days, but many opportunities for extracurricular activities.
  • Low suspension rates.
  • Access to cultural, economic, and social capital that aids in preparing students to be accepted into and thrive at elite colleges.
"No Excuses" Charters:
  • Inexperienced teachers with "alternative" training.
  • A less broad curriculum, focused on standardized test outcomes, with fewer college-level opportunities.
  • Teacher-centered learning (at least as reflected in their training).
  • A literary canon that largely reflects other students' backgrounds.
  • Longer class days, and fewer extracurricular, artistic, foreign language and other offerings.
  • High suspension rates, part of a strict disciplinary environment.
  • Less access to that same capital -- in many cases, far less.
Do I blame Uncommon and Doug Lemov and Stephen Chiger for this last reality? Absolutely not: I do blame them, however, from distracting us from having the conversation we should be having.

There is a fundamental, structural difference between the lives and the schooling of disadvantaged urban and affluent suburban students. This difference will not be rectified by "choice," nor by a "no excuses" pedagogy; it can only be addressed by making education "reform" part of a larger program of societal reform.

Do I think our schools can improve absent a renewed assault on poverty and inequity and racism? Unquestionably, yes -- starting with a policy of adequately and equitably funding our schools. In New Jersey, fully funding the state's own law when it comes to providing state aid would be a good start (but it would only be a start - more to come). And if we are going to have "choice," we'd better make sure it isn't negatively affecting the finances of public, district schools, as it too often does.

And let's be clear about something else: we have far too many incidents, both large and small, of teachers and administrators behaving badly toward students of color and students in economic disadvantage in public, district schools.*** This is a serious problem, and it can't be simply be dismissed by pointing fingers at "no excuses" charters.

But these conversations keep getting delayed by the promises of "reformers" who sell stories about their beloved charters "...giving lie to the implication that school improvement needs to wait for the country to heal poverty." It is clear to me that these schools are demonstrating exactly the opposite: despite all their "successes," high-flying charter schools continue to show that "choice" and "reform" will not overcome the structural inequities inherent in our education system.

It is time to move beyond the reform industry's focus on "choice" and start having an honest conversation about the state of America' schools. I understand Chiger and Lemov's desire to justify their work, but a-contextual data points in the service of promoting the myth of the heroic charter school are little more than distractions. We can do better.

No excuses.

Educational reforms cannot compensate for the ravages of society.
Jean Anyon (1941-2013)

* I swear, it's a word.

** Ever notice how these arguments in favor of the traditional canon always seem to exclude women authors? Again: about three-quarters of teachers are women. Hmm...

*** And LGTBQ students, something I haven't written nearly enough about. I will try to get to that more this year.

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