Friday, March 23, 2007

An interesting case study of a charter school vs. a regular public school

When comparing charter schools to nearby public schools (even when they share the same building), it's hard to do a perfect study because students are not typically assigned randomly -- there's always an element of parents choosing to enter the charter school lottery (contrary to what charter school critics maintain, however, this doesn't necessarily mean that charter schools are getting the "best" students with the most motivated parents -- often, it's the most desperate parents whose students are doing the worst, who apply).

Well, last night, I learned about a situation that gets around many of these comparison problems. I learned that two new schools -- a charter and a regular public school -- were started at the beginning of this year, in the same building, with the same grade (6th) and -- this is key -- quite a few of the students in the regular public school were ones that entered the charter school's lottery and didn't get in. The results? By the end of this year, the charter school principal hopes that 70% of his kids will be at grade level by the end of the year. As for the unlucky ones? Most likely the district average of 10-20%.

What accounts for this enormous difference -- literally lives completely turned around and saved -- in such a short period of time? The charter school principal started to tell me about how his school has a longer school day and a rigorous curribulum, he has control over his budget and can therefore allocate resources appropriately, but then I interrupted him and said, "And you have great teachers and the other school doesn't, right?" He smiled in agreement.

There's no secret here: a great school leader who recruits, trains, motivates, rewards and retains a team of badass teachers is 90% of the game. (I'm sure that someday some of what I've written in the past will be misconstrued as anti-teacher, but the truth is precisely the opposite: I think teachers are the key!)

The biggest problem with the typical failing public school system is that principals don't have the power -- even when they have the desire and the skills (which they often don't) -- to do what's necessary to build a team of badass teachers. In fact, nearly everything in the system ensures precisely the opposite outcome such that very few top-notch people enter the system and those that do quickly leave (or move to affluent schools) because they're generally not provided with proper support or training, nor are they rewarded for their tremendous efforts and success (in fact, I've heard lots of stories that top performers are resented and undermined by other teachers and/or the union because they make those with less commitment or ability look bad).

Exacerbating the situation is that the system has few mechanisms to identify and remove ineffective teachers. All of this is precisely the opposite of a typical charter school. Is it any surprise, therefore, what the charter is achieving vs. the identical school down the hall?

Spitzer, Bloomberg and Klein understand what's going on, which is why they're trying to expand the number of charter schools and trying to change the system in ways that make regular public schools more like charter schools (e.g., empowering principals to have more control over their budget and staff, introducing differential pay, streamlining the process of removing ineffective teachers, creating rebust, clear measurement and accountability systems, etc.) -- changes that are being fought to the death by the forces of the status quo, who like things just as they are (and who gives a crap that the majority of 4th graders in our city can't read and barely half graduate from high school, much less go to college, right?). GRRRRRR!

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