Soho Forum Debate on School Choice

Tonight I attended a Soho Forum debate that focused on the following statement:

“Parents should have the choice to opt out of public schools and redirect the taxpayer tuition money for their children to other approved schools or educational options.”

Bob Bowdon, the executive director of ChoiceMedia.TV, an investigative video website devoted to education reform, argued in favor of the statement and Samuel Abrams, Director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, argued against the statement. Bowdon gave an impassioned argument filled with the horror stories that undisputedly exist in the public school system: 

  • Unions that put teacher needs before students;
  • Miserably low test scores; and 
  • Low graduation rates

I have written about each of these topics  (see herehere and here) and Abrams acknowledges these issues in the public education system as truths. However, Bowdon’s argument for the increase in charter schools and voucher programs failed to admit that there are many charter schools and voucher programs currently in place that find students performing worse than the local public schools. He also did not note that both for-profit and non-profit charter networks and private schools that receive tax dollars through voucher programs  (Indiana is a good example) can go years with consistently dismal grades but remain open (see here); there’s little accountability. And if you are thinking that this is what is happening in the public school system also, then you are right. However, one of the crucial differences between the programs pushed by the Trump administration and Bob Bowdon and Sam Abrams and Diane Ravitch are that public schools are obligated to uphold certain student protections at BOTH the federal and state levels AND public schools are not making huge profits off of students. Yes, there can be gross mismanagement of funds. It does happen. But there is a certain level of accountability, exposure, auditing, and student-centered protections that are in place in the public school system that does not required of charter schools and private schools thar could receive tax dollars. 

To be clear, and I have said this several times in past posts, I do not think charter schools are inherently bad; they are not. I just care deeply about teacher protections (they have an exceptionally difficult job, especially teachers who work with students living in poverty).  But student protection, learning, opportunity, academic engagement,  social engagement,  and emotional well being should be the number one priority by a large margin.Whether an individual or company makes a profit should not be leveled with any this.

But back to the issues. I reckon Bob Bowdon did not mention these problems because, he, like many others, are conflating more school options with better quality schools (which I wrote about here). I think people hear the words “private school” and equate it with something that is inherently good. Bowdon mentioned that the Obama’s are not pro-school choice but choose not to send their daughters to public schools. He notes that they are more or less a part of an elitist group of people who, by there actions say, “choice is the best option for my children  but your students should be zoned to their local failing public school.” Bowdon’s point was that parents who can afford to choose do just that, but they also deny other families that right. Once again, I would argue that mere options is not enough. For Abrams, the problem lies with choosing to aggressively fund charter and voucher programs only ignores, and takes away from, the real root cause of bad schools, which is poverty. 

Poverty is a huge issue. Poverty and its relationship to schools is evident  (see here for a surface level and anecdotal example).  If you combine treating poverty as a non-issue with teacher unions that focus on protecting teachers at all costs (both Abrams and Bowdon provided examples of this–see here and here), you will get a failing system, to some degree. However,  we have enough evidence to show that charters and voucher funded private schools do not outperform traditonal schools. We have proof that both for-profit and non-profit schools abuse tax dollars and that CMOs and stakeholders come first (see here). And while there are students who are successful in charter schools and voucher programs, the only positive aspect to Bowdon’s argument was that families would have more control in what school their kids attend. But my long-standing questions surrounding quality and student protections have not been answered.

With that said, because Bowdon did not explain just how parents and students would be protected or that serious abuses occur in school choice expansion, I voted in favor of Abrams.

On AIR’s “Did School Improvement Grants Work Anywhere?”

The American Institute for Research published an article last month about why looking at the performance results for the Student Improvement Grant (commonly known as SIG) on a national level may not tell the whole story of SIG’s impact at the school or district level.

His point is that there are other factors that a national perspective needs to take into consideration, such as the role states and schools districts played into SIG’s success. AIR’s own study found that some districts were supportive and engaged with implementing the SIG policies that led to student improvement, while other districts in the program did not have the neccessary time commitment to make the program a success. With that said, it is hard to say that the program itself is not a a success, as the program, in some cases was not effectively implemented. AIR encourages the reader to dig a little deeper than SIG’s overall performance on a national level, and in doing so, we may find beneficial feedback on what parts of SIG worked for what types of schools. Just as important, a closer look would tell us what did not work and why.

This article brings to mind a larger issue with regard to data analysis and conclusions. To get a certain, probably biased, point across, policy makers, researchers, politicians, and journalists look at surface data that confirms their beliefs and then disseminate the information to the masses as truth. The clear danger in this is that we do not question what the story is not telling us. A basic example of this would be if a company ranks teacher salaries across a certain state or between the most populace cities. In this hypothetical situation, the site does not mention the cost of living in their results, which is a crucial component to understanding how teachers must use their salaries in order to teach. A more nuanced look at what teachers in each city or state have to spend would tell the reader that some teachers with the highest salaries have to to spend more than half of their net income on housing alone.

As a basis, students should constantly be taught ways to challenge and question how data and arguments are being presented. If this were done, would Trump be president?

People Are More Than Grades

A student’s academic ability is important. The fact that a student works hard to make progress is more important than her/his academic ability. In today’s testing society, in today’s environment where a student sits in a single-teacher classroom with 30 other students for 40 minutes of rushed geometry, in a society where someone as blatantly insecure and self-involved as Donald Trump is the commander-in-chief, it is also imperative that students continuously learn to care for themselves as individuals whose value is more than their academic abilities. This is not to say that academic performance is not important. It is just noting that academic performance is not the only factor in a student’s long-term, overall success in life. As a nation, we need to work on finding the balance between encouraging academic excellence, creativity, & growth and self love & love for others. In fact, an active conversation on any education policy change should consciously explore and deliberately discuss this balance.

I found the below on Twitter (I do not know who the author is):

More on Informing Parents on School Choice

According to a Times article published last week, Betsy DeVos said the following: “My faith motivates me to really try to work on behalf of and advocate for those who are least able to advocate for themselves.”

I keep asking myself how does this apply to families that do not have the resources to assess different schools available to their child? Whether it is tax dollars funding public schools, religious schools, or private schools, who should be accountable to objectively informing parents and guardians of school options?

We Need More Student Loan Education

The below quote was featured in the New York Times this week. It is absurd that people have been allowed to take out this much money in federal loans to attend a for- profit school that had a history of less than dismal performance. We are not doing enough tho educate people on all things related to student loans/ tax funded loans.

Another borrower, Victoria Linssen, applied in October for forgiveness on the $50,000 in federal loans that she had taken out to study photography at the Brooks Institute in Ventura, Calif., a for-profit college that shut down last year after extensive regulatory criticism and penalties. The college lied about its accreditation, its job placement rate and the wages its graduates earned, Ms. Linssen said. (emphasis mine)

The Issue with Parent Choice

As I mentioned in my previous post, three weeks ago, Besty DeVos spoke before congress for the first time since her confirmation. Of course, the topic of school choice was consistently brought up. In her responses, DeVos kept framing school choice as parent choice, which is the idea that local governments and parents, above all, know whats best for their child, and they should decide exactly which schools are deserving of those tax dollars. 

But is that true? In theory, it sounds nice, but do all parents inherently know what is best for their child? What i mean to ask is are all parents equipped with tools that will inform them on different types of schools, curriculum, education policy, and school culture that exist? Most middle and upper income families probably have the resources necessary to make an informed decision about their children’s education. But what about families who have a history of/ currently live in poverty? You know, the  families that voucher programs and school choice advocates claim they want to protect? Are these families, who have been exposed to and may only have access to low-performing schools, given the right tools to make a just decision for their children? 

School/parent choice reform assumes that if students are allowed to move around more freely from school to school, then that means they will go to a high quality school. Parents mean well. Parents want the best for the children. But if parents simply do not have the resources to investigate whether or not a school is actually the best school for their child, as opposed to whether the school seems like the best school for their child (via accessible marketing and school representatives who know how to sell a dream), is parent choice, in this respect, more harmful than beneficial? Of course, parents who send their child to what they thought was a good school but turns out to be a bad fit for their child can will send their child to another school. But at that point, the damage is done, and switching from school to school has its own negative effects. So the  real questions are:

  1. What will the Trump/DeVos adminitration do to better inform parents on school choice? 
  2. Is informing parents on educational opportunities yet another issue for states to deal with, if states deem it important? 

Unfortunately, while parents are well intentioned, there are for-profit schools, like k-12, Inc., that prey on those good natured but vulnerable parents. We need to talk about parent and family protections when it comes to school choice. We need to not regard parent education and awareness as a taboo issue. And, yes, we need to be careful to inform parents of options and not push our opinions on whatever we think are the best options.

Only 3% Pass NYS Math Test at NYC Public School

I read a New York Times article about the closing or merging of more chronically underperforming middle schools and high schools. The article mentions that these schools are part of a de Blasio program that aims to rehabilitate schools through additional resources, rather than closing or “giving up on them.” de Blasio wanted to give these schools three years to improve under his program. The three years is almost up and some schools in the program, despite the additional resources, are still underperforming to the point where parents, teachers, and education advocates should be up in arms. The Times notes (emphasis mine):

The schools to be closed are all low-performing, to be sure. In the 2015-16 school year, only 8 percent of the students at J.H.S. 145 passed the state reading tests, and only 3 percent passed the state’s math tests. Even so, it is not clear that they are necessarily the worst among the schools in the program. All of the six schools met at least one of the goals assigned by the city last year. Some are being closed for low enrollment as well. 

What is the problem that a school given additional resources to combat the affects of poverty can’t even get grades to show that students are retaining anything? At this point, the middle schools mentioned, J.H.S. 145, should certainly not be considered a school, as learning of any sort doesn’t seem to be happening.

So what could be the problem?

My first thought was what kinds of resources does this school recieve? Perhaps this school, and schools like it, are not receiving enough of certain tyoes of resources or that they are not receiving the right set of resources.

The schools in this initiative receive extra educational instruction time, teachers received additional professional development training, and each school received more funding for ‘wraparound’ efforts that aim to take the effects poverty head on (mental health issues and lack of sufficient food).  What is not clear is how resources are being used, which resources seem to be working, and which resources are not as effective.

At first glance, it would seem that any amount of any of the above resources should have some kind of positive impact, no matter how small. However, on closer inspection, something like additional professional development training for teachers could be ineffective, if the additional training is does not impart new knowledge on the teachers or is not tailored to the needs of any given teacher/group of teachers. It could be that principals and school districts are wasting time and money of programs that don’t work, though they aim to address a serious issue.

As of now, we do not know enough of the how the additional resources are being used.

What else could the issue(s) be? 

This initiative rears away from the Joel Klein administration in many ways. Klein’s biggest initiative was to close down large, historically failing schools and open smaller schools, which turned out to not do any better than the schools they replaced. Between this finding and the fact that additional needed resources (though they may not be used effectively) aren’t changing the academic trajectory of New York City public schools, mayoral control of the citiy’s schools doesn’t seem to be working out in students’ favor.

With that said, I’ve been thinking more and more about school culture and how profound of a role it can play in a school’s success. All the resources and teachers provinding attention to fewer students can still turn out to be harmful when school culture and way of life is not moving along with those initiatives. What’s interesting is that we seem to be trying to jump in and help students at the junior high school level, but the Klein and de Blasio administrations have been ignoring the fact that these students come to junior high school with six years of school culture and attitude that developed  over a child’s most impressionable stages. The school culture in elementary schools is a students first understanding of what it means to be a student. Students and teachers who walk into middle schools and high schools like J.H.S 195 in the Bronx bring with them baggage tossed on them during their prior school experience.

I’m suggesting we’re intervening too late. I applaud de Blasio’s effort to try to mend failing schools but efforts need to start while students are in pre-k. It’s clear that a junior high schools 3% pass rate goes beyond the work done in junior high school. The students come in far more academically damaged and negatively influenced than most would admit, despite that fact being clear as day. I need to go into more detail on the effects of school culture in a later post.