Tag Archives: Public Education

Trouble, trouble, charter bubble…

Student MarchTiming is everything in life. On the very same day that thousands of Boston public school students walked out of school to go to the Massachusetts State House to advocate for their schools, the Joint Committee on Education held a hearing on various bills related to charter school expansion. Occasionally the stars are truly aligned. Some of the students in the photo above made their way into the hearing room and gave powerful testimony on the connection between charter  school expansion and budget cuts at their schools. Some members of the committee fidgeted, others paid close attention. Then, a non-student gave the following testimony, made available to the Parent Imperfect by a special exclusive arrangement. Since time wouldn’t allow him to say the whole thing in the hearing, we share it here.
There are all sorts of arguments for and against charter schools, but I want to share one today that has not gotten a lot of attention. It’s based on a recent article by four highly-respected academics that appeared in the University of Richmond Law Review. The article is called, “Are We Heading Toward A Charter School Bubble?: Lessons From the Sub-Prime Mortgage Crisis.”  The basic argument is quite simple.
 
charter bubbleGovernment at all levels did a lot of things to make it easier for people to get mortgages in the run-up to the subprime crisis. The so-called market was more than happen to oblige. A key factor in the creation of the bubble was that the people approving the mortgages (the originators) had no skin in the game. They could care less if the borrowers could pay back the loans: Their job was to write mortgages.
 
The explosive growth of charter schools has some disturbing things in common with the subprime mortgage mess. Those who are authorizing more charter schools and more seats in existing schools have little or nothing to lose, personally, if the schools fail our children. They also have little understanding of the pressures present in the charter market.
 
Now the subprime mortgage market was a license to print money, until it wasn’t. Then the bubble popped. What forces might put charter schools in the same sort of vulnerable position as subprime mortgage holders?
 
The charter school business model depends on many things going right for them, but three stand out:
 
Public funds for public schools1. They need a steady stream of public money, approved by public office holders and delivered by state bureaucracies. Are you sure that you will have the funds to grow charter schools at even the reduced rate of growth proposed by my dear mayor…let alone what the governor is talking about? I don’t need to remind you that the foundation budget for education in the Commonwealth is in the process of being re-evaluated for the first time in decades and that Massachusetts Law requires Chapter 42 reimbursement of some of the funds going to charters. The price tag contains many hidden costs. Will you  have the political will (not to mention the cash money) to continue to divert ever larger amounts of public money to charter schools as public schools disintegrate before your eyes? If not, the charter experiment is in trouble, especially if the numbers of charters continue to expand.
Gates2. But the charter business model doesn’t run on your money, alone. Charters schools also require a lot of private philanthropy to function. Until now, the Gates’s, the Waltons, the Broads and the Barrs (not to mention our own beloved Boston Foundation) have been ready to step up. Are you ready to make a bet that the private money will be available to float this bubble when there are two or three times as many charter schools? If the bloom on the charter rose even begins to fade, the monied few will drop charters like a bad habit. You’ve seen it happen before…many times.

3. But that’s not all. Charters are schools and schools need buildings. This is, perhaps, their biggest vulnerability. In Boston, our Mayor seems ready to turn public buildings over to charters at fire sale prices, which will give the bubble a new lease on life. Even if that new lease happens (lots of people will try to prevent it), charters will continue to need capital financing. Today, that financing happens only because the Federal government provides tens of millions of dollars annually in tax credits to encourage investors to put big money into charters, and then it guarantees payment of those loans so the risk to the investor in close to zero. No wonder the hedge funds are flocking to charters! A 39% tax credit? You know the fiscal environment in Washington better than I do. Are you sure that this cumbersome and costly mechanism will be able to provide capital financing for existing charters and all the new ones that could be coming on line? I’m not
 
Big shortThe sky is not falling, but four very smart analysts have concluded that there is reason to believe that we have a charter school bubble in our future. Are you clear enough about the endgame in the current charter mania to bet against these guys? If you do, you may secure yourself a place in the charter short version of The Big Short, coming to a theater near you. The futures of tens of thousands of school children across Massachusetts depend on you getting this right. Don’t pump up the charter bubble!

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Why can’t all Fox news be like this?

For Every ChildThe Parent Imperfect has been consistently critical of the Boston Globe’s coverage of debates around the future of public education in Boston and the Commonwealth. In its editorials and signed columns, the Globe has consistently belittled elected officials and anyone else who failed to see the wisdom of continued expansion of the charter school sector, and the paper’s other pet policies. The day-to-day reporting on the topic has not been so monolithic, but has failed to capture the nuances of the equity arguments against education reform, as it is now being practiced. It is certainly not the Globe’s job to agree with me, but is it asking too much to hope that Boston’s most influential daily could at least offer a reasonable picture of opposing views?

Apparently not, as the December 4 Globe article entitled, “Walsh Taking Heat Over School Agenda,” by Jeremy Fox, took an important step in that direction. Even I can give credit where credit is due, and much credit is due here. If the article had one shortcoming, it focused a bit too much on a single parent group, QUEST. I am well aware of that organization’s importance, but there are actually a growing number of organizations, individuals and elected officials raising questions about Enroll Boston and other City Hall education policies. Focusing on a single organization justifies an attitude of “the dogs will bark, but the caravan rolls along,” among decision makers. But this is small potatoes, compared to value of this sort of reporting.

Fix Don't PrivatizeFor this article, Fox interviews both Mayor Walsh and Boston parents critical of what they see as the direction of his education policy. He then presents the opposing views in a way that captures what both sides are saying, without editorializing. Transcending the recent kerfluffle about the number school closings planned, the article reports what parents actually heard from the Mayor in a September 29 meeting at City Hall. I have it on very good (though imperfect) authority that the Mayor said, in talking about BPS facilities, that “We’re going to get down to ninety buildings.” That doesn’t suggest any particular number of school closings, but it certainly suggests a consolidation from the present use of 125 or 126 school buildings. When Fox asked the Mayor about those alleged remarks, rather than answer the question, the Mayor felt the need to deny that he has a plan to close schools. Thou doth protest too much…

In the interest of full disclosure, I must note that the December 4 article also met the litmus test of all good journalism by providing a link to my own description of the raucous Jamaica Plain meeting concerning the Mayor’s proposal to unify charter and public school enrollment systems. That, too, was a Globe first. In all modesty, I do think that the link strengthened the article (and sent many newbys into the arms of the PI), but the clear presentation of both sides of the argument is what really distinguishes the piece.

LilliputThings are about to get even less polite in the public debate about the future of our public schools. Partners from three of Boston’s most prestigious (and deep-pocketed) law firms are moving forward with a suit charging the Commonwealth with civil rights violations for placing a cap on charter school growth. Our Governor and Education Secretary have proposed legislation that is more “bullish” on charter schools than anything the boldest charter school advocate would have dared to ask for, even two years ago. Charter school PR consultants are spinning at top speed in support of a ballot question designed to bludgeon the State Senate into submission on the question of the charter school cap. And against this troubling backdrop, the elected champion of Boston’s public schools shows every sign that he is out to earn his recent “Lifetime Achievement” award from the state’s charter school association. A formidable, multi-headed, giant is getting its bearings and piling up gold bars, but the Lilliputians are quietly untangling their ropes.

RumorsThe Globe article ends with a telling quote from Mayor Walsh. “It’s my understanding that QUEST is a parent organization…out there advocating for kids. We should stick to the advocacy for kids and not focus on rumors.” Ok…but just what “rumors” is the Mayor talking about? Is it the rumor that he said that “we’re going to get down to 90 buildings?” Or maybe its the rumor that he has proposed relaxing the cap on charter schools in Boston? Or the one that he is in favor putting important responsibilities around Boston school enrollment in the hands of a scantily qualified organization that operates with little or no public accountability? No, no, he’s probably referring to the rumor that documents obtained by Quest (from the Mayor’s office, by the way) refer to discussions regarding possible co-location of charters and public schools. Sorry, but I read all of these as related facts…dots to be connected, not rumors.

When important discussions are happening behind closed doors, and parents and other stakeholders get their information on a “need to know” basis, people will start to put together what they do know in an attempt to understand what’s going on. Errors may happen when people don’t have information, but more transparency and accountability, rather than criticism and tighter secrecy, is the way to clear up such misunderstandings.

 

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What could be wrong with Unified School Enrollment?

UE FlyerThe Parent Imperfect has watched with concern the rapid rise of the idea of “Unified School Enrollment” in Boston. This idea is being presented as a proposal by the Boston School Compact (more about the Compact later). Overnight, this idea has gone from the big vat of ideas that get talked about, but never acted on, to one of Mayor Walsh’s main priorities. I wish it had continued to float in the vat. Marty did not support this idea in his campaign, but he is certainly behind it now. In fact, it feels as if he and his Education Advisor are driving it.

The idea is simply  to include Boston charter schools in the Boston Public Schools’ assignment lottery. Those schools would then appear in families’ “basket” of schools to which they are eligible to apply for their children. Rather than have to do a different application for each charter lottery, families could apply to charter schools through the BPS’s own Home-Based Assignment process.

What’s not to like? Rather than have to fill out a bunch of separate applications for their children, and then keep track of separate applications processes, parents can fill out a single application and then follow through on that one. Even an imperfect parent, has got to like that, right?

Wrong. My look below the spin on Unified Enrollment suggests that it’s something that is likely to cause more problems than it solves. When I see “Unified Enrollment,” I read,”Not really unified enrollment, based on a shaky foundation and mixing radically different schools together without giving the “customers” (us parents) the information we need to make such an important decision. ” Here’s why.

Is unified enrollment really “unified”?

First of all, charters will choose whether or not they want to be part of Unified Enrollment. Since the BPS Home-Based plan requires that access to schools be geographically restricted, charters will have to accept this “neighborhood” restriction in order to play. Because the law creating charters requires that they be either district-wide or regional, Unified Enrollment would require that the Massachusetts Legislature approve a “home rule” petition allowing Boston an exemption from this law. Assuming such a law could be passed (no sure thing), I would be willing to bet that some charters will say, “No, thank you. We quite like to be able to draw our students from the entire City of Boston. We don’t care to get entangled in the BPS lottery system, and limit who can apply to our school.”

So, what happens is some charters are in a Unified Enrollment system and some aren’t? Chaos. A chaos different than the current chaos, but chaos, nonetheless. For me, this could easily be more confusing for parents than the current system, where at least I know that if I want to apply for a charter school for my child, I must apply directly to that school. The only way that Unified Enrollment is truly “Unified” is if all charters decide to play, and this is not likely, at all.

Bad foundation, bad building

Home-based AssignmentBut let’s just suppose that by some near miracle, all charters decided to join the Unified Enrollment scheme. Then there would truly be one application for charters and public schools, but that system would be built on the foundation of the current Home-Based system. As part of getting this controversial system adopted, both the  BPS and Mayor Menino’s Education Advisory Committee assured the community that the new system would be carefully evaluated by some independent oversight group. This has never happened.

In the absence of any apparent assessment of how the Home-Based System is working, the parent group, QUEST, requested data on assignment results. That was 18 months ago, and no data has been forthcoming. Maybe the BPS knows very well that the new system is not working as advertised, so they prefer not to share the evidence. But no matter, it is unacceptable to talk about building a complex new system on top of a recently-implemented Home-Based plan that has never been evaluated. Let’s look at how the Home-Based system is working, and fix it, if necessary, before we build something on top of it.

Mixing apples and oranges…without telling anyone

But let’s say all charters are going to participate in the Unified Enrollment System AND the current system is working fine and makes just a fine foundation for the inclusion of charters. Even if those two unlikely things were true, there would still be many questions about Unified Enrollment. Many such questions center on the dangers of mixing very different kinds of schools in a choice “basket,” without really informing parents about those choices.

For example, a family from Hyde Park applying for the BPS would very likely have several charter schools in their “basket” of school choices. Those charters may include some of the Level One schools in their basket (schools with the highest test grades, at this point). The BPS currently does quite a poor job of communicating to parents the many differences between district schools. Parents who have the time and resources to tour multiple schools to find out the facts for themselves have a great advantage over the majority of parents who just can’t do that.

mixing fruitWill the BPS adequately communicate to our imaginary family that one of the charter schools has high test scores, but also has an incredibly strict discipline policy and suspension rates–especially for boys of color–that are off the charts? Will that family know that another Level One charter in its choice basket is poorly equipped to serve English Language Learners and, therefore, has a very small percentage of ELL students? This is only one of the many unforeseen problems that will arise as the BPS attempts to mix privately-managed charter schools with public schools in its assignment system.

A “Compact” solution?

One raising almost any question about Unified Enrollment is told that the originator of the proposal, The Boston School Compact, will take care of any bugs in the new system. Sorry, but I don’t buy it. The Boston School Compact is an unaccountable talk shop for representatives of the BPS, Boston charter schools and parochial schools. The idea was developed and is heavily funded by the Gates Foundation allegedly to promote collaboration and information exchange among different types of schools operating in Boston. Our city is one of several “Compact cities” around the country.

The Boston Compact is a private space that shares very little information with the public about what it is doing (hence, the lack of accountability). It has facilitated some interesting collaborations, but has never taken on anything even remotely as complex as Unified Enrollment. Please do not tell me that the Compact will fix whatever problems arise in this new system.

So, for me, Unified Enrollment” is deceptive advertising. But please don’t take my word for it. Attend one of the community meetings that the City (to its credit) is holding about Unified Enrollment. This could all be in the bag very quickly.

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Filed under Boston Public Schools, Charter Schools, School Assignment

The Charter School Press is On

Gov. Baker testifies on behalf of his charter school expansion bill before the Committee on Education. [Photo: Antonio Caban/SHNS] 10/13/15

[Photo: Antonio Caban/SHNS] 10/13/15

The Parent Imperfect had every intention of testifying at yesterday’s State House hearing on several charter school bills before the Legislature, but life intervened and the testimony went unspoken. Since I spent the time writing this up, I have to do something with it, so it is attached below. I’ll send it to the Education Committee, as well.

I did finally get to the State House at about 4PM, yesterday. At that time, a number of public education advocates were still waiting to speak about the various bills. They had been in the Gardiner Auditorium since before 10AM, and had to sit through not only the shower of bilge from Governor and the Secretary of Education, but then had to endure hours of pro-charter testimony before they even got a chance to speak. One witness, Karran Harper Royal, had come all the way from New Orleans to warn the Legislature about what happened in her city. The rest were BPS parents and students who persevered all day to explain why they want the Legislature to Keep the Cap on charter school growth in Massachusetts. Waiting for hours to speak to several members of the Committee in an almost-empty auditorium, they were yesterday’s heroes.

anti charterThose heroes face a tougher path to victory this time. Having suffered a humiliating defeat last year, Team Charter is back with a vengeance. Now they have a Governor and a Secretary of Education that are firmly on their side. Boston’s Mayor Walsh says the Governor has gone overboard with his request to allow up to 12 new charters per year in a quarter of the State’s school districts. But Walsh’s own proposal  is more than Team Charter could have hoped for a year ago. I expect that even Team Charter is nervous about the growth projections in the Governor’s proposal, so they’re probably quite happy with Marty’s cave-in. And if the heavy hitters aren’t enough, Team Charter is collecting signatures for a possible pro-charter ballot initiative and three big-time downtown lawyers have filed a very shaky lawsuit (more a political negotiation than a serious lawsuit) claiming that the Commonwealth is violating Students’ rights by limiting their ability to attend charter schools.

It looks like a full court press, leading to a slam dunk in the Legislature, but supporters of public ed will play it out, anyway. Full court presses have been known to back-fire.

About those bills…

 I want to thank the Co-Chairs of the Education Committee, all Committee members and everyone present here today for the opportunity to testify before you.

My name is [Earl the Pearl]. I live in Roslindale, with my wife and two children, one of whom just graduated from a BPS school and is attending college in New York State. The other is still a ninth grader in the BPS.  I am also a member of the parent group, QUEST, and am employed at the human rights center at Northeastern University School of Law, where we have a program to study the implementation (or not) of the right to education of all children. My remarks here are my own.

I’m here to testify in favor of S.326. I believe that a continued pause in the creation of charter schools is the only prudent path until we fully understand the impact of further charter school expansion. I’d like to thank Sen. Pacheco and his co-sponsors for putting forward that legislation in a less than friendly climate toward such thinking.

Just over a year ago, a debate took place in the MA Senate concerning a possible lifting of the existing cap on charter school expansion in the Commonwealth. An important question surfaced in that debate, and I believe that the failure of proponents of lifting the cap to answer that question contributed to the defeat of the legislation. The question was, simply, “What is the end game?” That is, where is the continued expansion of these costly, publicly–funded, privately-governed alternatives to public schools taking us?

full court pressFriends, today the scales have fallen from our eyes and we have seen the endgame. What has been proposed by the Governor and Secretary Peyser is nothing less than the New Orleans Plan for Boston…without Hurricane Katrina. Team Charter has deployed a full court press and Governor Baker is on the point, with Sec’y Peyser on the wing.  You know the rest of the lineup. The endpoint is no mystery: The Governor and his allies wish to remove any meaningful restriction on charter school expansion and provide all kinds of incentives to accelerate that expansion, just as was done by Louisiana legislators in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. We apparently want to do it here, without the storm as cover.

They say that they want the market to decide how many charter schools exist, but if they really believe they are talking about a market, I suggest that they sit in on an Econ class at one of our public high schools in Boston. I am not someone who believes the market should decide how we educate our children, but even high school economics demonstrates that charters are not operating in anything like a free market. The Commonwealth is paying the tuition for every charter student. Take away that enormous subsidy and charter schools will disappear quicker than the crowds on Yawkey Way when baseball season is over.

Far from a market, this is the plunder of a public resource for private use and, in some cases, private profit. Members of the Education Committee, if anything like the Governor’s proposals go forward, Boston, alone, will lose hundreds of millions of dollars in public education funds over the first few years. Our cherished Chapter 70 appropriation will quickly become exclusively a charter tuition fund. And don’t forget, committee members, that another law commits the Legislature to reimburse public school districts for a portion of those losses. The pressure on you to live up to this promise will increase as the Commonwealth implements open season on charter expansion. This reimbursement won’t be enough to compensate the losses to public schools, but it will become an increasingly large hot potato for all of you to deal with at budget time.

Yes, I know parents just like me who swear by charter schools. Some of those people are in the audience today. They had negative experiences in the BPS and believe that the schools “saved” their child, so they want more people to have that opportunity. I am happy that you have found what you see as a positive option for your child, and no one is talking about taking that option away from you. But I truly believe that expansion of that option at the expense of our public schools is not good for the much larger group of people, myself included, who rely on the BPS to educate our children. Your experience makes me want to work harder to fix the obvious problems with the BPS, but it does not make me a supporter of charter expansion in the Commonwealth.

I ask all members of the Committee to support S. 326, a bill to support the right of every child in the Commonwealth to equal access to quality education. Even if the philosophical arguments don’t persuade you, fiscal prudence should make you wonder about any further expansion of charter schools in the Commonwealth at this time.

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The Exam School Choice, #15: A mystery solved…sort of

Devil in the detailsThe Parent Imperfect got many questions (both online and offline) about the last post about how students get placed in the exam schools. Some people reported to me that they had put BLA first, but had gotten placed in BLS. This was a bit of an eye-opener, since other people said that they had chosen BLS first and gotten placed in BLA. What’s up? How is that possible, unless someone is doing the ropa’ dopa’ with this process?

One of these folks got back to me with an interesting explanation of how that happened, in her case.. When this woman investigated with the exam school people at the BPS, it turns out that the BPS never received the choice form for this student. The school had record of it being handed in, but it never got to Court St (Dudley, I guess, by this time). I had to chuckle as this is exactly what happened with our dear daughter, not once, but TWICE! Why do we bother filling out these forms?

In any case, when the BPS doesn’t have a choice form for a child that has taken the test, they have a default order of preference that they enter for him/her. It is: 1. BLS 2. BLA 3. O’Bryant. Isn’t that an interesting assumption? In any case, this child was assigned to BLS because that’s what the District assumed she wanted. Happily, because her mother is metida, this child is now high on the waiting list for BLA, and will likely get in there. All’s well that ends well, right??????

That explains this case, but what about the others?

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Filed under Boston Public Schools, Exam Schools

Exam School Choice, #14: But BLA was my first choice!

The LetterOn Friday, the Parent Imperfect received a number of messages from people who had received their exam school assignment letters from the Boston Public Schools. Their children had taken a private school admissions test that does not correspond to the BPS curriculum, and based on those test results and their grades in Grades 5 & 6, they were offered admission to one of the city’s exam schools.

Being who I am, I tend to hear from people who chose the nation’s oldest public school for their sixth grader, and got their first choice. Their doubts about this choice are returning and they are wondering if they can still opt for their child to go to one of the other exam schools. They want me to say that BLS will be fine for their child…as if I know.

This year, one of the most common questions came from people (four…this is not a huge sample size) who had chosen BLA as their first choice, but had actually received their second choice…Boston Latin School. One wanted to know if I thought that the BPS had just put her child into BLS because of her high score, regardless of their first choice, and the other three asked what I thought they should do, given that they had already decided that they didn’t want their child (boys, in each of these cases) to go to the nation’s oldest.

Since BLA accepts fewer students for seventh grade  (about 150 fewer, I think), it is not hard to figure out how this happens. Susie’s test scores and grades mean that she is ranked #340 for BLA, but that school is only accepting 332 children this year (these are made-up numbers). Susie, unfortunately, doesn’t get into BLA. The computer then goes to Susie’s second choice, BLS. It turns out that, at that point in the process, BLS has only filled 469 of the 534 spots it has for this year, so Susie becomes the 470th student assigned to BLS. She is admitted to BLS (her second choice) when some students ranked lower than Susie, who made BLS their first choice, won’t get it. Susie’s parents then have a decision to make.

Latin AcademyI’m sure that this has always happened, but I’m going to go out on a limb (with no data other than my own anecdotes) and say that more students with relatively high test scores and grades are making BLA or the O’Bryant their first choice each year. Gradually, this idea that BLS is “the only high school worth going to in the city” is going away. This is a very good change. There are still people who start choosing among private schools if their child doesn’t get into BLS, but I sense that the number of these folks is dwindling. I believe that more of the higher scoring students (not to be confused with “better” students) are still making BLS their first choice, and, eventually, attending that school, but the numbers are changing. “Sumus primi” remains the BLS motto, but that doesn’t mean what it once did.

If this shift is, indeed, taking place, it means something different for each school. For BLS, it would mean more academic diversity in the school (not necessarily more of any other sort of diversity). There may actually be more students at the school who have a hard time adapting to the academic expectations and social pressures of the school. The systems that exist at the school to support these students (peer tutoring, Saturday Success School, extra help from teachers, etc.) will be under increasing stress to meet increasing demand.

So what should Susie’s parents do? They went through this painstaking process of looking at the schools and deciding that BLA, as a more diverse school with a noticeably more supportive culture for students not in the top 25% of their class, was best for Susie. Now, her assignment for 7th grade is the nation’s oldest.

I don’t know what Susie’s parents should do, but there are a few things that I do that may affect such a decision:

1. Each of the three exam schools has much to recommend it. Parents have carefully ranked their preferences among the schools, based on their sense of the kind of environment that will work best for their child. That said, a lot of students who don’t get their first choice do quite well in the school to which they are assigned. I always suggest that people look closely at the school where their child has been placed, before assuming that a non-BPS alternative is the only option.

2. How one places in the exam school derby is not predictive of how they will do in any particular school environment. Our two children were not all that different in terms of test scores or elementary school grades, but their experiences at BLS have been totally different. The organizational skills, personality and learning style of the child seem to be much more predictive of success at BLS than where one places on the exam sorting list. Gender also matters, as I continue to be told that boys are the most challenged demographic group at the school, in terms of academics. This means, for example, that Latinos as a group (a quite small group) fare better at the school than do boys (a quite large group).

Wolfpack3. BLS changes a bit each year, but remains a place that works better for some types of students than others. Just last night, a mother wrote into the BLS Village list-serv to address the question of too much homework. Her son, a ninth grader gets fine grades at the school, while spending 1-2 hours on homework each night. She doesn’t say this, but he is apparently quite happy at the school. Others talk about children who are spending 4-6 hours per day on homework and routinely staying up past 11PM to complete their assignments. This puts an incredible strain on the child (and the family) at a time when the transition to adolescence is putting its own strains on them. We have lived both stories in our own household, and would not wish the strain and conflict on anyone. There have been important changes during the time we have been at BLS in how the school deals with students who struggle with the academic transition. I would not, however, begin to say that the school does everything possible to make it possible for every student to be successful. For example, after a lot of work by a community-wide task force, BLS adopted a “homework policy” mandating that students be assigned roughly 30 minutes of homework in each subject, each evening. There should be no homework over school vacations. Perhaps responding to curricular pressures, teachers routinely violate this policy, and there seems to be no way to hold them accountable to this or any other policy–regular information on student progress, for example–that might help struggling students.

4. Diversity matters and some schools better reflect the diversity of the BPS than others. We believe that economically and socially diverse schools better prepare students, including ours, to be good citizens in the very divided society that they are likely to live in. Of all BPS high schools, the O’Bryant more closely reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of the BPS student body than any other school. BLA is less diverse, in this sense, but is still among the more diverse schools in an increasingly segregated set of high schools. BLS is simply off the charts in this regard. Because the student body of the school is so heavily Caucasian and Asian (two groups that, together, make up much less than 25% of the system’s students) BLS is, by quite a bit, the least diverse of the schools in the system. The BPS no longer collects good information about the socioeconomic circumstances of its students, but, based on older information, there is little doubt that BLS is an outlier in this regard, as well. Our children certainly have African-American and Latino friends at BLS, as well as friends from different socioeconomic backgrounds, but their social lives immediately became dramatically less diverse spaces upon entering the BLS school environment. They are certainly not “bad’ kids as a result, but they are becoming different people. We knew that this would likely happen when we chose BLS for our children, so we must have decided that other factors were more important.  What we thought less about was the fact that this change in the social lives of our children would also impact the social life of the entire family.

According to the BPS, over half of the students taking the ISEE exam get into their first choice school. That means that a lot of those families are still facing difficult choices about high school for their child. And then there are all of the students who didn’t opt to take the ISEE, in the first place. With their families, they face an even more daunting set of choices. We wish that everyone in the system was in the position of choosing among quality options, but that is certainly not the case.

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Filed under Boston Public Schools, Exam Schools

Talking ChangE, Chang prevails

ChangNo doubt about it, the Parent Imperfect was surprised. Few of the handicappers gave Tommy Chang much of a chance when the four finalists for Boston School superintendent were announced on February 19, but that’s just who the school committee named, in a 5-2 vote on Tuesday night. People at last night’s meeting were acting like the guy was holed up in a motel in Saugus and would be in Boston by sun up, but it seems that he will take a prudent amount of time to transition out of his role in Los Angeles. WBUR reports that he’ll be here by July.

The Mayor and the School Committee chair definitely wanted a unanimous decision, but it was not to be. Many people made public comments in favor of the candidacy of Pedro Martínez, and Committee members Miren Uriarte and Regina Robinson courageously cast their votes for the accountant turned school leader when the committee tally took place. I have to say that, while I was not a supporter of Martínez, the support he received from the community and the School Committee made me want to go back and take another look at all that the man said during his interviews.

Last night’s show had some of the feel of theater of the absurd. At 10:20AM, yesterday, I got an ominous e-mail from someone who was very much at the center of the hiring process.

Thank you for your thoughts.  I read your blog post with interest. I particularly agree with your final point.  At the end of the day, all of us who care about public education in Boston need to commit to doing all the can to support whomever is the new superintendent.

That did not sound good…at all. Then, just after noon, another message came in from an education advocate who has an uncanny way of knowing what is going on in City Hall.

Mayor chose Chang and is meeting with individual BSC members one on one.
 2-3 are not on board yet and …will make some statement of her own.

Can’t discuss now but really really shocking news here.

By the time I got to Court St., candidate Dana Bedden had dropped the bomb that he was withdrawing from consideration (he must have gotten the same noontime message I had), and boston.com was reporting that Chang was the one. So, virtually everyone in the room knew the result before the meeting started, but we all went through a 2.5 hour collective charade as if the decision was being made before our very eyes. People had to keep correcting themselves to maintain the illusion of a real process. It was truly bizarre.

No matter, Chang was the youngest of the finalists and arguably the least experienced of them, as well, when it comes to district-level leadership experience. In his public interviews, he emphasized his experience with Special Education and that seemed to catch the attention of some SPED parents in Boston. Two representatives of the local Special Education Parents Advisory Council spoke in favor of Chang at the meeting, one even introducing herself to the Committee as “Carolyn Chang,” getting the biggest laugh of the night. That said, the one SPED parent on the School Committee did not vote for Dr. Chang when the roll call came.

Chang was careful to be respectful of Boston school leadership and to acknowledge the achievements of the system, but also painted himself as a change agent, someone who embraced the idea of “creative disruption.” The message was that he is willing to challenge and even trash existing structures to achieve the change needed in the system. This nuanced commitment to risk failure in order to achieve dramatic change, coupled with at least one mention per minute of the word, “autonomy” gained him the support of many education reform advocates in the area. Most importantly, Chang became the darling of the Daddy Warbucks of education reform, The Boston Foundation.

In one school committee discussion during the interviews, a member memorably said what some others were obviously thinking. It was something like, “We need a leader who can speak the language of the people and institutions who can provide the resources we require to achieve school improvement.” Chang apparently speaks four languages, but our erstwhile School Committee member was not referring to one of those four in that statement.

School CommitteeBut this transformation talk didn’t just gain Chang the support of the deep pockets. Roxbury City Councillor, Tito Jackson, strode to the mike last night and offered surprisingly strong support for Dr. Chang. His main point was that we need transformation, not mere reform, (who would have thunk it? a City Councillor, channeling Che!) so we need a leader who will not just move the existing levers a little bit better. We need a change agent. Jackson’s spirited argument for Chang took me somewhat by surprise. I have to believe that his message might have been different had not Dr. Bedden bolted at the last minute. Bedden’s last-minute withdrawal completely changed the dynamics of the meeting.

Most importantly, some combination of things that Chang said and didn’t say gained him the support of the Mayor. In his statement expressing his pleasure with the School Committee’s choice, Marty Walsh characterized the new super as an “innovator.” I need to go on record here saying that I thought Chang presented himself very well and had prepared public framing of his candidacy that was second to none. He managed to somehow escaped the tarnish that should have come with playing a leadership role in a corrupt and financially profligate school administration in LA. He definitely talked a very good change game, at a time when Boston rightly feels that it needs deep transformation of our educational system. But when I look at the man’s record, I just don’t see the evidence of him initiating successful new ways of doing things.

But who cares about that now? The man is our next superintendent, and we will welcome him to Boston and make the very best of his leadership. Tommy Chang was not the only one who got a job last night. Any student, parent, teacher, principal, school administrator or public education advocate who is committed to equity and quality in education also got a big job last night…the job of making it happen when the wind just might not be with us.

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