The Charter School Dilemma

Over Thanksgiving break I had the opportunity to be a part of Colgate’s “Boston Non-Profit Immersion Trip” which basically meant that I visited a couple non-profits in Boston with a group of Colgate students and talked to the people who work there about their experiences and their organization. At night we had a reception with alumni who work in the Common Good/non-profit sector. (Colgate loves alumni receptions). Any day Colgate gives me free food and alcohol is a good day by me, but seeing the dedication and empathy that people who run non-profits have was inspiring and really made the trip worth it.

At the reception at an upscale hotel in Boston, the keynote speaker was an alum who is currently the Secretary of Education for Massachusetts. He discussed some of the major issues in education such as the achievement gaps between different races and classes. He also talked thoroughly about charter schools. Boston has an extensive network of public charter schools run by various organizations such as KIPP and Match, both of which employ recent Colgate graduates, that have been very successful. According to the speaker, students in Boston can apply to go to a certain high school, including the charters, or they can go to their local neighborhood school. The charters are purposely kept small and turn away at least as many students as are accepted through the admission lottery. Charter schools cannot grow significantly in size since that would defeat their goal of small classes and individual attention, and there are governmental limits on how many of the city’s schools can be charters. So what do we do for students who don’t get in to charter schools or didn’t know about them in the first place? Well, that’s exactly what I asked during the Q&A session. The speaker said we need to find ways to increase the number of charters as well as improve neighborhood schools. Fair enough, but what are the implications of expanding charters? Would a city completely comprised of charter schools be a worthwhile goal?

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Charter schools have been controversial, partially because they can take resources away from traditional public schools. Source: cable.com

There’s no doubt that many charter schools in Boston are doing great work and helping their students be successful. However, there are some potential negatives that can come with expanding charters too much. First, it can take our attention and resources too far away from the traditional public school, ignoring the needs of students who go to their local neighborhood school. Secondly, it can take public education out of the hands of the public. Many people, Diane Ravitch (2013) in particular, have written extensively about the privatization movement in education. While the schools in Boston may be public charter schools, they are run by organizations other than the local school district. These organizations, in many cases, do great work and have good intentions, but are, according to Ravitch, part of the “Hoax of the Privatization Movement.” Groups such as the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation donate to create schools and curriculums that fit their idea of what a good school should be. This could mean a school focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) to train students for today’s high-tech careers. This sounds great, but is intertwined with the “hidden curriculum” and functionalism, which I wrote about in previous posts. The charter schools in Boston have not necessarily followed this path, but pushing for more charters only moves schools further away from the public sector. Public schools can improve without a charter. Steps need to be taken to embrace what many charter schools in Boston are doing right – namely small classes, individual attention,  sufficient resources, dedicated teachers, and non-academic services for students and families.

On the surface, charter schools really look promising, and this is where the charter school conversation personally gets complicated for me. I want to wholeheartedly embrace Ravitch’s anti-privatization argument and say I won’t teach at a charter school. However, I look at some of the charter schools I am familiar with (from meeting students who attend them and Colgate alums who work there) and I am really impressed with the work they do, and can really see myself being a part of it. I have definitely been conflicted with this issue, but a 2012 alumna who is a teacher at one of Boston’s charter schools recently helped me understand this dilemma when I talked to her at a Colgate networking event. She said she is very aware of the controversy surrounding charter schools, but she loves her job because she likes the community outreach her school does and she can see herself making a difference in her students’ lives. She said that this is not true of every charter school, but it is at her’s. This really helped me put my own position as a future teacher because I see myself, first and foremost, as a difference-maker at the individual level of my students. I absolutely want to address the larger issues in education, but, most importantly for me, I want to feel that I am supporting my students, helping them succeed and helping them believe in their own abilities. I would not work in a school that I see as promoting privatization an being profit-driven, but, given the correct circumstances, I probably would not be against teaching at a public charter school. Well, I’m pretty sure…

What’s the Deal With Common Core?

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Despite good intentions, the Common Core State Standards have been a burden on schools and have done little to address school inequality. Source: mattersnot.com 

No current discussion on education is complete without addressing the controversy surrounding the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and I thought now would be as good a time to bring it up as any, since I see it as related to my previous post. If you don’t remember, my last post talked about functionalism and how the “hidden curriculum” keeps schools from being the ‘equalizers’ they should be (in addition to the effects of poverty, unequal funding, etc.). Common core seems like a logical deterrent to the hidden curriculum – everyone learns the same thing. Regardless of your background or what school you go to, you can expect to learn the same material as millions of other students without worrying that your teacher is only teaching you what you need for a low-paying job. The problem with CCSS, however, is that it has been anything but the equalizer it is intended to be. The success of the common core lies with how it is embraced and utilized, but its demanding standards and focus on testing have made it difficult for its intended success to be realized. The successor to No Child Left Behind has improved very little, and its rollout has been disastrous.

There has been a lot written about the challenges associated with common core (Sawchuk, 2012; Brooks & Dietz, 2013; Halladay & Moses, 2013; Vecellio, 2013; Wexler, 2014; among many others), but the most convincing data, in my opinion, comes directly from teachers who have had to teach the new standards. This semester, I have had the privilege to observe the classes of two high school math teachers in a high-needs rural school near Colgate University, and I interviewed both of them about their experiences with the common core. It’s important to note that both teachers actually see the good in the common core; one of the teachers is actually very excited about the “real-world problem solving” the common core demands, but the rollout and associated demands of teachers and students have been extremely challenging.

This school, despite being “high-needs,” has very dedicated teachers, a supportive administration and sufficient resources. The challenges faced by these teachers would only be amplified in a less supportive school environment.

They said they went narrower and want us to go deeper. I think they’ve kept it the same width and expect us to go deeper. I don’t think they’ve taken any material out.

I can’t get them (the students) to an advanced proof without teaching them the basics. So even though the standards don’t say I have to do that, I have to do that in order to get them to understand what is in the standard.

-10th Grade Geometry Teacher, referring to the depth of curriculum in the Common Core standards

One major problem with the common core is the demand that students understand material at a “deep” level. However, understanding takes time. To help teachers find this time, the decision-makers supposedly reduced the width of the curriculum. While this teacher is skeptical that any material was taken out of the Geometry curriculum, she also realizes that the standards may have more advanced material, but she still has to teach the basics. Repeatedly, both teachers told me that “time is of the essence” because there simply isn’t enough time in the school day to accomplish what the common core demands.

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There’s not enough time in the day to cover all of the common core standards. Source: larrycuban.wordpress.com

 

Now, imagine a school where students struggle to pass standardized tests due to underfunding, poverty and, perhaps, unqualified teachers. This school is now expected to achieve at an even higher level. This is impossible in the short term, and without major changes to funding and teacher retention, it’s pretty close to impossible in the long term.

There’s going to be a group of kids this is going to hurt. The ones that are in the middle. It is going to hurt them.

-11th Grade Algebra 2 Teacher, referring to students who are “caught in the middle” of the Common Core

Additionally, the Common Core was rolled out across all grades in just a few years. Students who did not go through elementary and middle school with the Common Core were suddenly faced with a new curriculum. They were unprepared and so were their schools. The school I have been visiting used the New York State Common Core Modules, which are known for being too difficult and scripted, during their first year of common core Algebra. This first year was “disastrous” and even a couple years later, when the teachers are armed with textbooks and other resources, students still have “knowledge gaps” because they did not grow up with common core.

The Algebra 2 teacher thinks that the Common Core will pay dividends in a few years when students are more prepared for it, but why are decision makers content with hurting today’s students? We should never sacrifice today’s students so that tomorrow’s students can succeed, especially when the future success of the Common Core is so debatable. (And by the time today’s elementary schoolers are in high school, the Common Core will have likely gone the way of No Child Left Behind and be a distant memory).

Overall, there are a lot of technical difficulties with common core, but these can be addressed over time, though at the expense of current students. Perhaps the Common Core can eventually be considered a strong set of standards, but I have to wonder, why is all of this necessary? Yes, the new standards may encourage more critical mathematical thinking than past standards, but the two very qualified teachers I have observed can encourage this kind of thinking on their own. After all, the Geometry teacher told me that her “professional opinion is the best way to teach” the new standards. Consequently, I strongly believe that her professional opinion would lead students to understand and enjoy Geometry with fewer or no state standards. The Algebra 2 teacher, who is described by some of his colleagues as, “the best math teacher on the planet,” is more than qualified to encourage critical thinking without being burdened by the bureaucracy of the common core. When I am in his classroom, I see a great and supportive teacher rushing through material and encouraging students to come after school if they want to review their homework, because there’s no time in class. Luckily, his school provides transportation and many students have the ability to stay after school. This is not the case in every school.

The goals of the Common Core are admirable: move away from rote memorization and encourage critical thinking. However, more rigorous standards are not the way to achieve these goals. Qualified, supported and empowered teachers who are free to make their own decisions are the answer. Decision makers should put their efforts toward measures to better fund struggling schools and better prepare teachers to understand and teach their subject at a deep level. Teachers who go through strong teacher preparation programs are more than prepared to make their own, informed decisions about what their students need to know.

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Good teachers are much more important than good standards. Source: synaptic sparks.blogspot.com

I hope to emulate the practices of the teachers I have observed, but I realize I do not have their years of experience. However, I believe my colleagues and mentors will be a better resource than a set of bureaucratic standards. I can only hope to achieve the balance both teachers have found in covering the standards while still making informed decisions about how their students will best learn. Yet, even with their relative success with common core, both teachers express a desire to do more hands-on labs and projects to help students understand the material, but the standards don’t provide the time.

Functionalism and The Hidden Curriculum

It’s no secret that schools in the United States remain grossly unequal and segregated along race and class lines. Yes, even in 2015, our schools are as segregated as ever. Kozol exposed some of the deplorable conditions in high-needs urban schools in his 1992 Savage Inequalities, and countless authors have followed suit, showing that little has improved since the early nineties. To help our struggling, high-needs, underfunded schools, we have to think about what the purpose of schools should be? Are schools supposed to develop critical thinkers, hard workers or informed consumers?  The functionalist view of education says that schools should train students to become productive workers and consumers in the American economy and, to some extent, our schools have operated under this way of thinking (Feinberg & Soltis, 2009). After all, isn’t the point of going to school to get a good job? However, who is being prepared for what roles in society?

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Schools continue to be unequal, not just in funding and resources, but curriculum as well. Source: http://www.mikhaelareid.com

 

Feinberg and Soltis discuss the “hidden curriculum” of schools by citing a study by Jean Anyon (1980) which investigated five elementary school classrooms and found that working class students faced strict rules and were taught to respect authority, the characteristics necessary for a working class job. Meanwhile, upper-middle class students were taught independent thinking and developing their own values system. The curriculums in these schools pushed students to stay within their social class, contrasting the idea of schools as equalizers. Noting that Anyon’s study is not necessarily comprehensive, Feinberg and Soltis expand her findings and use other authors such as Rist  to discuss how teachers classify students:

Teachers tend to classify students very early in their school life on the basis of nonacademic attributes, such as neatness of dress, and then…treat the students according to these classifications. Teachers will tend to interact much more frequently with those students who come to school well groomed and will give much more attention to their academic work (pp. 59).

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It appears that teachers don’t always follow the Golden Rule and track students by uncontrollable characteristics. Source: picture quotes.com

 

This is unfair tracking. Regardless of how you feel about tracking (honors, ‘normal’, remedial, etc.), a student’s track should not depend on nonacademic factors that are likely outside of the student’s control. In fact, the students who are classified as not caring about school should get extra support and attention since they may not be getting the necessary support at home due to parents working or other reasons outside student or family control. This classification completely undermines the idea of schools as equalizing, because the students who need the most care and attention get the least. Classifying and functionalism work hand-in-hand because students who are classified as uncaring or not fit for school are seen as less able to contribute to the economy and are prepared for lower-level jobs.

How am I Part of This System?

As a teacher: Obviously, the best thing I can do as a teacher to combat the hidden curriculum is to not classify students based on how they are dressed or how much they appear to care about school. When there can be up to 30 students in a classroom, this may be easier said than done. Therefore, I feel I must go beyond not classifying, and challenge the functionalist idea that schools should prepare students to be productive members of the economy. I want my students to be informed, critical thinkers who can begin to understand and address the inequality they may be faced with. A high school diploma is not enough to improve one’s social standing (especially when that high school prepared you for a working class job); one has to actually understand the institutional processes that lead to such inequality in the first place. Additionally, the teacher in a high-needs school should go beyond emulating upper-middle class functionalist schools. I want my students to care about what they are learning because it interests them, not just because it may get them a good job. Then, hopefully, the students who would otherwise be classified as not caring about school will find a reason to enjoy school and find it worthwhile (which can also reduce dropout/pushout rates and the need for discipline in the classroom).

As a student: As I reflect on my own schooling experience, I realize that I was and continue to be a product of functionalist, upper-middle class schooling that has prepared me to get a “good” job. My high school and college have definitely empowered me to form my own opinions and think about society critically but, ultimately, the end goal is a job. Of course, a job is pretty necessary to sustain oneself, but my education should not just be a race toward an economically-satisfying finish; I should be studying things I care about and can help myself and others. To some extent, I think I have found this in teaching and the Educational Studies department at Colgate, where my learning truly feels meaningful. However, with Colgate’s strong alumni network and Center for Career Services, I have to make sure I don’t get caught up in following what sounds most economically lucrative. Rather, I plan to use these resources to find teaching positions that allow me to combat the functionalist view of schooling and empower others to do the same.

Overall, the functionalist view of schooling is inherently flawed because it simply reproduces social classes. Additionally, the ways we classify students makes social mobility even more difficult. Teachers must give students the tools they need to think beyond the job market and find what they are passionate about. Yes, jobs are important, but the students who are least likely to have a “good” job are the ones who are least supported by functionalist schools. Focusing only on the job light at the end of the education tunnel does nothing for high-needs students; we have to try something else.

Poverty & Accountability

“I decided to become a teacher because I knew what it was like to grow up poor, and I wanted to help kids in similar…

Posted by Humans of New York on Thursday, November 26, 2015

During my many hours on the Internet over Thanksgiving break, I came across an interesting post from Humans of New York, which, if you don’t know, is a page that posts photographs and quotes from random people in New York City. This post from Thanksgiving day features a picture of a woman in a subway station who has, according to her quote, been a teacher for 13 years. She says she grew up poor and became a teacher to help people, but it is more exhausting than she ever realized and she is looking for a new career. She also brings up the topic of teacher evaluations:

Forty percent of my job rating is based on standardized testing. It’s the only job I know where your performance is based on how other people behave. I can’t control what’s going on outside my classroom. I can’t control if my kids are from abusive households, or don’t eat breakfast, or can’t get to school on time. But those things affect my rating when they show up in test scores. I need to find a new career where my performance is based on me.

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Not only do all students take the same test, but all schools are expected to have high scores and teachers are evaluated on the scores of their students.  Source: Mike Konopacki Cartoons

The discussion around teacher evaluations based on standardized testing is extremely controversial. In my experience, every teacher I have talked to is 100 percent against being judged by the test scores of their students, while decision-makers cite the need for teachers to be held accountable. Regardless, this woman, whose post has been “liked” nearly half a million times, is just one example of how bureaucracy is pushing people out of the teaching profession. It is impossible to tell how “good” a teacher this woman is or what type of school she teaches at, but I think it’s safe enough to assume that she’s a decent teacher if she’s been teaching for 13 years; now her school is at risk of losing her. Additionally, she is clearly aware that some of her students come from difficult, poor and/or abusive households, yet does not feel able to address these students’ needs. Why are we placing additional burdens on schools and teachers such as test-based evaluations rather than empowering them to fight the effects of poverty?

Teacher evaluations are part of a larger issue of where our priorities lie in education. Teacher accountability has become more important than students’ needs, while the reality should be the exact opposite; if students’ needs are being met, then teachers will be more successful without the extra oversight. When people such as the teacher featured in the Human of New York post bring up the poverty of their students, they are said to be using poverty as an excuse. And, obviously, this is not unique to New York City.

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Professors, teachers, scholars and administrators debate the merits of the Common Core at a recent event at Colgate University. Source: The Colgate Maroon-News

At a recent debate/open forum/discussion about the Common Core at Colgate, a mother from a wealthy suburb of Syracuse asked how the Syracuse City Schools, which are heavily affected by poverty, are expected to perform at the same level as her local well-funded school. The Superintendent from the local rural school district responded by saying that any student can achieve at a high-level – poverty is not an excuse. The mother responded by saying, “Of course all students can achieve. That’s not what I meant” and further questioning how we can demand the same thing, meaning high test scores, from schools with very different resources and student bodies. It completely ignores the effects of poverty.

Diane Ravitch, a controversial but well-informed figure in education, sums up this conversation very frankly in her 2013 book Reign of Error: The Hoax of The Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools:

Reformers frequently say that poverty is just an excuse, that poverty is not destiny, and that a child’s education should not be determined by his or her zip code. Poverty is not an excuse. It is a harsh reality…Schools fail when they lack the resources to provide equal educational opportunity. And they fail not because of lack of will but because poverty often overwhelms the best of intentions. (pp. 224)

The Human of New York teacher does not lack the will to help her students, but rather lacks the ability to sufficiently help by being consumed by standardized tests. And to those who say that a good teacher can help his/her students and get good test scores – how does test preparation help a student who hasn’t eaten anything today or is abused at home? If it’s necessary to hold teachers accountable, do it fairly. If the high-needs teacher’s test scores are lower than the suburban teacher’s, ask why. Is this teacher lazy, unmotivated and unsuccessful, or does this teacher and her students need more support and services? Then, maybe teachers will be more inclined to stay in the profession, rather than feeling worn out and unable to make a difference.

Bringing this conversation back to myself, I try to think about where I will be in five, 10, 15 years. I know I want to teach when I’m finished with college, but do I see this as a long-term profession? I’d like to say yes, but I’m not entirely sure, especially if my lofty goals of making a difference are unrealized due to bureaucracy. Perhaps I could work in a private or public charter school which has less regulations, but do I want to ignore the needs of public school students? (This is another controversial discussion that Ravitch addresses). As I have done my fieldwork and observed teachers in schools near Colgate, I have heard a lot of teachers say, “Well, the reality of teaching is…” especially when it comes to standardized testing and teacher evaluations. In the short term I can see myself accepting the realities of testing and common core because I will be (hopefully) young, energetic and willing to go the extra mile to help students succeed despite bureaucratic barriers. However, at what point does one become worn out? Hopefully I never reach that level, or, even better, education policy-makers will change how they think about poverty and accoutnability.

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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a not-so-popular figure among teachers, has recently reversed his opinion on teacher evaluations based on students’ test scores. Source: www.edvotes.org

In a way, this has already begun. According to a recent New York Times article, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is always thinking about his own popularity, has shifted away from using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers amid extreme backlash over the last couple years. This is, of course, a step in the right direction, but does not mean that the individual needs of students and schools are going to be addressed. Perhaps this reversal of opinion by Cuomo will keep more teachers in the profession, but steps also need to be taken to address poverty as the “harsh reality” that it is.