Moving Ed Reform Beyond a Zero-Sum Game
One of my biggest qualms about charter schools has always been the lower proportion of English Language Learners and special education students they enroll. There are several reasons (outside funding, parental involvement...) that comparisons between charter schools and their traditional district counterparts are unfair, but the dissimilar student populations always seemed the most obvious.
Still, this is an often overlooked part of a discussion which seems fixated on test scores rather than an honest examination of what's working and not working in these schools. That's why Michael Winerip's piece on a mother whose son was "counseled out" of Harlem Success Academy 3 and her accompanying blog post on NYC Public School Parents were a welcome addition to this conversation. The two pieces shed a light on charter schools' ability to remove - sometimes passively, sometimes actively - those hardest to reach students.
After reading Winerip's story and the mother's fuller account however, I wasn't convinced that this was the smoking gun that proves charter schools are reluctant, if not outright opposed, to serve students with special needs. The fact that Katherine Sprowal's son was eventually placed in smaller, CTT setting at one of Manhattan's better public schools seemed to justify the HSA psychologist's assessment that, "Matthew may need a smaller classroom than his current school has available.” I'm not absolving HSA of what sounds like an extremely rigid environment, especially for kindergarteners, but it did sound like in the end Matthew got a happy ending.*
What struck me the most about the story of rambunctious, joyful Matthew who couldn't fit in at HSA however, wasn't any part of the story itself, but rather the reactions. Reading the comments after Ms. Sprowal's post, it didn't seem like anyone really learned anything from her and Matthew's experience. Charter school fans for once dropped their trope about schools where all children can learn, and heralded the story as a vindication for school choice. Charter school opponents - who are often the same ones complaining about a lack of administrative support and a lack of parental discipline in the case of unruly children - saw little Matthew's story as proof positive of a nefarious, self-serving agenda by charter schools and their operators. But lost in the conversation was Winerip's essential point:
Matthew’s story raises perhaps the most critical question in the debate about charter schools: do they cherry-pick students, if not by gaming the admissions process, then by counseling out children who might be more expensive or difficult to educate — and who could bring down their test scores, graduation rates and safety records?
Unfortunately, people seemed disinterested in examining this question, and more interested in championing their side. In fact, they were even willing to toss aside long-held arguments, just to be right this once. This is a recurring theme in the education reform discussion, and it seems to be taking us further and further down a path toward intransigence and hostility. Neither side seems to care what facts or arguments are being presented, they just care of winning.
I had my own experience with this during Educators 4 Excellence's lobbying efforts to change the state's LIFO laws. The New York State senate passed legislation that would do away with LIFO in favor of laws that attempted to take performance into consideration in the event of layoffs. SB3501 was very similar to recommendations from E4E's LIFO policy team, and was much better policy than seniority-based layoffs.
But at the same time, the bill was flawed. The bill had to be flawed, because it used New York City's flawed evaluation system as its primary basis for layoffs. The truth was (and remains) that without a teacher evaluation system that assesses teachers fairly, authentically and holistically on their practice, there's not a way to conduct layoffs without anyone losing their jobs unfairly. SB3501 was essentially a "best guess" at performance-based layoffs, better than LIFO, but not foolproof. But this truth was sticky, and inconvenient for the purposes of changing policy at a time when layoffs seemed imminent. There wasn't time to tinker with details or discuss nuances. We needed a win.
With layoffs averted (until Hizzoner undoubtedly brings the threat back again next spring), I hope we can talk about evaluations and layoffs in a more calm and clear-headed manner. But, I'm not optimistic. The reaction to Matthew Sprowal's story give me little reason to be. Because time and time again, educators, policymakers and pundits seem more interested in "winning" the argument, then looking at all the facts. And each time this happens, people seem to get angrier at the other side for ignoring legitimate points, and so they get further entrenched in their own points of view.
Education reform is tricky. It's not going to be solved easily, as much as we wish it could be. There are dozens of factors, some societal and some systemic, that are contributing to the failure of our schools. The sooner we all admit this, and agree to sift through the murkiness, instead of grabbing at quick victories, the sooner we can really help the thousands of students like Matthew who are still waiting for their happy ending.
*It should be mentioned, this is in large part thanks to a dedicated, knowledgeable parent who worked tirelessly to advocate for her child. The truth is, Matthew Sprowal won "the lottery" long before HSA pulled his number.