Thursday, March 17, 2011

STEIGER REPORT: Nothing extraordinary about charter schools’ formula for success

(Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 17 March 2011)

TERRE HAUTE — Charter schools are different. I’ve been reading the websites of the 30 charter schools listed on the Indiana Department of Education’s website. I’ve also been reading the websites of a selection of conventional public schools. I wanted to see if I could sense the charters’ freedom from bureaucratic and regulatory restraint, the aspect of charters that is supposed to make them better than conventional schools.

What I found is irony. Apparently, sometimes more regulation is less regulation, as in the current Indiana Senate Bill 1. According to Dale Chu, Indiana’s assistant superintendent for policy, charter schools have not lived up to their potential, in part, because they are still required to follow too many rules but also because of a lack of accountability. SB1 will correct those shortcomings. More accountability means more regulation, doesn’t it?

What I found in my examination of the Indiana charter schools is a lot of rules and regulations. The student (and parent) handbooks are about 50 pages long, listing all the laws the charters must comply with. The handbooks from conventional schools were similar. Is part of regulatory relief freedom from laws and regulations that constrain schools from imposing stricter (more rigorous?) requirements on students and parents?

Both conventional schools and charters have dress codes. Many charters require uniforms, specifying acceptable colors, styles, and list stores from which to purchase them. Anderson Preparatory Academy, a “military-style academy” complete with a commandant instead of a principal, requires students to wear Air Force Academy-style uniforms. Uniforms could impose some “order” in schools (a common goal in charter schools). Order is needed when so many kids live in chaotic homes. So, why not? Why not free conventional schools from regulatory barriers to uniforms?

Many charter schools have longer school days and longer school years than conventional schools. KIPP Indianapolis College Preparatory requires students to arrive at 7:15 a.m. and remain at school until 5 p.m., Monday-Thursday, and until 2:30 p.m. on Fridays. There is school on some Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. KIPP summer school is also required. That is remarkable. The results? Fifty-two percent of their students passed the English and language arts ISTEP and 49 percent the Math section. So, why not? Why not fund conventional schools for full-day kindergarten, year-round school, 10-hour school days, or Saturday school?

Charter schools don’t just involve parents through volunteer opportunities, parent teacher conferences, newsletters, and serving on committees; they require commitment(s) from parents. Indeed, what I like most about Indiana’s charter schools is the up-front, in-your-face admission that the most important factor in a child’s education is parents. So parents sign a contract with some teeth.

At Andrew J. Brown Academy in Indianapolis, parents sign a “Commitment to Excellence” contract in which, among other things, they “will attend parent-teacher conferences, volunteer for school activities, and complete parent satisfaction surveys.” They will also “read school correspondence, check my child’s homework, and promptly notify the school if he/she will be absent.” There is also a homework commitment. Grades K-3 can expect homework four days a week, and grades 5 -8, five days a week. Expected time spent on homework per night varies from 15-30 minutes for kindergartners to 90-120 minutes for eighth-graders. “Tiger Moms” would approve!

At Galileo Charter School in Richmond, parents commit to providing 50 hours of family service to the school each year. BASIS Schools, Inc., manages charter schools (one organization Indiana hopes to attract to Indiana through SB 1). Their website is so littered with accolades it is hard to find any information about them, but I did find the “Master Teacher Campaign” which is how BASIS, in part, pays its teachers. BASIS asks “that families commit to contributing or raising $1,500 annually (or $125 a month over 12 months), to help support their child at BASIS.”

What kind of teeth do these contracts have? At Charter School of the Dunes in Gary, the line in bold above the parents’ signature line reads: “Returning this signed form to CSD is mandatory. Failure to do so by August 23, 2010, may result in expulsion of the student.” At KIPP Indy, this statement is just above the parent’s signature line: “Failure to adhere to these commitments can cause my child to lose various KIPP Indianapolis College Preparatory privileges and can lead to my child returning to his/her home school.” Wow! So if parents don’t do their part, their kids may not be able to continue. That has to help the school’s test scores, if they can get rid of students (and parents) who don’t follow rules. So, why not? What regulations stop conventional schools from holding students accountable for their lame parents?

Charter schools are not just involved in the three Rs, some include additional curricula, such as morals education (Andrew J. Brown Academy) or character education (Charter School of the Dunes). Disciplinary infractions of school behavior codes “may deem public service a necessary component of the disciplinary action” which “include, but is not limited to: repairing or cleaning property damaged as a result of the offense(s); participating in landscaping, gardening and/or other projects aimed at beautifying school property or the community; and/or providing services that improve the quality of life for community members.”

These schools require more than grades and test scores, they require students to be decent human beings. So, why not? What regulations stop conventional schools from forcing students to do community service for infractions of dress codes, tardiness, having a cell phone or not doing their homework?

Charter schools are smaller than conventional schools. They limit class size to 18 or 19. Conventional school classrooms may be as much as a third or more larger. So, why not? Why not budget enough money so conventional schools can limit class sizes, too?

Some charter schools feel like a local eatery — a lack of polish maybe, in an old building, but with a lot of local color. Indeed, emphasizing locality is what is unique about the Rural Community Academy in Graysville. But others seem “corporate,” like visiting the website of a chain restaurant. Several Indiana charters are “managed” by nonprofit charter school companies who offer “franchises.” BASIS Inc. is one; so are American Quality Schools and National Heritage Academies. I wonder how free the local schools are to vary from the “franchise agreement?” After all, “local control” is a cornerstone of the current push for education reform. Why not free conventional schools of “state control” and return them to the local control that has characterized American public education throughout its history, until recently?

I think charter schools have hit on the recipe for a good education: keep class sizes small, hold students and parents accountable for their actions, and get rid of those students who are problems. What could be simpler?

So, why not give the same freedom to conventional schools? Give conventional schools the same regulatory and bureaucratic freedom given to charter schools so they can create more enforceable expectations for student and parent behavior. Why not?

Ironic, isn’t it?
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