Jonathan Alter: Making Magic in the Classroom

Those who support school reform are simply after better student and teacher performance—and with charter schools, they say they're getting it.

More than 30 years ago, I wrote in Newsweek about the landmark 1983 report, “A Nation at Risk,” which said that if the United States didn’t get serious about reforming public education, we would slip behind the rest of the world and jeopardize our future.

Exactly 20 years ago, I moved with my family to New Jersey and began periodic visits to Newark schools. Despite shockingly high per-pupil expenditures, the schools were mostly horrible, with pathetic graduation rates and students offered almost no chance to escape from poverty.

Around the same time, a small number of wealthy, well-connected people—the kind who for decades had sent their kids to private school and ignored the problems of the poor—took up the challenge of “A Nation at Risk” and became engaged in trying to improve schools, including Newark’s. This was one of the best social developments of our time—akin to Theodore Roosevelt and other elites embracing the cause of progressive reform a century ago.

These wealthy individuals weren’t after profit—they already had tons of money and generally didn’t invest in education companies, anyway. They wanted to do something with their extra loot beyond buying more mansions and yachts. The only self-interested part was that the companies they did invest in need an educated workforce to survive. Of course that’s in everyone else’s interest, too. Otherwise, we’re roadkill in the global economy.

All the talk of “corporatizing” schools is baloney. The benefactors are simply after better student and teacher performance—and they’re getting it. If you don’t believe me, visit Newark charter public schools like North Star Academy or TEAM Academy, where the student population is almost all non-white and the waiting lists are long. There is magic in their classrooms. With more than three-quarters of their students in grades three through eight scoring “advanced” or “proficient” on yearly assessments, they not only outperform neighboring traditional public schools by more than 30 points, they beat white suburban schools.

And look at their graduation rates—the best measure of whether schools are giving kids a chance to avoid the streets and make it into the middle class. More than 90 percent of North Star and TEAM students graduate and go to four-year colleges (including Princeton, MIT and Penn), compared to district-wide graduation rates of under 30 percent. College completion remains a challenge, but highly performing charter schools are working on that, too.

Yes, there are several first-rate non-charter schools in Newark that don’t get enough attention. But more than 10 percent of Newark’s 75,000 students now attend charters. Do the critics really want those parents and children to give up their dreams? Do they really mean to argue that if you can’t help all Newark students, you shouldn’t help any?

President Obama, a strong supporter of school reform, put it well when he said all education questions should be filtered through one question: Is it good for kids? Not teachers, administrators, politicians—kids. I find this clarifying when assessing the issues.

Higher teacher pay? Good for kids because it attracts better teachers to the profession.

Rock-solid tenure and last-in-first-out layoff policies backed by teachers unions? Bad for kids, because it makes it nearly impossible to fire bad teachers and forces the layoff of good young ones while weak teachers with seniority stay on.

A governor who rips teachers on TV? Bad for kids because it lessens respect for the profession.
Trashing charter schools? Definitely bad for kids, who deserve choices.

Even when failure is rampant, change is hard. Entrenched constituencies, including unions and school administrators in the old system, fight tenaciously to protect their interests without reflecting on the President’s simple question.

Meanwhile, reformers can sometimes be their own worst enemies, letting consultants get too much of the pie and relying too heavily on test scores. So far, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, former mayor Cory Booker and Newark schools chief Cami Anderson don’t have much to show for Zuckerberg’s gift of $100 million (though in fairness, it’s early yet).

Unfortunately, to beat reformers, some defenders of the failed status quo fight dirty, spreading lies and half-truths.

MYTH: Charters aren’t public schools and they drain resources from public schools without performing any better.

FACT: Charters are also public schools and thus by definition cannot be draining resources. According to an authoritative Stanford University study, New Jersey charter public schools performed significantly better than traditional public schools. In Newark, charter school students were four months ahead of their counterparts per year in reading and seven months ahead in math.

MYTH: Charter public schools cherry-pick students, push out kids whom traditional public schools must take and aren’t accountable.

FACT: By law, charters accept all kids by lottery only, counsel out students at lesser rates than vocational and magnet public schools, and are easier to close for failure than traditional public schools. (During his three-year tenure, former New Jersey Education Commissioner Chris Cerf closed 10 charters throughout the state for poor performance, but lacked the authority to do the same for any failing traditional schools.) While traditional schools can offer exclusive gifted-and-talented programs and reject students with certain disabilities, New Jersey charters cannot. Some charters don’t do enough to help special-ed kids or those with disciplinary issues, but others—like Team Academy schools, part of the KIPP network—have good records on refusing to push out or otherwise give up on any students.

MYTH: Charter public schools have an unfair advantage because of money from wealthy benefactors.

FACT: Charters, unlike traditional public schools, have to pay for their buildings and other facilities, the largest single expense after payroll. Non-charters can also attract donations through local nonprofit education foundations and are more likely to receive them if they produce results.

MYTH: Charters are resegregating public schools.

FACT: Charter students are almost entirely poor, black and Latino. It is ridiculous to claim they are hurting the population they are serving.

MYTH: Educators trained by Teach for America—a national service program that brings recent college graduates into the classroom as teachers for at least two years—are unfit for the classroom and mostly leave education for banking after two years anyway. Education historian Diane Ravitch, a former U.S. assistant secretary of education who in recent years has become an erudite mouthpiece for teachers’ unions, has gone so far as to call for a boycott of corporations that contribute to TFA.

FACT: Principals in New Jersey and across the country are eager to hire TFA teachers, who mostly remain in education after their two-year commitment.

MYTH: Reformers are forcing more tests, and thus more teaching to the tests.

FACT: In most New Jersey districts, the total number of assessments hasn’t changed, though the tests are getting harder, which upsets defenders of mediocrity. Contrary to popular assumption, charter schools generally offer lots of art and music, subjects that are critical.

It’s important to understand that reform efforts, including charters, are not a panacea for what ails American education. They aren’t endlessly replicable, and the underlying problems of poverty and social dysfunction must be better addressed before we see widespread progress.

And charters aren’t right for every small suburban district. They are often unnecessary (the schools aren’t bad) and can distract from the work of school boards that are doing their jobs.

But in urban America and poor rural areas, education reform is the closest thing we have to a modern-day civil rights movement. Instead of fighting successful charters, traditional schools should learn from them, adopting best practices that can work for their students. Then we can all rise together.

Jonathan Alter is the author, most recently, of The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, a New York Times best seller now in paperback.

Click here to read Bob Braun’s take against school reform.

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