Race to Where?

Last Updated: September 29, 2009

This article appeared in the September 2009 Rural Policy Matters.
Commentary by Rural Trust Policy Director Marty Strange
There is a lot of pining these days for compromise and consensus instead of ugly partisan divides. But deals made when two philosophies collide can simply mean that both sides have lost their senses. The more extreme the competing ideologies, the more toxic the brew they can make. When politics makes strange bedfellows, beware the morning.
You can’t help but wonder if that is the case when civil rights activist and sometimes presidential candidate, Al Sharpton, and conservative former House Speaker and sometimes presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich, and now-President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, embark together on a multi-city tour to promote their shared agenda for education reform. It’s like a cartoon caricature of the miserable left-right embrace of standardized testing, punitive accountability, and privatization that was bundled up under the euphemism “No Child Left Behind.”
The goal of the tour is to “highlight the Obama administration’s efforts to reform public education, spur innovation and discuss challenges facing America’s school systems,” according to an education department news release. It includes stops at Philadelphia, New Orleans, Baltimore, and a place or places to be named later.
Sharpton’s tour goal is to support efforts to close the achievement gap and provide equal educational outcomes. Gingrich’s is to support the administration’s growing affection for charter schools, a substantial theme in all three of the named cities on the tour. Duncan’s goal is to make the Obama education program look center of the road.
These strange bedfellows share the faith in charter schools held by some on both the educational left and right. Charters offer deregulation and competition for the right, and professional expertise and utopian self-government for the left. From this strange common ground, charter schools are supposed to put education into the hands of those who know best, give them the regulatory freedom to do what they do best, and force traditional public schools to do better or go down the drain as they watch their students fly off to better charter schools.
It appeals with good reason, especially to minority communities frustrated by insular schools hostile to their communities, to rural communities faced with forced school closures, and to government haters everywhere.
To shield himself from critics who know something about the charter school phenomenon, Secretary Duncan is fond of saying that the administration doesn’t want to indiscriminately promote charter schools, just “high quality” ones. That caveat is revealing. The fact is that many charters are not high quality.
Charter Data
A 2006 study by the National Center for Education Statistics (part of the U.S. Department of Education) found charter school students underperformed traditional public school students on the widely respected National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, notwithstanding such variables as poverty and race.
The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University compared 70% of the nation's students attending charter schools with demographically matched students in nearby public schools. That report, which was funded by long time charter proponent, the Walton Family Foundation, concluded that 37% of charter schools underperformed matched traditional public schools, 46% showed no significant difference, and only 17% outperformed their counterparts. The authors tersely called the findings "sobering." And, a report on Boston charter schools, released this month, found that less than half of high school students remain in the charter through graduation, with many who leave returning to regular public school.
The CREDO study also cast a shadow on the Obama administration’s admonishment to states that they abandon limits on the numbers of charters, permitting rapid growth. The CREDO researchers found that in four of the five states with the fastest growth in charters in the past ten years (Arizona, Florida, Ohio, California, and Texas), charters underperformed similar students in traditional public schools. Only charter students in one fast-growth charter state, California, did as well as — but no better than — traditional public school students.
All of this shames an administration that, like the last one, said that education reform should be “evidence-based,” which we naïves supposed meant scientific-research based. Apparently, “evidence-based” means any evidence you can stand on, no matter the weight of the evidence to the contrary.
Charters in Race to the Top
The administration’s affair with charter schools can hardly be described as moderate. It borders on an obsession and it is nowhere more evident than in the funding criteria for the so-called “Race to the Top” fund. That is the $4.3 billion competitive grant program that is part of the economic stimulus package. The Race to the Top is supposed to encourage states to adopt innovations in the pursuit of academic achievement. Charters are woven throughout the program as announced in proposed rules issued by the Department of Education.
In their applications, states are to prove their proposal has the statewide support of charters (alas, 10 states have none), repeal any policy that limits the number or growth of charters (24 states have limits), assure that charters get a “commensurate share” (term not defined) of local, state, and federal funds, and provide funding for charter facilities (even if the state provides none to traditional public schools), including access to public bonding authority. This is a remarkable federal intrusion on states in an area that no one has ever suggested be subject to federal lawmaking — the legal and financial structure of local schooling.
The Race to the Top rules also require states to dismantle certain schools where students are not doing well academically. The successful state applicant for these funds must have in place a program that identifies the “lowest-achieving five percent of the persistently lowest performing schools” and then allows their district to remove the school principal and most teachers. Their replacements get a free hand these deposed professionals never had to hire staff, spend money, and run the school as they see fit. Or, the district can wash its hands of the situation either by converting the school to a charter, contracting with a private school management company, or closing it altogether and shipping the kids off to a high performing school elsewhere.
Did it ever occur to this administration that the crushing burden of inflexible regulations, the poor funding and poor pay that comes with it, and the increasingly punitive attitude of elected officials in state and federal governments have contributed to the poor performance, high teacher turnover, and ineffective leadership of some schools?
Well, yes, it did occur to them. As if by afterthought, the Race to the Top rules allow that if none of those overbearing actions is “possible” — and only then — the state can choose a “school transformation model” that only requires removal of the principal and adoption of reforms that might change the school from within. Putting that solution first, of course, would bypass the “go to charter” option.
Rural Context
None of this makes much sense in many rural areas.
In many small rural school districts there may be only one or two principals, and they may labor under an intrusive and ineffective superintendent. Removing principals is hardly a silver bullet to leadership reform in these rural schools. And what does it mean to close a school if you have to ship kids 20 miles to the next school that might not be performing much better? Can a rural community struggling to keep one school open support a charter school as well?
That was one of the points stressed by Montana State Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau who wrote the Department of Education asking for relief from the charter school requirement pointing out that about half of the state's school districts have fewer than 100 students, some have as few as 20, and there have not been any requests for charter schools in the state for twenty years.
Of the ten states that are disqualified from the Race to the Top because they have no charter schools nine are among the most rural in the nation — besides Montana, they are Alabama, Kentucky, Maine, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia. These are mostly states with small schools and districts, lots of local control, and a strong relationship between school and community. Describe the charter school concept to people in rural areas of these states, and many of them would ask, “And how would that be different from what we have now?”
But for many high poverty rural communities whose schools are struggling, the charter school would be different. It would be free of regulations that specify curriculum, teacher credentials, facilities, and many of their day-to-day operations. It would, as the Obama administration hopes, be free to innovate.
But is innovation possible only by dismantling poorly performing schools, discarding their teachers and leaders, paying their replacements more and giving them fewer rules to follow? Is that the only road to improvement?
Fortunately, because not every smidge of common sense has been driven underground by the left- right phalanx in Washington, some states have other ideas about how to introduce innovation. One of them is West Virginia.
Opportunity to Innovate
Not long ago, West Virginia was committed to the misguided policy of closing rural schools as fast as it could. It shut down over 300 in just a few years, as policy makers were convinced that poor people in small communities were not capable of running good schools. State officials forced or bribed county districts to close and consolidate schools, ignoring the state’s own guidelines on how long a child should be forced to ride a bus to school. They took over failing districts in the belief that the state knows best. But the state failed to make them better.
There is still plenty of school closing ideology loose in West Virginia. But there is also a new way of looking at things in West Virginia, largely because of the tireless work of a gritty rural organization called Challenge West Virginia. Rural people fought to keep and improve their schools. They got real limits put on the length of bus rides. They took back control of their schools from failed state takeovers. They elected better school boards in many of the most troubled districts. They got local district voters to pass school building bonds to repair or replace existing small schools, forsaking the state money they could have had if they were only willing to close most of those schools.
And along with other advocates, they got the state to look again at the heavy hand of regulation.
The result was legislation allowing the state to approve requests from districts to designate certain schools as “education innovation zones.” In these schools, principals and teachers are given much greater control over curriculum, organization of the school day and year, technology use, and services. But they must have a plan that shows how they will use this greater flexibility to hone in on thinking and problem solving skills, communication skills, creativity, learning in the context of the real world, and would you believe, students learning how to learn for themselves.
In innovation schools, standardized testing slips back to its proper place as a part of measuring student achievement, not the whole show. Assessments where students show what they can do, and classroom assessments where results affect teaching and learning immediately, are encouraged.
Teachers get new respect, too. The innovation plan requires they be involved in school leadership and that their professional development program be “embedded” in their job, not something they leave work to do in a university. Importantly, the proposed plan must have support of 80% of the school’s teachers.
And these schools must get out of their walls and into their communities. Parents, students, and others in the community have to be part of a two-way communication that influences the school’s approach to innovation.
This is a charter school by any other name, but one that starts where the school is, and transforms it from within. West Virginia didn’t throw away the charter school approach to innovation, it just threw away the notion that you have to abandon a struggling school to get that innovation.
The bill had the important support of Governor Joe Manchin and the West Virginia Education Association, and the leadership of a determined House Education subcommittee chairman, Rep. Stan Shaver. Shaver is a principal of an elementary school that has for eight years has been rated “exemplary” by the state despite being part of a district the state recently took over.
West Virginia hopes that Race to the Top officials will recognize their educational innovation zones as an alternative to chartering that makes sense in the Mountaineer State, and allow it to compete for the grant funds. Because the ideas behind innovation zone come from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a consortium of major corporations like Microsoft, Apple and Dell and leading education groups like the National Education Association, the American Association of School Librarians, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, it might be a little difficult for the Obama administration to turn a deaf ear to the West Virginia argument. It doesn’t hurt that the Partnership for 21st Century Skills is funded by the U.S. Department of Education.
The West Virginia approach is untested, but it is fresh and unlike so much of the education reform rhetoric that scolds and punishes and demeans. This approach gives people in hard places where teaching and learning is burdened by poverty, racism, language barriers, unemployment, and other social problems, a reason to believe in each other. Ideas like these could make a race to the top worth something. The proposed Race to the Top, the one left-right reformers want to force down the throats of state officials, is a race to nowhere.
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Read more from the September 2009 Rural Policy Matters.