What’s to be considered when considering school choice?

So, January 27 ushered in National School Choice Week and that Sunday I attended a session organized by staunch proponents of “choice,” on Monday I interviewed the author of a book on charter schools, and on Wednesday I visited one here in Trenton. And what comes to mind is an observation I recall from a noted educational psychologist of years gone by – you don’t have to know everything in order to understand something.

Many advocates of school choice support the Opportunity Scholarship Act and contend that it’s currently languishing in the New Jersey legislature. OSA’s goal, according to my understanding, is that students in low-performing schools would receive state funds to attend a school in a higher-performing district. Sounds fine, you might say – students from Trenton could attend a school in the neighboring Lawrenceville district, for example, at no additional cost to their parents.

But this raises more complicated issues: for one, I read somewhere that some Mercer County students have had that option for the past few years and few thus far have taken advantage of it. For another – and this is the point that aggravates supporters of public schools – OSA could also allow Trenton students to attend not only a charter, but a private school, a virtual school, or some combination thereof. Should Trenton Public Schools, which receive over 80% of their funds from the state, be subsidizing a school that offers a religious-immersion curriculum (an issue recently in New Brunswick) or one that focuses on the Italian Renaissance (to use an example given — in jest, no doubt — by commissioner of education Christopher Cerf at the Sunday school choice event)?

Is the reason OSA hasn’t made progress because too many legislators are indebted to support from teachers’ unions, which the bill’s advocates claim?  Or is it because legislators question whether a virtual school run by a profit-making educational management organization is a worthy recipient of NJ taxpayer dollars? Could OSA – or the state’s charter school law — be devised in such a way that the privileges it grants would not be misused? Or might OSA instead operate as a voucher program, a scheme (or scam) that’s been largely discredited as a means for improving academic performance in troubled urban districts? (See, for example, the 20 years of experience with vouchers in Milwaukee.)

Trenton students – or those who apply early enough — currently have the option of attending the Foundation Academy, which appears to be the most stable and successful of the many charter schools established here since New Jersey authorized charters in 1995. Foundation, which opened in 2007, currently serves nearly 400 students in grades five to 11, at two sites, both located in former Catholic schools, one about 10 blocks south of the Statehouse and another further south. Results from the 2011 NJASK (the state’s assessment of skills and knowledge) indicate that the school’s eighth graders are performing on par with students statewide (circa 80% proficient) and nearly twice as well as eighth graders in Trenton’s other public schools.  And they do it with roughly 75% of Trenton’s per pupil spending.

Foundation Academy is operated unabashedly on the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power) model pioneered by two Teach for American grads 20 years ago. Most simply, the schools focus on changing behavior, summed up by the acronym SLANT: Sit up, Listen, Ask questions, Nod, and Track the speaker with your eyes. Overly authoritarian, some might say, but having had graduates of schools that don’t emphasize these behaviors in my community college classes, I know their value.

Foundation calls its program prescriptive, and I saw that in action while visiting two classrooms. Power Points reiterating the teachers’ instructions were on screens at the front, a large clock in the corner measured time for tasks. In one class, students were moving from one learning activity to another; as they passed their papers in, the teacher counted down from 10. Then she reminded students to “track the screen,” while she gave instructions for the next. They had three minutes to analyze characters from stories they had read. “Talk to your partner,” she said, followed by “Go.”

According to Paul Tough’s new How Children Succeed, this tough teaching approach is what works – he’d earlier written a widely acclaimed book on Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone. But, per the CREDO report from Stanford University – acclaimed, by some, for its methodological rigor – only 30% of students in charters statewide have made any gains when compared with students in regular district schools.  And this only in eighth-grade reading, likely a cherry-picked figure, too.

Foundation claims it doesn’t “skim” higher performing students from the district – nevertheless, parents do have to choose to apply and then commit themselves to seeing that their children do assigned homework and show up for school on time – and that’s at 7:15 in the morning. But it also expects more – a lot more – from its teachers, who can expect 60-plus hour workweeks in return for somewhat more generous salaries than other Trenton teachers.

And that brings me to my interview with a Montclair State professor who has edited a book on charters nationwide.  She noted that charter schools have to be looked at in the context of their community. We both agree that the quality of these schools varies widely. On the other hand, students at some charters seem to be doing better. So, the question is “What can we learn from these schools?”

Well, apparently we can learn that the Foundation approach appears to be working at its schools in Trenton. And, the schools’ supporters (a combination of local educators, funders, and some concerned residents) hope to expand their reach to include 10 percent of Trenton’s 14,000 students. Even if Foundation manages to do that – and keep up its standards – over the next decade or two, Trenton’s schools will still be far from their past position as among the state’s preeminent ones. But it’s a move in the right direction. Combined with the oft-stated intentions of the district’s current leaders to improve academic performance, perhaps Trenton’s other schools will discover they have a few things to learn from Foundation Academy, too.

And that would be a choice that won’t “deform” public education, which some of the ill-advised “School Choice” proposals, including OSA, might well do.

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