Book Report: Hope Against Hope

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the state of Louisiana took over the City of New Orleans’ school district. Completely behind closed doors and without the input of the public, elected officials fired all of the unionized teachers and divided up the schools into two districts. One district would remain under city control, but would be operated entirely by independent Charter Management Organizations. The remaining schools comprised the Recovery School District, which would be controlled by the state. In the 10 years since the charter takeover, New Orleans has been hailed as a success by some and a catastrophe by others. But, as Sarah Carr shows in her book Hope Against Hope, there is much more to the story than can be captured in a simple diagnosis.

I have worked at a charter school for a few years, and I continuously feel confused about whether the work of my organization signals a win or a loss for public education. In the most immediate sense of my work, I’m coming in to a school every day and teaching a set of children–watching them learn, meeting specific goals, celebrating their achievements–how could this be bad? But, if you work at a charter school for a few years, you realize there is much more to the story than the children in your classroom.

Since the first staff orientation at my school, leaders have been telling us that we are “warriors” in a fight to change public education. I was told that the school system is failing, and teachers unions and a bloated bureaucracy are to blame. Our daily work impacts more than our students, our schools and our communities, because we are demonstrating a new school model, and our example will be used in the fight to expand this model. My work will be a small, but essential part of transforming America’s schools.

I care about the children in my school and love teaching them–but I didn’t sign up to change the public school system. I appreciate many of the benefits of the way my school is run, but that doesn’t mean that I think it’s a panacea for public education, or that I want to be involved in propagating its expansion. I struggled to figure out where I stood in this “war.” Most distressing was that I didn’t know where to go get a better sense of these issues. As I started reading up on things, I came across two dominant definitions of the conflict, neither of which I could accept. In her book, Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children, Sarah Carr captures my confusion perfectly:

“According to one narrative, wealthy hedge fund millionaires and foundation leaders had hijacked the schools in pursuit of their own interests and would stop at nothing short of destroying public education as we know it.”

You’ll hear this from many advocates of public education, most popularly Diane Ravitch. My school is funded by hedge-fund millionaires and foundation leaders. If you accept this narrative, I am a cog in a vicious machine. And then there’s the other story:

“According to the opposing narrative, teacher’s unions had hijacked the schools in pursuit of their own interests and would stop at nothing short of destroying public education as we know it.”

That’s the story that has been told to me by my school leaders for years. It didn’t take me long to realize how wrong this depiction is and how much more must be considered when we think about schools.

While conducting the research for her book on the schools of New Orleans, neither of these narratives held true for Sarah Carr. She concludes that “top down accounts of school change too often fail to capture the complex realities of children and educators.” And where does that leave us? What do we do if we want to better understand America’s education issues for all of their complexity? We need to start from carefully learning from the action on the ground. As Carr observed in her research, and as you will see in her book, simple definitions of the problems “shatter under the weight of true narratives.” She concludes that “Americans must take a more bottom-up approach to understanding education policy and assessing its impact.” She begins this project for us with the stories she tells in her detailed and carefully considered book.

Carr anchors her book by following three people over the course the 2010-2011 academic year: a student, a teacher and principal. Fourteen-year-old Geraldlynn goes through her first year of high school at the brand new Kipp Renaissance Academy. Aidan Kelly has just completed his 2-year TFA commitment, which kept him teaching GED classes at a particularly difficult remedial school. He is excited to start his third year at Science Academy, a charter school that has boasted high test scores for the past few years and, whose view of the work of education matches his own. Mary Laurie, has been appointed to lead O. Perry Walker High School, and her story provides the basis for the author’s investigation into how a more traditional school model is faring in the New Orleans of the charter takeover.

From her years of research, Carr concludes that the new charter model in New Orleans must change how it interacts with its community. As the city’s schools are replaced by charters, they must learn how to recognize the various needs of their communities, and learn about what makes the denizens unique. Charter schools like Science Academy and KIPP Renaissance impose a school culture narrowly focused on data, and are almost completely unaware of the home lives of their students. The schools are staffed by outsiders–majority young, white, and raised in the suburbs–who are instructed to concern themselves exclusively with students “college readiness,” and to actively ignore factors that are beyond their control.

The Problem with the Hedgehog

Carr examines one principle in particular that shapes the charter schools’ organizational philosophy: the Hedgehog Concept. The concept comes from the book Good to Great by Jim Collins, an immensely popular book for improving small businesses that has been widely read amongst charter school leaders. The principal of Akili Academy, Sean Gallagher, requires all novice teachers to read this book cover to cover. The idea is that businesses should strive to “do one thing and do it well” rather than take on a number of different pursuits at once (a hedgehog wins a fight by doing one thing: rolling up into a ball). A corporation’s assessment of a given scenario, however complex the scenario may be, should be viewed exclusively through the lens of their singular goal. For Akili Academy, this goal is academic achievement. Charters, like Akili and Renaissance, “simplify a complex world into a single organizing idea, a basic principle or concept that unifies and guides everything.” Following this advice, “it doesn’t matter how complex the world,” because an effective organization, reduces all challenges and dilemmas to simple–indeed almost simplistic–hedgehog ideas. For a hedgehog, anything that does not somehow relate to the hedgehog idea holds no relevance.

Charter schools attempt to simplify the world of impoverished New Orleans, taking a myopic focus on academic achievement, and the willfully disregard anything that doesn’t immediately translate into academic achievement. But, holding this simplification as crucial to their effectiveness as an organization, they fail to see how it creates risks.

These school use specifically standardized test data and college-acceptance rates as the language of their myopic focus. Principal Sean Gallagher of Akili Academy, an elementary charter school, explicitly reminds new teachers of their “single-minded focus on academic achievement.” His school, he says, will never be like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, which became famous for championing wrap-around services for their students and providing parenting classes for their student’s families. “If the school tried to do too much,” he believes, “it risked failure on its core mission.” As one teacher puts it, “Teaching is a series of things you do in response to the data you get.”

Focusing on college matriculation isn’t bad in and of itself. But the schools “have such an overtly academic focus, they tend to deprioritize any issue they perceive as extraneous to their mission of sending all their students to and through college.” All aspects of a child’s development are thus understood only in their relevance to college acceptance; behavior is good or bad only insofar as it denotes “college-readiness” or not. Undesired behavior is remonstrated for being “unprofessional” or unbecoming of a “scholar” or college-bound student. In one scene, a group of restless kindergarteners receives a lecture from their teacher, “I know all of you want to go to the first grade because all of you want to go to college. But you need to show discipline over your bodies to do that.” These charters use the goal of college acceptance to impose an ethical code, where behavior either leads to college acceptance or does not. A traditional approach would involve investing in social workers and school counselors, which we see in one charter that Carr profiles. But in the hedgehog model of business, an approach to psychological development that reaches beyond the narrow goal of the college-matriculation is unfortunately seen as an additional cost.

No Excuses Policies in Action

Consistent with charter schools’ myopia, the way that the schools handle student behavior is also simplified. Schools like Akili, Renaissance and Science Academy implement “no-excuses” policies in order to maintain order. There is no official definition or list of characteristics that make up a no-excuses policy. As it has been explained to me in my training as a teacher at a charter school, no-excuses implies a sense of absolute responsibility on the part of the student. Each individual is the sole agent of their decisions, and examining their behavior in the broader context of, say, poverty or mental health would merely be providing excuses. If we are allowing excuses, we risk perpetuating the “soft-bigotry of low expectations” that school reformers cast on the public schools. While it is unclear whether or not this is the true origin of the name, it certainly captures the stance of the practitioners. It may be better to examine the methods of these no-excuses schools to get a sense of their ethos.

In effect, there are rules for almost every possible action a student could take at a no-excuses school. Uniform policies are extensive and strictly enforced. Students are taught to walk along tape in the hallways, silently in straight, single file lines, and they are not allowed to lean on the wall or take their hands out of their pockets. In class, students must always “track” the speaker, their hands must remain folded if they are not writing, and their feet must stay on the floor with the backs straight against their chairs. All students are taught specific methods of reacting to class discourse–hand signals, nodding or quiet snaps–and participation in this is required. Regulations are reified by operant conditioning techniques that reward the good behavior and punish the bad, and tracking systems of the number of “demerits” a student receives in a day. For example, a student may receive a demerit for looking away from their teacher during a lesson, or taking her hands out of her pockets in the hallway.

This may seem like a more complicated system in an institution that is supposed to prefer simplification. But, while behavior management policies like this are complex, they simplify the problems of human behavior in a way that is compatible with how these schools view their mission. These methods are based on the premise that the behavior of the student body can be wholly determined through explicit directions from an authority figure. Consistent rewards and punishments will encourage and discourage certain behavior, and thus the student body is predictable and manageable. They believe that following these policies will result in changing students’ behaviors entirely, a process sometimes referred to as “calibration” or “acculturation.” Working within this logic, they excise the need for social workers or school psychologists. They curb unpredictable and messy concerns around the qualities of the communities that the children inhabit–such as a lack of quality health care or social services. They attempt to simplify the challenges that come with establishing a school by using a schema that completely ignores the world beyond the school walls, except insofar as this schema accepts that the children must learn compliance to authority.

It is worth noting that, in many cases, the parents of the children in these communities are in favor of the strictness of the schools. When the principal of KIPP Renaissance meets with parents to discuss methods of behavior management, a number of parents call out encouragingly, with exhortations, like  “Let them know you ain’t playin’!” and “That’s right, zero tolerance, baby!” Strictness clearly has its merits, especially when attempting to organize groups of adolescents, and even more so when many of these adolescents live in a community where chaos is not uncommon. But the problem with no excuses policies is that they do not properly prepare the schools for dealing with the specific effects of the city beyond the school, and thus do not effectively affect the children while they are in school.

What Carr Learns from One Student

The disconnect between No-Excuses policies and the lives of students is captured best in Carr’s profile of a student named Brice. Brice is actually drawn to KIPP Renaissance because of its rigid behavior policies. At fourteen, he has already begun to feel the pull of his neighborhood’s crime scene, and seeks out KIPP Renaissance as an institution to set him on a straight and narrow path. Brice had already been expelled from one middle school and was often in trouble at the next one. He says of himself, “I know I’m bad. You got to be really big and really on top of your game to make me do what you want.” The depiction of KIPP’s strictness made Brice think that KIPP could provide the environment that could put him in line and forge the changes he desperately needed.

However, Renaissance fails to establish a culture of order. Only a month into school, fights break out often, teachers are cursed out, and students completely ignore rules regarding homework. Demerit systems, which teachers maintain fastidiously and record on their ipads, do nothing to impact the students’ behavior. Over the course of the year, the staff attempts to tweak systems, sometimes reverting to writing the names of miscreant students publicly on whiteboards in the front of the class, but even more desperate attempts fail to influence how students act.  Geraldlynn captures a dismal scene in this brief explanation of a teacher whom she likes, but who fails to maintain the strict rules she has been instructed to implement:

“If you actually go in her classroom to talk to her, she is really sweet.  But during class she makes us be silent all the time. And when we keep talking the only thing she know to do is say, ‘I’m not playing.’ We keep talking and the next thing we know she is in tears. We are like, ‘Oh my God. Soft. Weak.’”

With the failure of these “no-excuses practices,” soon enough, the administration uses even less honorable tactics to get the school under control. The administration begins to implement suspensions, expulsions and subtler methods of pushing out students they deem disruptive.

One of the students they decide to suspend is Brice. The accusations of his suspension are suspiciously thin. According to the administration, he provoked a student into fighting another classmate, but it’s unclear if a fight ever occurred. It’s likely that the suspension is actually the result of a long string of offenses, like defying teachers’ instructions or cursing them out.. But this alone doesn’t explain the intensity of his suspension, which lasts 45 days. As Carr explains it, Brice has become something of a big personality on campus, someone who, by one teacher’s account, “could turn a class” for better or for worse. Carr describes Brice often working with teachers in ways that help them. He checks a group of students who creully harrass a classmate, referring to a lecture on conscience that a KIPP teacher gave (in which he used a Native American myth to demonstrate psychomachia).  In one scene Brice helps out a classmate who embarrasses himself at a school dance, kindly encouraging the boy back into the social atmosphere. In another scene, a frustrated teacher can’t quiet his classroom, and calls out Brice specifically, telling the boy to think how he would feel if he were in the teacher’s position. Brice asks the teacher to speak with him in the hallway, and then informs the teacher that the class is worked up because there has just been a fight. The teacher reflects on the exchange later with Carr, saying, “He was trying to help me. If you win with Brice you’ve done so much. He’s either going to be a loud protester or a vocal defender of the status quo.”

What would a school that could change an adolescent like Brice for the better look like? How could we run a school that tapped into his strengths and curbed his negative behavior? Carr doesn’t say, and I certainly am not about to try. But Carr makes a substantial case that schools like Renaissance–staffed by inexperienced teachers instructed to carry out a complicated taxonomy of tactics with uncompromising authority, and who are taught to actively ignore the external causes for problematic behavior and the complex psychology of its students–are not the answer. If schools do not reckon with the causes made in the home lives of the students they are setting themselves up for failure–and their failure can be tragic.

And such is the case with Brice. During his 45-day suspension, he becomes closer with those members of his community whom he had hoped Renaissance would help him avoid. In the Spring, one of these men asks Brice to accompany him for a ride. Unbeknownst to Brice, the man was using the boy for his legal status as a juvenile–because Brice is underage, he can help him with the crime that he picks him up to commit. They come to a stop in the car, and another man in the backseat fires a gun into an another car. The police pursue the car, which crashes, and catch Brice, and the boy gets caught up in the dysfunctional justice system for over a year, and, to say the least of his future, his academic career seems impossible now. 

The adolescents entering Renaissance come from a world that their teachers know almost nothing about. As Carr explains:

Brice moved between a world where teenagers routinely risked their lives to supply their families with cash and one where he had to snap his approbation, always remember the good wolf and silently track the speaker. One world taught authority backed by guns and money, the other compliance with comparatively meaningless penalties.

Obviously, reducing Brice’s world to the goal of college matriculation does not provide an environment where complex problems are given real solutions.

KIPP Renaissance does not bounce back from its chaos. The principal steps down at the end of the year, and they end up cycling through __ principals in the __ years. Sean Gallagher’s Akili Academy also reaps a similar result in their implementation of no excuses policies. Gallagher abided by the hedgehog concept at first, but over the course of the year came to recognize the variety of issues that affect children’s ability to learn. In an initial screening of the students, a team from Tulane University “flagged” almost half of them with “a serious behavioral, social or emotional need.” A number of students would resort to disruptive and violent behavior when frustrated, and would have to be removed from the classroom by a Dean. As Carr notes,

Many new orleans students arrive at school with intense, often unmet, needs. Students have witnessed murders, lived through Katrina’s chaos, passed in and out alternative schools, lost close relatives to shootings, spent time in jail, and attended more schools than they can remember.

Many more factors could be added to Carr’s list. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the most successful charter in the book, Science Academy, is the one that does the most to address its student’s needs. The wife of Sci’s principal is a school psychologist. The school attends to its students’ mental health needs by keeping a full-time school psychologist, a full time social worker and a second part-time social worker on staff. Investing in faculty who are trained and experience in mental health work appears to be a way to adapt to the unique needs of children in poor communities. Unfortunately, that investment does not directly translate to improvements in standardized test data.

Hope Against Hope is required reading for anyone interested in school politics today. I’d also recommend Sarah Carr’s many other articles, which can be found on her website


An Interesting Plan from a New Organization

How do we improve our schools? Anyone familiar with this question knows that there is no simple answer. Taking the complexities into account, a new organization called the Transforming Teaching Project has started working on a plan. In their white paper, From Quicksand to Solid Ground, which is endorsed by the AFT and NEA, the authors present their vision of a well-supported education system and describe the challenges that stand in the way. Read it here:

From Quicksand to Solid Ground: Building a Foundation to Support Quality Teaching

I anticipate most teachers will view this organization with suspicion at first glance. There are so many actors out there attempting to change our schools and so few are achieving the right results. Many end up subordinating teachers even as they pretend to be “improving the profession.” Others impose a framework adapted from the corporate world–exulting data sets and micromanagement–and end up infuriating us. It’s become second nature to doubt any organization that uses the word “transform” in its motto. Take the overwhelmingly negative response that TeachStrong received when it began its outreach last week (See edushyster, curmudgacation, and Schneider for a start). Much of what TeachStrong describes appears to be moving in the right direction, but it seems best to wait until they put forth more thorough plan before placing a bet. Given the failures of outside organizations in the past few years and the lack of accountability for their blunders, one could argue that it’s our duty to be skeptical.

That said, I would urge you to review this paper and see what you think. The authors don’t seem ideologically slanted in their assessment of the challenges that schools face. One might read their focus on the weaknesses within the teaching profession as consistent with the practices of corporate reformers. However, the authors relied heavily on interviews with experienced teachers to shape their depiction of the problems, and they seem to have listened. Furthermore, the solutions they recommend make no mention of accountability systems, merit pay or data. All of their recommendations hold teachers’ roles in the education system as paramount, and recognize the value of knowledgeable practitioners (see pages 27-35). Their vision includes a restructured school day to provide more time to collaborate, plan, and develop new ways of thinking about teaching. Experienced educators will mentor novices. Teachers will help to decide the research agenda of education schools in order to develop scholarship that has direct application in the classroom. These pragmatic recommendations feel consistent with those of long-time teacher-professionalization advocate Linda Darling-Hammond, who also endorsed the paper.

While the paper is broad in its scope, I’m left with a few questions. First, what does this organization actually do? Their goal is to “work with a growing coalition of education organizations committed to working in concert with one another to deliver transformative change to the teaching profession.” That seems rather vague and doesn’t address how they’ll go about transforming the system in the way they’ve described. One answer I got to this question, from someone who is pretty well-versed with political foundations, was “They don’t know yet, and that’s ok.” They’re a new organization and their plan will materialize as they go. That makes sense to me, but to be honest, I really don’t how these things work.

My other questions are bigger. How do they get the public, who seem to distrust teachers at this point, to support a practitioner-centered vision of schools? It’s commonly believed that teacher’s unions are the primary impediment to public education, and the well-funded proponents of this view are not about to slow down their campaigns. How can we ensure that a vision such as this one–where it is recommended that we invest more in education while teachers have fewer hours of instruction–gains the support of the public? (The authors partially address this on page 10, but leave the question largely unanswered.) Voters aside, how could a proponent of this report secure the support of the legislators who make the funding decisions? Lobbying in the state legislator for educational programs is not new. Perhaps if we forged a coalition that unified the corporate reformers and the AFT and NEA, which found a middle-ground on professionalizing teaching in the right way, the legislators would have no one to disagree with.

In any case, I would encourage you to review their paper, and also to check out their podcast. As Randi Weingarten wrote in a recent blog post, “The tide is turning, and we have the chance to help change the narrative about educators and the role you play; to tell a different story about what works and what doesn’t in public education, based on real experience in classrooms across America.” I hope this is true. Given their definition of the problems and their proposed solutions, it seems like the Transforming Teaching Project wants to help bring about that change. I would keep an eye on them.


School Building’s Favorite Parts

On the challenges to researching teaching, page 14:

Teaching is a social enterprise, involving human beings who have their own ideas about what they want to learn and when. For that reason, it will never have the kind of “if you employ X strategy, then you will get Y result” that you see in the physical sciences. Students’ interests and level of prior knowledge, the chemistry among students, the classroom climate, and many other factors play into whether a given lesson lands or falls flat. (Anyone who has ever taught the same lesson to two classes knows this full well.) These interactions and the dynamic nature of teaching also make it difficult to study in ways that large-scale modern research favors. It is difficult to isolate variables because good teaching brings together many factors, and it is difficult to perform randomized control trials because there is no way to freeze into place the intervention to be tested since good teaching requires dynamic responses to unpredictable interactions.


On the missing R&D system for teaching, page 3:

We are missing a system to produce, vet, disseminate, and get into use knowledge about quality teaching. Plainly put, there is no one responsible for producing actionable, practical knowledge about teaching. Researchers write mainly for other researchers; teachers with knowledge have few incentives and little support to share it. We lack good mechanisms to evaluate whether knowledge is of any quality or of any use to teachers. Nor are there intermediaries that share knowledge with teachers in a user-friendly or accessible format. In short, there is not an R&D system in education in the way that there is in other fields.


The five main aspects of their ideal system, page 26:

  1. A cohesive knowledge generation system in which universities and teachers collaborate.
  2. Intermediary organizations that synthesize and disseminate knowledge.
  3. A differentiated teaching profession that mirrors medicine, including rigorous pre-service education, gradual induction in which experts mentor novices, and meaningful continuing education and career advancement.
  4. A restructured school day that provides teachers with designated time to collaborate, plan, reflect, and generate new knowledge about teaching.
  5. A broad ecosystem that supports the four elements above through policy, incentives, and infrastructure.


Quoting Philippa Cordingley, Chief Executive of the Center for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education:

“What we should be doing is collecting teachers’ own research questions, doing a matter analysis of their research questions, and using that to shape the research agenda.”


Further Reading:

The Transforming Teaching Project’s Podcast (Accessible from any podcast app, I think)

School Building’s post on one of the founders of this organization, Jal Mehta

Mehta’s book, The Allure of Order (and this review by Jon Thompson)

Is Success Academy Fighting to End Inequality?

The Success Academies Charter Schools closed down last Wednesday and bussed thousands of their teachers, parents and children to Cadman Square in Brooklyn. All of the participants wore t-shirts that read “I fight to end inequality.” Children and parents carried signs that read “Great schools for ALL” and “Separate and unequal still.” On either side of the stage, giant monitors played text such as “Great Schools Now” and “Every Child, Every Zipcode.” Over the course of four hours, children recited spoken word poems, parents gave speeches shaming the public schools for their failures, and entertainers such as DJ Jazzy Jeff and Jennifer Hudson performed for the crowd.

A friend of mine who teaches at one of the Success Academy schools described this scene to me, and suggested I write about this rally, which was staged by Families for Excellent Schools. After doing some very light research into these two organizations, I found it strange that they would put on a rally for “school equality.”

The pro-charter advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools organized the event and the attendants all came from charter schools. According to a white paper from FES, the New York City schools can be divided into two systems: one is a “ladder to prosperity” serving mostly white and Asian children, and the other is a “tunnel to failure” serving mostly black and brown children. They also note that the median income of the neighborhoods where schools succeed is $120,651, while the failing schools have a median neighborhood income of $40,707. According to a document from Success, teachers are meant to tell parents that this rally’s purpose is “to call on Mayor de Blasio and the rest of our city’s leaders to end this system of inequality.”

Even if we were to accept this definition of the problem, which is simplistic to the point of being suspicious, are Success and FES the appropriate advocates for solving this issue of inequality? The obvious subtext of the rally, which is eerily avoided in nearly all of its publicity, is that the city should open more charter schools. Success has been staging rallies with FES like this one for years. In 2014, Mayor de Blasio decided to disallow the opening of three new schools that Success had planned, and FES and Success partnered to stage a rally in Albany. One of the speakers at that rally was Governor Cuomo, whose participation may have been helped by the fact that Success’ backers contributed $400,000 to his campaign. This retaliatory event was planned in tandem with a televised ad-campaign, much of which directly attacked de Blasio, for which FES paid over $4 million. The mission of the 2014 rally was much clearer–let our schools open–and had very powerful effects. With Cuomo’s help, the state laws changed, taking the power out of the mayor’s hands for approving a new charter, forcing the city to find public space for a charter schools and disallowing any way for the city to charge rent to charters.

Since the spring of 2014, the pro-charter messages at these events has become more and more obscured. At the 2013 Albany rally, the T-shirts read “#charterswork.” In 2014, the slogan changed to “Don’t steal possible,” which intended to frame the de Blasio administration’s decisions to halt the growth of charter schools as inhibiting opportunity for the “143,00 children trapped in failing schools.” This year’s message of “fighting inequality” seems to deliberately hide the obvious mission of expanding charter schools.

In addition to their public rallies, Families for Excellent Schools maintains a lobbying arm that is extremely active in the state legislature. In 2014, they broke lobbying records, contributing $2.9 million in one month alone. According to the Nation, FES’ lobbying helped tip the state legislature from majority democrat to majority republican. The organization receives large donations from the richest New Yorkers. FES is not the only organization who has benefited from the philanthropy of Wall Street. In the 2013-2014 school year, Success received $28 million dollars of private funding, which was almost half of what they received from public funds that year. Success’s finances are impressive. In 2013 they moved their offices from Harlem to Wall Street, and took out a $31 million lease for the next 15 years. In the same year, they paid $519,000 to a political consulting firm. These advantages are felt at the schools as well, where, according to an article from the Times last year, “the closets teem with notebooks, folders, pencils and pens.” Every middle school student is given an iPad, and the schools offer their students the kind of extracurricular activities–art, music, chess, theater, dance, basketball and swimming–that you are likely to see cut from the public schools.

According to the New York City Charter School Center, charters serve less than 9% of the 1.1 million children in the New York City school system. Although FES claims that school funding does not affect a school’s efficacy, it seems obvious that Success owes its achievements in part to its incredible wealth. These two organizations command an overwhelming amount of political attention and financial support, all to benefit a very small percentage of the city. Allowing more charters to open may or may not be a good thing, but it’s clear that it will not significantly impact the inequality of New York City schools.

Now this may all be old news to people who pay attention to this sort of thing. But the first thing that bothers me about this rally is that Success and FES must be well aware that their work will not significantly affect these “two school systems” that they so resoundingly condemn. Even if we let alone the fact that FES has drawn this division in the public schools for a rhetorical purpose and accept their definition of the problem, it’s obvious that charters like Success only introduce a new form of inequality into the system. That the benefactors of this new network are mostly low-income students doesn’t take away from the fact that the organization functions as a separate entity with better access to philanthropy and political protection than the “tunnel to failure” schools. In this sense, charters are actually the cause of a separate and unequal system; the kind of system that this rally is pretending to fight.

And yet, Success and FES have mobilized teachers and families with false information and an incomplete portrayal of their role in our unequal society. This leaves me with a few questions. What does it mean for a privileged school to use the voices and bodies of their families to push an agenda that contradicts the message that these families have been told they are supporting? What does it mean for a charter school to use disadvantaged families to further expand their privileges? What does it mean for a school to pretend to support equality while it pushes an agenda that only benefits the few?

(And of course I’m leaving aside a number of very important concerns. The verdict is still out on whether or not the public should support policies to expand charter schools. It’s also not clear that this particular school, Success Academy, really does have great schools by anyone’s standards other than their own. A lot has been written about the school, and the most reliable report from Kate Taylor portrays what many would feel is not a school they would call great. I’m also ignoring the fact that charter schools, whose selection process affects their population, should not be lazily compared with public schools who have no selection process. Or whether it is ethical for a school that receives public funds to close for the day and pay to bus it’s teachers and students to a political rally. These concerns are worthy of deeper investigation, but that must be for another post.)

Tough Talk from Professor Jal Mehta

Jal Mehta takes on both the Reformers and the Traditionalists in these two posts:

Five Inconvenient Truths for Reformers

Five Inconvenient Truths for Traditionalists

As a teacher at a charter school, the search for a grounded, authoritative guide in the shouting match of education-reform discussions can get exhausting. Administrators at my school show us powerpoints with horrifying statistics on the failures of public schools, and then don’t bother providing evidence as to why charters will work in their stead. A different narrative appears to dominate the voices on the internet, and yet many focus on criticizing certain attempts at improvement without providing solutions, and write in the kind of divisive tone that gives me pause. The moments when I remember the variety of social issues involved in improving schools, and the complexity of each one of those, I feel like it would make the most sense to ignore everyone and take a nap. Which is why reading Jal Mehta’s research always provides such a relief.

These two pieces provide a good introduction to the breadth of Mehta’s research and his pragmatic, nonpartisan approach to improving our schools. In the first piece, “Five Inconvenient Truths for Reformers,” he supports five facts that pose challenges to reform efforts. All of them will resonate to someone familiar with reformer rhetoric. Whenever anyone asks me “Charter schools are good, right?” I quote my favorite line from this piece: “Deregulatory models are only as good as the skill and knowledge of the people who populate them.” Providing schools greater freedom from bureaucracy seems great, but it’s only effective if our policies are also working to fill those schools with capable people. Deregulation alone, which reformers are pushing for, simply doesn’t do that. Other choice observations include that the best teachers tend to be the more experienced ones and that, according to his own research, good teaching is found in both reform-minded charter schools and traditional public schools.

Mehta complements his challenges to reformers with a set of “Five Inconvenient Truths for Traditionalists.” In this post you get a sense of how far afield Mehta’s research on education has taken him (and how, to get a fair understanding of the problems involved, you’ve got a lot of reading to do). Mehta sees the schools that we want for our contemporary society as hindered by state and federal education agencies. This is in part because state institutions function as top-down organizations whose goals are primarily to ensure that their practitioners follow laws and receive funds according to how those resources have been appropriated. Meeting these goals fails to shape the kind of learning institutions that we need today. Mehta also comments on how some scholars attempt to derail criticism of the traditional system by refocusing the debate on the social issues that surround schools. While agreeing that factors outside schools are critical, and that they must be included in reform, he holds fast that we cannot lose sight of efforts to improve the education system.

And to top it all off, Mehta writes in the kind of accessible language and measured tone that an amateur like myself can appreciate. If you’re interested in reading more from Mehta, check out his book The Allure of Order, in which he provides a history of education reform in the United States.