California gives us another example of why reports on charter schools should be read closely

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The Alameda County Grand Jury released a report on charters in OUSD this week which will have some fodder for pro and anti-charter groups.  And while there were some insights, at times the analysis was insufficiently nuanced and at others it seemed to misunderstand the context or the law.  Some of the more simplistic analysis probably will lead to misleading headlines that may not reflect reality.

For instance, the East Bay Times’ article was titled, “Grand Jury Report:Better Management Needed of Oakland’s Charter Schools.”  It focussed on some questionable test score analysis (see below), and wanting OUSD to “manage” charters more, which is not the role of the authorizer under California law.  The data and testimony is a good starting point, but the Grand Jury’s analysis was not sufficiently grounded in law or context.

Validly studying school performance or charter school performance requires understanding and nuance.  Sadly, student background characteristics have larger effects on achievement than schools tend to, so any comparison of schools really needs to look at growth and achievement of similar students or that in demographically similar schools, this nuance is missing in the report.  And the State Charter Association sent some additional data that seems to challenge the report’s findings around student performance.

So let’s take a look at some of the findings, recommendations and critiques.

Test score comparisons

The anti-charter headlines will likely focus on the academic comparison, which is written a little strangely and leaves maybe a worse impression than it should.  I am copying the original here, and the BOLD type is my insertions.

Using the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress Test Results for English Language Arts/Literacy and Mathematics for 2015, the Grand Jury determined that of the 37 Oakland charter schools that participated, 17 scored below the blended average of all Oakland unified public schools (with 20 scoring at or above) and 24 scored below the statewide average in English. Nineteen scored below OUSD averages (and 18 scored at or above) and 23 scored below the statewide average in mathematics. Within these results, there were 15 Oakland charter schools that scored below OUSD averages in both categories (and 22 didn’t). Many of these charter schools have been in Oakland for years and scored similarly on the previous API tests that are no longer in use.

So this says to me charters, are on average, doing about as well and maybe better than the district averages on one narrow measure; the first year of a new test.  And demographically we know that charters are more likely to have low income students and English language learners, while district schools have a higher percentage of identified special education students.  In this context it’s hard to know what to make of the academic data comparisons without more nuance in terms of similar schools or similar students.

This became even more murky when I asked the California Charter Schools Association about the data, here is the table they sent.

What percent of students are meeting/exceeding standards on 2014-15 SBAC tests in charters vs. non-charters?

ELA Math
charter average 41% 33%
non-charter average 25% 22%
OUSD avg. (charter & non-charter combined) 30% 25%
how many charters perform below the combined (charter+non-charter) district average? 18 charters (out of 36 with data), 50% 17 charters (out of 36 with data), 47%
how many non-charters perform below the combined (charter+non-charter) district average? 54 non-charters (out of 77 with data), 70% 56 non-charters (out of 77 with data), 73%

By this data comparison, a significantly higher proportion of charters are performing above the public school averages than OUSD-run schools.  But again without some more analysis of who the children are and what their learning gains are we really don’t know what this data really says about school performance.

Greater charter- district collaboration

The report also highlighted the need for more than “a tangential relationship” between the district and charter schools identifying special education, facilities, and common enrollment as potential areas of improvement.

As they stated around facilities—charters use space much more efficiently and that allows them to better focus resources on the classroom,

Most charter schools are fully enrolled and therefore occupy space efficiently. This allows a charter to focus funds on teaching. On the other hand, OUSD is responsible for 130 buildings, many of which are under-enrolled schools that are far below maximum occupancy. Furthermore, each school must be staffed. Without closing or consolidating schools, the district must continue to maintain many of these underused structures, thereby diverting funds from the classroom.

However, they also noted that the charter law has lower building standards, and that charter facilities, while up to code, may not provide the same protection during an earthquake.  There would seem to be a win-win here, creating full buildings, and safer kids, by using district facilities for charter students more efficiently, which is also required by law.  But I won’t hold my breath.

The logic and desire for a common enrollment system

Much like the 73% of survey respondents, the Grand Jury noted the challenges families have in accessing schools and the logic of a common enrollment system,

A recurrent issue addressed by witnesses is the existing multiple enrollment systems whereby OUSD schools and each charter school must be accessed separately. The Grand Jury views this as an undue burden on families to seek out each school separately and enroll using that school’s unique application and apply by its deadline. The Office of Charter Schools is a proponent of the common enrollment concept currently being evaluated by the Oakland Unified School District. This system allows families to review and select their desired choices from a single integrated process thereby providing an equitable access for all Oakland students.

Misunderstandings of Law or Authorizer Role

There were a few factual or legal issues that I think the Grand Jury missed.  It argues that Oakland should manage its charter growth more and that it only authorizes schools that sign the District’s Equity Pledge.  While I personally half agree, I agree wholeheartedly that charters need to collaborate more with the district.  OUSD, by law does not have this discretion.  The Charter Law requires that a district approve a charter that meets the legal threshold and the districts legally don’t have the power to add their own new requirements, like the Equity Pledge.

The Grand Jury also seemed to envision more of a school inspector regime, with a more than doubling of charter office staff.  A bigger office won’t necessarily lead to better oversight, and the district should be hiring bilingual aides, or special education teachers, not more central office staff.

I always welcome more honest data, and this is a good first step, I just hope over time we commit some resources to the deeper analysis we need of student growth to understand what is really working for children and families and how to best serve them.

Dirk Tillotson has worked for over 25 years with underserved students and communities expanding educational opportunities, and simultaneously striving for equity and excellence.  He blogs at and


Kids in Richmond need great schools, so why is the teachers’ union blocking them?

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The fight over Adams Middle School in East Richmond Heights, California, is a microcosm of everything that is wrong with the politics of public education.

I attended Adams over three decades ago. My family had just moved nearby so as to allow me to attend the school, rather than the violent schools available in Richmond’s “Iron Triangle” neighborhood where I had grown up. Adams was not a great school, but it was good. The school was tucked into a mixed-income suburb that attracted students of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities.  We had some terrible teachers, but also some great ones.  We had some racial violence, but also some cross-race camaraderie.  As time passed, however, school attendance declined. Finally, in 2009, the school was closed after 50 years in existence.

The old building was scheduled for demolition, but demolitions are expensive, and the local bureaucracy let time pass. Five years later, in 2014, the school building was still empty and unused, with teaching supplies piled up in rooms and vegetation growing up around the building.  On the evening of July 15 of that year, a Tuesday, arsonists thought it would be fun to scale the piping, break into the building, and start some fires.  The fire was stopped before it spread to local houses, but not before tens of thousands of dollars of damage was done.  The building, which needs both a seismic upgrade and substantial repair, is now a practice site for the local fire department.

What comes next should be a celebration of American can-do and ingenuity, but is turning into a depressing exercise in political selfishness and cowardice.

The issue involves “charter schools.”  Started 25 years ago this month, these schools use public funds, subject to public regulations, to educate public school students. To be sure, not all charter schools are great, just as not all traditional public schools are great. On average, however, charter schools deliver better results for students. Today, roughly 6% of public school students attend schools run by charter.

In the case of Adams Middle School, a nonprofit charter named Caliber Schools may restore the building to its original purpose of educating children. Currently, Caliber runs a nearby school in Richmond. The Caliber school, however, has no permanent home. Last year, 585 students and their teachers studied in temporary rooms located on asphalt at the edge of the Richmond-Kennedy High School campus on Cutting Boulevard. (Richmond-Kennedy was one of the high schools for which Adams Middle School was a feeder school.) Caliber is in the process of purchasing the Adams facility to continue expanding their school.

Home run, right?  Home run for hundreds of students, as well as for the neighborhood around Adams?

Not so fast.  The United Teachers of Richmond, the local teachers’ union for which my mom used to serve as a union rep when she was a teacher, has declared war on Caliber. They hate Caliber and have launched a campaign, in coordination with other local labor unions, to prevent the charter from acquiring the Adams Middle School space (which, not incidentally, is the ideal local space for the burgeoning student population).

As is typical for this type of attack, the teachers’ union leaders have used Orwellian political doublespeak to pretend that Caliber is a bad actor, and the unions are interested in justice.  As is also typical, the claims are based on smears and lies.

The unions, for instance, claim that Adams is being “given away” to Caliber because the formal cost of the school will be only $60,000.  Conveniently, this ignores the fact that Caliber plans to spend $15-20 million to restore the Adams Middle School building.

The unions also claim that Caliber is draining money from other public schools.  At the 25:12 mark of this 30-minute video, for instance, a speaker for the United Teachers of Richmond claims that “an independent auditor did a fiscal impact report” saying that charters entailed “hidden costs” that put the Los Angeles Unified School District at risk of insolvency.  Oh, really?  That’s interesting.  I looked up the “independent auditor” using my own personal Google machine, and learned the teachers’ unions had commissioned the report.  Independent experts, such as professor Patrick Wolf from the University of Arkansas, have demonstrated that charters generally improve public finances because they encourage innovation and also take several thousand dollars less per pupil than traditional schools.

The unions also suggest that Caliber is “skimming” the best students from public schools on a selective basis.  That is another lie. Caliber is free and non-selective. More parents want to send their children to Caliber than spaces are available, so admission is selected by lottery. Currently, 77% of Caliber’s students receive free or reduced-price lunches, meaning that their families live in or near poverty levels of income.  Additionally, 93% of Caliber’s students are from Hispanic, African American, or mixed-race ethnic backgrounds. Forty percent of Caliber’s students do not speak English as their native language. Twelve percent have disabilities that qualify them for Special Education.

More importantly, Caliber brings innovation to their students. As I have written previously, public schools of the future will leverage team teaching, technology, and adaptive learning to bring great education to all children.  Caliber is one of the schools trying to reach that vision.  Caliber students learn math and English in blended learning projects of the type that might give them a shot at great careers in a rapidly changing world.

This gets to the real reason for the attacks on Caliber.  Caliber is working. Charter schools such as Caliber hire teachers without the onerous union contracts that hamper student achievement and diminish the profession throughout California.  The more successful charter schools become over time, the greater the pressure will be on teachers’ union officials who claim that their answers are good for schools.

In a desperate ploy to distract from this central truth, the unions have gone all-out to vilify the founder of Caliber, Ron Beller, as a “vulture capitalist” seeking to make money on the backs of vulnerable children.  Even a cursory review, however, finds that these attacks are just smears. Yes, Beller ran a hedge fund, but he invested **against** subprime mortgages.  In other words, if you watched “The Big Short,” he was on the correct side of history. Yes, his fund later failed, but that is always the risk of running your own fund, and his fund’s failure cost him an enormous amount of money personally.  Yes, he was “involved” in scandals at large banks – because an employee **stole money from him.**  As for his role in public education, there is zero evidence that he will ever make any money from his work in charter schools.  The claims otherwise are tin-foil-hat conspiracies that reveal vast ignorance about how investing works.  Yes, Beller appears to invest in education technology companies, and yes his nonprofit charter may eventually receive favorable tax treatment, but those are highly speculative, long-term financial matters that will almost certainly make zero difference in Beller’s long-term personal finances.  On the contrary, Beller and his fellow philanthropists are **giving money** to Caliber to help it succeed.  Remember how Caliber plans to invest $15-20 million to restore Adams?  That $15-20 million is coming from private philanthropic donors such as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.

The vilification of charter schools is also a sharp contrast to the ideals of the Democratic Party and progressives generally, who should be celebrating government innovation on behalf of poor children.  Recall that charters became prominent due to the leadership of figures such as the late teachers’ union leader Al Shanker and the former Democratic President Bill Clinton. Many up-and-coming Democratic politicians, such as New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, have celebrated the potential of charter schools to bring innovation to a crucial public service.

It is time for the leaders—and teachers—of West Contra Costa to stand up to this insanity.  While parents and students are on the Caliber wait list, and while current Caliber students study in temp rooms on asphalt, the Adams Middle School lies dilapidated and unused.  My Alma Mater Adams deserves better, and so to the students of Richmond.

It takes a nation of empty robes to hold us back

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Dr. Pedro Noguera once told me “you clearly don’t know much about education.” I probably deserved it for challenging him on Twitter after he wrote a piece with Judith Browne Dianis, Esq. from the Advancement Project, and Dr. John Jackson from the Schott Foundation. They had argued in The Hill that civil rights groups were wrong during reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to support annual testing of students in public schools. I thought that was a scandalous betrayal of the black community’s best interest.

Maybe I shouldn’t have tangled with people who have advanced education. These folks with acronyms before and after their names are sensitive about their scholarship and they want recognition for their expertise.

Since then I’ve met a stream of Doctors of education who see themselves as the producers of the tablets we should carry down from the mountain, into the hood. They want me to see that charters, choice, testing, and focus on teacher quality aren’t reforms aimed at improving education. Those reforms, they say, are merely vices of a malevolent upper class who design and fund neo-slavery.

Can’t I see the proposals I support are really disguised weapons against my own people?

Maybe I’m a cynical simpleton, but the most learned people are the most tiring for me. Especially those in higher education. Is there some secret room in the academy where their brains are rewired so they wander intellectually, permanently in nuance, without a return ticket to practicality?

Many of these experts seem to think if you merely put commas between “privatization,” “neoliberalism,” “market-based,” “corporate,” “billionaires,” “TFA,” “charter schools,” “whole child,” and “critical pedagogy,” the dissertation basically writes itself. Well, that and adding 108 citations of Dr. Diane Ravitch, Dr. Linda Darling Hammond, Dr. Gloria Landson Billings, and of course, Dr. Noguera.

Exchanges with Dr. Julian Vasquez Helig and Dr. Shaun Johnson come to mind.

The former writes an uncomely blog dedicated to disproving the utility of Teach For America and charter schools. He once told me Howard Fuller’s lifetime of advocacy for black educational liberation doesn’t compare to his own record of providing a streaming shit creek of peer-reviewed anti-reform “research studies.”

The latter teaches kindergarten in D.C. after writing an anti-reform blog for years. He told me being a black parent gives me no more insight into my children’s learning needs than his Ph.d. He’s white and apparently history didn’t happen.

These experts, and a nation of teachers that see them as cardinal reference points, express frustration about people like me who have lots to say about public education but have “never been in the classroom.”

I understand their frustration. Nobody likes a back seat driver or the opinionated guy who has never done anything.

Let me out myself. Though I write about education, have been on a school board, have a motley crew of kids, and struggled as a student in several kinds of schools, I am an autodidact, not an expert.

I don’t teach in a classroom, I don’t run a school, and I’ve never written a book about education. Just a civilian here.

But I have logical questions about the gulf between what black kids – including my own – are capable of achieving, and what they are currently achieving.

America has a history of enslaving, restricting, redlining, and marginalizing black people, and the major system of education has always been a part of that injustice.

My fear is that “educated” people from our own community are not using their positions to advance learning and liberation as much as they’re acting as agents of the state, attempting to keep us on an academic plantation that pays them, profits from us, and keeps us roughly in the same vulnerable state of exploitation that we have been in for years.

These public schools were never really our schools. They weren’t built for us, or by us, so why would anyone tell us our best bet is to limit our options to the faltering state-governed, district-run system?

By the time a black person reaches adulthood they have come into contact with many professionals. Black youth are an industry unto themselves, a new commodity, and everyone wants a piece of the grift. There is a national army of careerists who are paid to study us, teach us, counsel us, medicate us, control us, write about us, and become experts on what ails us.

We are a profitable burden, a vainglorious spectacle of wretched black gold for eager professionals.

But if improving our lives is the goal, tell me again, who are the experts on us?

Is it the classroom teacher? Is it the university professor who trains the teacher? Is it the author who conducts research, writes books, and travels the country consulting, advising, and speaking about education?

Given the ruinous results, and the sum total of efforts from all these educated people who dine on our tears and dance to our cries for change, we have no experts.

The proof and the pudding

There is but one question for folks in academia and their numberless network of teachers who write research studies, articles, and books that call school reform into question. Why aren’t they establishing their own schools to demonstrate all they have learned about learning.

Where is the Pedro Noguera Academy of Teaching Black Boys To Read and Write?

Where is the Julian Vasquez Helig School of Succeeding With Marginalized Children?

What about the Diane Ravitch Center for Graduating Literate and Numerate Children of Color?

Those schools don’t exist.

It is one thing to speak from a vaulted perch where you are not responsible for a single kid, and preach the paleoliberal gospel of the one-best-system; to write missives against school reform as you cash under-the-table paychecks from reform funders; to sit on panels sponsored by education labor cartels and interrogate the motives of school reformers while never interrogating the motives of labor cartels; to put your own kids in private schools and then assail school choice as a misguided gift to the ignorant poor who won’t make decisions as well as you have; and to basically fill the world with useless pablum about thinking broader, bolder, more holistically, without focusing intensely on developing, administrating, delivering, and measuring the effectiveness of instruction and learning in the most important place, the classroom.

It’s something much different to do what the leaders of new schools do, which is to design, establish, and operate schools that fight the nihilistic, racist, and classist mantra that demography affixes melanated people without money to academic failure.

Maybe there is a resignation in the expert class. Maybe there is great license when you are not accountable for producing anything other than critique. Maybe you have tried, failed, and they resigned to tearing down reform rather than proposing anything that might work.

Dr. Darling Hammond and Stanford University gave it the college try. They started a school. It was intended to showcase all of their research in an applied setting with real children. In 2005 Stanford’s dean for the School of Education, Deborah Stipek, said the university “wanted to be a partner [to the local school district] rather than just preach from the Ivy tower.”

The school did terribly.

Even with extensive resources, including $3,000 more in per student funding, and a direct connection to all of the conceivable knowledge produced by one of the world’s most renowned institutions of higher learning, the school struggled to break out of the bottom 5% of schools in the state of California.

When the school failed Diane Ravitch said, “Maybe this demonstrates that schools alone cannot solve the very deep problems kids bring to school…You cannot assume that schools alone can raise achievement scores without addressing the issues of poverty, of homelessness and shattered families.”

That’s absolutely the wrong message, and the fact that so many “educated” people from our community never confront her system-preserving, elitist nonsense makes them as suspect with me as my support of reform has made me with them.

We have proof that great schools matter. Our kids can learn, even when poor. The people getting it done don’t seem to be stuck on all the wrong questions (how can we stop kids from being poor before they get to school?), and dedicated to solving the puzzle of how can we be successful with the kids we have wherever they come from?

No, I’m not an expert. I am not educated. Nogeura might be right in that I might know very little about education in comparison to him.

But, given the results of the experts in his class, I’m good.

Teachers and their unions need to hear parents who disagree with them

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Evelyn Macias is the mother of a California public school student who is suing the state for systemically placing the least effective teachers in classrooms with students who are the most challenged. The case is so famous that it has it’s own hashtag, #Vergara.

The video below shows Macias attempting to speak at a California assembly “informal hearing” on teacher job-protections. I say “attempting” because Dan Walters, a veteran teacher who was elected from Long Beach to the Assembly set a one minute time limit for testimony. When Macias went over her minute she was curtly told to summarize, then her microphone went dead.

 Macias is a Latino mother with deep concerns about education for her student. She has joined a group of parents, and civil rights groups, to fight at the highest level to stop low-income classrooms from being a purgatory for teachers who won’t teach.

Walters is a white teacher unionist and an elected member of the highest legislative body. He proudly proclaims himself a member of the California Teachers Association who uses his power in office to do their bidding.

He says “we must not be districted by the fact that many in society expect teachers solve every social problem out state faces.”

Apparently the idea that teachers in low-income communities actually teach is too much.

Can you see how the color of power works?

During her short testimony Macias says she tried to sign up to give testimony previously, but was denied. She also expresses disappointment that no students or parents were in the line up to speak.

That raises doubts about the marketing of teachers and their unions that says they’re all about parents and communities. It might be more accurate for them to say they’re all about parents and students who speak from the union script, but not those who raise serious issues about teaching itself.

The common story we’re told is that parents need to be way more involved in the lives of their children. Nowhere is that advice more abundant than when it comes to education. When we talk about the ubiquitous gaps between white children with employed, college educated, middle class parents, and poor children of color, we’re told the the difference happens because nonwhite students lack vocabulary, preschool preparation, and good parents.

That narrative is so strong, and middle-class people believe it so thoroughly, that it shields the ears of privilege from hearing any alternative explanation for racial gaps in education. People discount the body of research that details the many ways educational systems re-privilege the children of power parents, those most likely to support Walters, and marginalizes the voices of the underclass who are lucky to get one minute to speak before being cut off.

So, it’s almost a scandal when a parent like Macias shows up only to be discounted by the process and power of those who say women like her do too little for the success of their children.

If we really believe black and brown parents are key to improving education, we must check white power and the system of government that allows it to cut mothers short when we come to tell the real story.


h/t to SFER California for posting this video.

Can black lives matter if black minds don’t?

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A recent report by The Education Trust – West, called Black Minds Matter, calls out the problem California is having with graduating black students who are ready for college or a career after high school. That organization’s executive director, Ryan Smith, writes in Ed Week about the issue:

Among California’s many racial and ethnic groups, Black students, whether from upper or lower income families, are the least likely to have access to Advancement Placement classes, be placed in a full sequence of college-preparatory courses, and complete a college degree.  They are most likely to be taught by novice, low-paid teachers, and while in school be suspended or expelled.  Nationally, Black girls are suspended six times as often as their White counterparts.

Before you blame poverty, Smith points to institutional barriers that aggravate problems with student achievement.

We tend to point outward at issues of poverty and parenting to explain the plight of Black students.  While poverty certainly plays a role in the disparities we see, the data largely reflects a history of institutional decisions—both sins of commission and omission—that we as educators, policymakers, and the public have made….We’ve implemented many more policies that have often built obstacles rather than bridges to Black student success (as noted in the report’s policy timeline)….Education leaders, not Black students or their families, decide which schools to equip with college-preparatory classes and where to place our most effective teachers.  We’re complicit in the fact that nationally less than a third of our high schools with the highest percentage of Black and Latino students offer calculus while inversely more than half of high schools with the lowest percentage of Black and Latino students offer the course.  We’ve created excessive barriers to college degrees by allowing students of color to languish in remedial courses for years without recourse.

Smith says we can all do better. We should take note of districts that are improving outcomes for black students, including efforts that are promising in Oakland, San Bernadino, and San Francisco.

One San Diego high school Smith mentions, Kearny Digital Media and Design School, graduates all of its students even though 70% of them are low income.

More than merely recognizing schools that are winning, there should be activism that push education leaders to do what research says will make a difference for black students. To that end, the BMM report offers clear recommendations for state policy makers and leaders of school districts.

For state policy makers:

  • Provide equitable access to affordable and high quality early learning opportunities.
  • Develop and improve data and accountability systems so educators, advocates, and parents have up-to-date information that can help them identify and address disparities.
  • Break the relationship between ZIP code and school performance, so that a child’s address does not determine his or her educational destiny.
  • Ensure all students have the effective educators, rigorous standards and instruction, and academic resources they need to succeed
  • Address school climate issues through policy change
  • Expand access to higher education, especially our UC and CSU campuses, for underrepresented students, and increase accountability for persistence and graduation.

For leader of school districts:

  • Within districts, provide intensive supports to struggling or highly segregated schools, and offer families at those schools meaningful ways to be engaged and secure the best educational opportunities for their children.
  • Expand access to early education opportunities, especially for low-income families and families of color through partnerships between school districts and early education providers, make quality preschool and early education more accessible and affordable to families. This includes bringing preschools into the school district in order to create more seamless pre-K to third-grade transitions.
  • Provide all students, including African American students, rigorous college and career-preparatory courses and instruction. Provide targeted supports to students who are struggling academically.
  • Improve school climate so that students feel safe, supported, and engaged in — rather than pushed out of — school.
  • Offer Black students a full range of health and social services — in partnership with community-based organizations and other agencies — to ensure they are physically, socially, and emotionally ready to learn.
  • Meaningfully and deliberately engage African American parents, students, and community members in school and district decisions.

Activists locally and nationally who may have lacked an agenda for organizing around education issues now have one, thanks to Education Trust.

If black lives truly matter, then it must be the case that black minds matter even more.