The Trouble with Gaps

There was a moment this summer, while I was teaching a room full of high-achieving, and in my mind, at-risk students, where I faltered. I don’t remember the lesson or what made me privately freak out in my mind, but I remember the feeling… the American dream is a lie, “at-risk” is a stupid term, students are students are students, and teaching students so they can live up to a white, wealthy ideal is pointless.

But I didn’t let the feeling take hold of me. I pushed it away. It got lost in the stress of lesson plans and grading papers.

Several weeks later I returned to Ohio University, where my main extracurricular commitment revolved around education reform, a nebulous term that means many things to many different people. And because I am someone who enjoys a good discussion, I made sure I was immersed in the literature of people who are critical of the reform movement.

It is within this literature, that I first read Dr. Camika Royal’s argument against the use of the term “achievement gap.” A term I had used countless times myself, achievement gap had become, for me and many of my peers, a shorthand way of articulating the problem we saw in education. Upon my first reading of Dr. Royal’s piece, I thought this was the problem with the term–that achievement gap did not accurately portray the complexity of the problem.

And organizations I am a part of changed; instead of using achievement gap, both Students for Education Reform and Teach for America have adopted “opportunity gap” as part of their lexicons. Dr. Royal suggested the term in her first piece about the achievement gap on Good.

Several days ago, however, Dr. Royal began suggesting that this simple substitution of the terms is insufficient.

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At first, I was taken aback by this. It seemed like organizations were listening to Dr. Royal. Why was she still frustrated?

And then I thought about her piece, again. This time, though, I thought about my summer experience, specifically the feeling I had had one day in class and ignored, and then some things clicked.

Dr. Royal is not frustrated about the term with a linguistic concern. She is frustrated with the power struggle that gets buried in language.

I asked my friend the other day how I can avoid a white savior complex. And he told me I had already fallen prey to it just by believing there was a group of people, categorically different than me, who needed my help. By dividing the world into white and black, I had already named difference, and by naming difference, I had already committed oppression.

This, I think, is what we do when we talk about gaps. Because when we acknowledge a gap, we set up a situation where things are better. And it’s not necessarily racial. Like we assume that wealth is better than poverty, that a Princeton degree is better than a GED, or that scoring in the 99th percentile is better than scoring in the 61st.

But here’s the rub. Oppressors have always chosen the grading stick. Oppressors have always been the ones who get to decide what we test, how we test it, and what background knowledge we test. Oppressors have always been the ones who decide what is better. And¬†that is the issue.

If we ignore this problem, we risk, at the very least,¬†pretension–the kind that claims you are not allowed to talk about a problem because you aren’t well-informed enough.

I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know how to talk abut the issues we need to talk about. But I know that lumping entire of populations of students into one “at-risk” category is trouble. And that’s exactly what gaps do.

Springboro School Board Should Take Time To Investigate Other Reforms Before Making A Decision About Charter Conversion

My hometown (Springboro) school board recently announced that it would be exploring the option of charter conversion.

Jonathan Wright Elementary, a building that has not been used by the District since 2009, currently houses a community center and a church, but no students. The District still owns the building, though. And now the School Board is interested in transforming it into a charter school.

Admittedly, I have been a supporter of charter schools at least in the sense that I don’t think they should always be written off as a corporate scam to make money off our children. Last winter, I interned at a charter school in Columbus and loved it. Some of my former students at Breakthrough Cincinnati go to charter schools in Cincinnati, and sometimes it’s a great alternative to what CPS offers.

But here are some things the School Board should think about before going forward with a charter conversion:

Resources include more than money.
School board member Don Miller, the only member to vote against looking into the charter conversion, was quoted in the Dayton Daily News, saying he was concerned about money and other resources. The Dayton Daily included a statistic about how much money Springboro Community City Schools gets from the state for each student. This statistic is misleading.

The idea of money following the student scares some people, but it’s actually exactly how school funding works now. We aren’t talking vouchers here. If I move to Cincinnati Public Schools after attending Springboro Community City Schools (SCCS) for a while, Springboro no longer gets my money. CPS does. Essentially, when a charter is given, it becomes its own district so even if I am a charter student living in Springboro, my money from the state will go to the charter.

The reason why SCCS might oppose this arrangement is because once money gets doled out to the district, it stops following the student. Overly simplified, what this means is that the district gets a lump sum based on the number of students in the district and then decides where that money goes. Thus, theoretically, a district could decide to spend more on kindergarteners than fifth-graders.

So say SCCS decides to open a charter school that serves fifth-graders. Now the kindergarten is underfunded because the kindergarten program was drawing from funds provided by the fifth-graders. So yes, this could happen, but it’s not the ultimate concern when considering resources and charter conversions.

Board President Kelly Kohls told the Dayton Daily that she thinks the charter conversion could serve the district’s gifted population. If you run through this scenario, a couple of disconcerting things happen. First, you are going to drain the gifted population from the district. This drain is not necessarily bad, but changing the demographics of the district schools will change how the district doles out resources.

Less gifted students at the high school level, for instance, would provide incentive to the district to cut AP and honors classes. These cuts would have an adverse effect on the entire population of students because students who are not identified as gifted or who are but stay at the district school will have less access to these rigorous courses.

This effect would be similar for any population of students the charter conversion was meant to serve.

Charters are sexy, but there are other ways to promote growth in a district.
Because charter schools are legal in 42 of the 50 states (this study says 41, but Washington recently passed charter legislation) and because charter systems like KIPP have achieved significant success, charters are politically popular. When charters are mentioned in the media, people rarely talk about the failing ones (of which there are many). So they are sexy.

The success of charters, however, is not solely due to their charter-ness. The charter school where I interned was highly successful. When it first opened, it struggled. It took finding the right school leader and hiring the right staff before the school could really take off. But once those things were taken care of, student achievement experienced big gains. The school leader was free to institute policies that benefited students, and teachers, out of trust for their school leader, bought into these policies. These two things are not radical things to implement–innovative school leaders and trust between administration and teachers.

Contrast this example with an incident at Springboro High School last year. In March, it was mysteriously announced that Dr. Malone, the school’s principal, would finish out his contract at the Central Office, effectively ending his duties as principal. The specifics of this decision were never fully released. The Superintendent at the time, Gene Lolli, took the hit for it, but popular sentiment was that the school board had been trying to pull something. The school board kept silent during the announcement, during the public outrage, and quietly reinstated Dr. Malone to principal.

This kind of micromanaging–moving a principal who had frequently led the high school to high ratings from the Ohio Department of Education–is exactly what prevents Springboro City Community Schools from innovating. SCCS has an army of qualified, experienced, well-respected principals, but too often, their hands are tied when district policies come down.

The School Board could promote more innovation simply by allowing principals more lee-way in how their schools are run.

Diversifying a district’s portfolio need not include charters.
Springboro would do well to learn from another Ohio suburb, Reynoldsburg. Reynoldsburg has diversified the options open to students not by charter conversions but by creating STEM elementary, middle, and high schools and by pioneering a high school system where students can choose one of four career-oriented academies.

When talking about charter schools, conversions are the most consistent, but no conversion charter school meets Springboro’s achievement.

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From a 2011 study of OH charter schools by the Fordham Institute

This chart shows that conversions do relatively well on expected growth but hover around the average for Performance Index scores. SCCS’s PI is 106.5. No conversion breaks 100. Even with the relative success of conversions (they seem to be more consistent than startups), it’s statistically doubtful that a conversion would provide Springboro students with the quality of education they receive in the district.

Obviously, I would love to see an addition to the community that provides more academic benefits to its students, but let’s explore¬†all options before doing something that could potentially harm what we already have.

To The Critic/Skeptic/Asshole at the Party

My friends and I have a joke that I can make any conversation be about education. There’s a lot of truth in it.

The world just makes more sense in terms of education. I think about the world in terms of teachers and students. I can’t help it.

My friend Benji says that the act of education is one of the purest acts of love–that there are teachers and students everywhere. I think he’s right.

And that’s why you make me sad. That’s why I avoid large social gatherings. There is always one of you. Usually alone in a corner. Either with or without drink. Brooding. You don’t fit here.

The worst part is that you don’t have to be here. But you think you do. You think that the only way of being is the way your peers are being.

And it depresses me because no one ever loved you enough to tell you that you are allowed to believe in something. You are allowed to have faith in something so big and crazy that no one else can understand it. You are allowed to be head over heels for something or someone. You are allowed to make your dreams into reality.

But no one ever told you.

When I look at you, I see someone who was always told what to do. I see someone whose opinion was never respected. I see someone who desperately wants to be different.

But no one ever gave you permission.

You are the reason I want to teach. You are the reason I want to put the formal label on the act of love I already prize.

Everyone should know that it’s okay to believe in something.