THE BOSTON GLOBE: Op-Ed: JOE WILLIAMS
"Take the brakes off the charter movement"
By Joe Williams, January 21, 2008
THE COMMONWEALTH'S education reform effort was founded on a trade-off: enhanced accountability and expanded parental choice in return for new state funding. Student assessment testing was established, along with new curriculum standards. Charter public schools were created to expand parental choice and introduce competition.
Since then, Bay State schools have risen to become some of the best in the country. In 2005, Massachusetts became the first state to place first in all four categories on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation's report card. Last year, the Commonwealth did it again.
One of the keys to this success has been the state's charter school program. Charter public schools in Massachusetts have transformed urban education, not only giving poor and forgotten children a chance at a quality education and a bright future, but also prompting reforms in district schools, such as the creation of pilot schools in Boston. Many urban charters - with predominantly minority and poor students - are outscoring wealthy suburban school districts on statewide assessment tests.
These accomplishments have led many states and cities to emulate the Commonwealth's formula of accountability and choice.
In New York, Governor Eliot Spitzer increased the statewide charter school cap from 100 to 200. Mayor Cory Booker of Newark has proposed more charter schools, as well as vouchers. Private donors in Chicago put up $4.2 million to launch a math and science charter school with Mayor Richard Daley's support. Last spring, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick of Detroit announced he would seek up to 25 new charter schools. After Hurricane Katrina, schools that have been rebuilt in New Orleans are opening as charters.
In Washington, D.C. - with the full support of the mayor - enrollment in charter schools has jumped 13 percent annually since 2001. If the trend continues, charters will educate more students than the city's traditional schools by 2014.
So you have to wonder why Massachusetts seems intent on retreating from its own nationally recognized success. The backward slide is already evident.
During his campaign, Governor Deval Patrick courted and received strong support from teachers' unions, which have vigorously opposed reforms and are especially hostile to charters. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, who also enjoys strong union support, is not a forceful advocate for more charter schools to open in his city. The Legislature is heavily influenced by the teachers' unions and contains only a handful of vocal charter supporters.
Massachusetts has a de facto moratorium on the growth of charter public schools in urban districts where parents desperately need and desire more choice. Legislation to raise caps on charters is stalled in the Legislature, and the governor echoes the position of teachers' unions and superintendents, saying he will support lifting the cap only after a new funding formula - potentially disastrous for charter schools - is in place.
Last year, the governor and the Legislature phased out the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability, which conducted unvarnished performance audits of school districts.
Patrick created an education task force to craft his blueprint for education policy, but the "vision statement" that is guiding this task force barely mentions charters and leaves the door open to watering down MCAS.
The governor has wavered in his support for MCAS graduation requirement, and seems open to awarding "alternative diplomas" to students who fail - essentially letting children graduate without the skills they'll need in college or the workforce.
Patrick has also filed a plan to revamp the current Board of Education to give himself several new appointments and near-total control over education policy. The current board has supported reform efforts charter schools. Education reform advocates worry that Patrick's future appointments will be more aligned with the status quo.
We've reached a critical juncture in the education reform process. Will state political leaders summon the courage to continue down the successful path being followed by so many others? Or will they take an ill-advised U-turn and retreat from their own success? The actions of the governor and the Legislature over the next several months will give us the answer.
Joe Williams is author of "Cheating Our Kids: How Politics and Greed Ruin Education" and executive director of Democrats for Education Reform.
A Boston GLOBE EDITORIAL
"Make charter schools a priority"
February 22, 2008
THE PATRICK administration's education priorities should come into focus with the spring release of its 10-year strategic plan - the so-called Readiness Project - for classroom improvements. Until then, one reliable way to judge the administration's commitment to innovation is to track its willingness to expand charter schools.
Acting Commissioner of Education Jeff Nellhaus has recommended that the state Board of Education approve four new charter schools at its Tuesday meeting. Like the existing 61 charter schools in the state, these newcomers would have the ability to get ahead through flexible scheduling, budgeting, curriculum building, teacher hiring, and a longer school day. The charter hopefuls that survived the rigorous application process are: the SABIS International Charter School of Southeastern Massachusetts in the Brockton area, grades K-12; Silver Hill Horace Mann Charter School in Haverhill, K-5; Hampden Charter School of Science in the Springfield area, 6-12; and Dorchester Collegiate Academy in Boston, 4-12.
Charter schools, which operate free of restrictive union work rules and central-office meddling, consistently outperform their district counterparts on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam. The all-important longer school day is routine in charter schools. In traditional districts, parents and students would be lucky to find one of the extended-day pilot programs. School superintendents and teacher union officials express deep fear for the future when watching their students and the per capita costs for educating them depart for charter schools. But they aren't worried enough, it seems, to quicken the pace of reform. And some are so busy mounting lobby days against the state's high-stakes MCAS test that they don't even notice the 19,000 students on charter school waiting lists whose goal is to ace the exam, not duck it.
The most contentious application is likely to be the proposal for the for-profit SABIS International Charter School, which intends to draw 1,300 students from more than a dozen cities and towns. The school department in Brockton, a struggling urban district, is especially concerned about a student exodus. But SABIS results in Springfield are simply too strong to ignore, especially in the area of closing the achievement gap between white and minority students. Instead of resisting, districts with large numbers of failing students should be exploring how to secure SABIS's successful lesson plans and weekly testing tools.
Governor Patrick expressed unequivocal support for the MCAS test in a recent interview at the Globe. His support for the new charter school applications would also show that he wants no part of any retreat to the pre-1993 state of flat expectations, phony promotions, and torpid teaching.
The Boston Globe, Op-Ed, KATHLEEN A. MADIGAN
"A repackaged education proposal"
By Kathleen A. Madigan, February 14, 2009
A DEBATE is raging about the future of academic standards in American public education. On one side, University of Virginia Professor E.D. Hirsch and organizations like Democrats for Education Reform are working to extend standards-based reforms. On the other side is Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, once considered a top candidate to be President Obama's education secretary. She blames detailed standards testing and their focus on discrete facts for wide achievement gaps and the nation's failure to perform better on international assessments. Instead, she proposes allowing teachers to interpret broad curriculum guidelines and develop their own student assessments.
Darling-Hammond's approach largely reflects where Massachusetts was prior to the enactment of education reform in 1993. The only statewide high school graduation requirements were a year of American history and four years of physical education. State SAT scores were barely at the national average.
Today, the picture is much brighter. Bay State students were the country's best on "the nation's report card" - the National Assessment of Educational Progress - the last two times the tests were given. They shook up the education world when results released in December showed the Commonwealth outperforming most of the international competition on the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) tests.
Massachusetts achieved success by following the rich academic content and objective testing espoused by E.D. Hirsch and Democrats for Education Reform.
Research on reading comprehension test results shows that knowledge of the subject referenced in a passage is the key to students' understanding. Similarly, the most effective way to get students to master important "real-world" skills is to teach them the knowledge that is prerequisite to those skills.
Just a decade ago, Massachusetts had lower reading scores than Connecticut. But while the Commonwealth's reading scores improved more than any state's between 1998 and 2005, Connecticut experienced some of the nation's most significant declines.
Leaders in Hartford chose to focus on "how to" skills like critical thinking and problem-solving over academic content; Massachusetts chose rich content and objective assessments. Connecticut has recently seen the error of its ways. It has discarded the focus on how-to skills and joined the growing number of cities and states adopting Massachusetts' academic standards as their model.
Importantly, research also shows a strong correlation between raising verbal scores and narrowing achievement gaps. The states that saw the most significant gains in reading scores during the 1998-2005 period - Massachusetts, Delaware, and Wyoming - also made the most progress at narrowing achievement gaps. Conversely, achievement gaps widened in states like Connecticut and West Virginia that saw the largest reading score declines.
According to Hirsch, that's because the achievement gap is really a knowledge gap. Advantaged students have access to far more of it outside school than do less-fortunate ones. Massachusetts' focus on exposing all students to the same rich liberal-arts content is the surest way to narrow the knowledge gap.
We still need to do better. That means introducing more specificity to the grade-by-grade academic content students learn in core subjects, particularly in the early grades.
Further narrowing achievement gaps will also require urban districts to align their curricula with state frameworks. A sobering 2006 study from the Pioneer Institute found that more than a decade after education reform, curriculum in a majority of the Commonwealth's urban districts still wasn't aligned with the frameworks, which means urban students are being tested on content they haven't been taught.
At a recent event that featured Professor Hirsch, former Senate president and co-author of education reform Thomas Birmingham sounded the alarm, saying he is worried that Patrick administration proposals to shift the focus from clear standards and objective assessments to how-to skills threaten to "drive us back in the direction of vague expectations and fuzzy standards." He added that he fears "a watering down of clear expectations with vague aspirations."
Darling-Hammond's proposals repackage the skills-over-content approach Massachusetts employed for decades prior to 1993. Fifteen years of moving in a different direction have yielded historic academic gains. By passing over Darling-Hammond as education secretary, Obama has correctly decided not to turn his back on standards-based reform. In Massachusetts, Governor Patrick would be wise to follow that lead.
Kathleen A. Madigan, founder and former president of the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, is a member of the Pioneer Institute's Center for School Reform Advisory Board.
"Gloucester charter school bid gets key ally: Local officials against concept on fiscal grounds"
By Megan Woolhouse, Boston Globe Staff, February 14, 2009
The state's education commissioner said yesterday that he will support the creation of a charter school for the arts in Gloucester, despite opposition from the mayor, School Committee, and other local officials.
The school would be the first of its kind in Gloucester. The proposal was selected from three finalists, including two plans for schools in Worcester and Waltham.
"In my mind, this was a very strong proposal by a group of very capable people," Mitchell D. Chester, commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said by phone yesterday. "There's a strong infusion of the arts in the curriculum and it is well thought out."
Although more than 400 parents have signed a list saying they would consider sending their child to the new school, called the Gloucester Community Arts School, others have criticized the idea, saying it would drain resources from city schools and force cuts in spending.
Charter schools are publicly funded independent schools that are overseen by the state, not the local public school district.
The state Board of Education will ultimately decide whether to approve the proposal. Chester will make his recommendation at the board's Feb. 24 meeting.
The Gloucester proposal was condemned by the School Committee and the City Council as a financial drain on city schools. The School Committee voted unanimously against the plan in November, calling for a statewide moratorium on new charter schools.
Mayor Carolyn Kirk has called the plan to fund the school by withdrawing spending in other local schools "obscene." Yesterday she said the proposal would "hurt more than help the children of Gloucester."
Greg Verga, chairman of the School Committee, said the shift of funds to the charter school will exacerbate planned cuts due to state budget reductions.
"I'm very disappointed with this decision," he said. "It is my hope that the board will look at the lack of merits in the charter proposal and do the right thing and deny their charter."
There are 61 charter schools in operation in Massachusetts. According to the Gloucester proposal, 240 students from kindergarten through Grade 8 would attend the school, which is scheduled to open in 2010.
Opponents, however, have said the loss of students would drain $2.4 million in per pupil spending - or $10,000 per student - from the city's public school system and redirect the money to the charter school, which could lead to teacher layoffs.
Chester said yesterday that he was sympathetic to community concerns about funding. He said he would delay the opening of the proposed charter school for a year if Gloucester sees its state funding for education cut in the upcoming budget cycle.
"I expect there will be people who think I have not made a good decision," Chester said. "But I will make the proposal on the merits, not based on any kind of political calculus of who would be happy and who would not."
Mitchell also said the school system would not experience an immediate funding drop as a consequence of the charter school's planned opening, instead, phasing out payments.
For one year, the state will pay the city as much as it did prior to the charter school's opening. The following year, the state will pay the city 60 percent of its precharter school funding, and 40 percent in the charter school's third year.
Megan Woolhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Boston Globe, Op-Ed, SCOT LEHIGH
"Patrick's blessing on charter schools"
By Scot Lehigh, January 30, 2009
IT'S ONE significant step for education reform, one giant leap for Governor Patrick.
This week, the state's CEO acknowledged the obvious: some charter schools are delivering impressive results - and the state needs more of that kind of school.
"We need help closing the achievement gap," Patrick said. "Charter schools have in many cases - not all, but in many cases - been an important element in helping to address the achievement gap."
That message is all the more important because as a candidate courting the teachers unions Patrick had been cool toward charters, saying he wanted to resolve tensions over the funding formula before considering lifting the charter cap. More recently, he had declared that he wanted to focus instead on readiness schools, his charter-lite alternative.
But with the state's fiscal problems stalling his readiness project, on Wednesday the governor gave the idea of more charters his blessing, proposing to lift the charter cap in 50 districts whose students had the lowest performance on the English and math MCAS.
Now, the charter success story has become hard to ignore, particularly since a careful new study concluded that a number of Boston charters had done remarkably well in lifting student achievement.
Still, Patrick deserves credit for being open-minded enough to change direction.
Coincidentally, his charter course correction comes even as Bill Gates has offered a strong endorsement of the innovative academies. Reporting on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's nine-year effort to help create better high schools, Gates, in a letter excerpted in the Washington Post, said that many of the foundation-funded schools hadn't significantly improved student achievement; those tended to be places that hadn't taken radical steps to change their culture, Gates wrote.
"But a few of the schools that we funded achieved something amazing," he wrote. "Almost all of these schools are charter schools that have significantly longer school days than other schools."
Noting that many states have put limits on charter schools, Gates offered this conclusion: "Educational innovation and overall improvement will go a lot faster if the charter school limits and funding rules are changed."
So there's a double dose of good news for charter advocates this week.
But there's also a catch: the conditions Patrick would attach to any new charters.
Charters would be granted only to schools that commit to having four-fifths of their students come from the following demographics: low income, limited English proficient, special education, and dropouts or potential dropouts. New charters would also have to have at least 5 percent more special education or limited English proficient students than the district.
"Our focus in this particular initiative is on the achievement gap," says Secretary of Education Paul Reville. "We are only going to do it where the need is urgent."
But if your child is stuck in an underperforming school, you rightly see the situation as urgent, regardless of whether he or she falls into one of the governor's categories. Given the importance of education, charters should also be an option for those families.
Further, it's hard to see how the governor's desired demographic balancing can be achieved given that charters pick their students through random lotteries. Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, offers an interesting counterproposal. To ensure that all students have an equal chance at a charter slot, districts should be required to provide lists of families they serve; charters would be obligated to send information about their school and its enrollment lottery to all those families, and in their primary language.
Finally, the administration has proposed funding changes that do a lot of rearranging to little important purpose.
One effect, however, would be to isolate a significant chunk of charter school money in a single budgetary line item. Proponents worry that would make charter funding a tempting target for charter opponents. I'd dismiss their concerns as overwrought - if charter foes hadn't already staged a legislative ambush on charter funding back in 2004.
But even with those reservations, if the governor is sincere, his proposal marks an important development in the debate.
Scot Lehigh can be reached at email@example.com.
- Jonathan Melle
- Amherst, NH, United States
- I am a citizen defending the people against corrupt Pols who only serve their Corporate Elite masters, not the people! / My 2 political enemies are Andrea F. Nuciforo, Jr., nicknamed "Luciforo" and former Berkshire County Sheriff Carmen C. Massimiano, Jr. / I have also pasted many of my political essays on "The Berkshire Blog": berkshireeagle.blogspot.com / I AM THE ANTI-FRANK GUINTA! / Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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