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.

nondrant-charter-structure-Aug-30

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.

#EdDefeat

I am not meant to be an ideologue. I make a poor leader, too, I think. Criticism gets to me. It sits in my pores and hangs on my shoulders, and people around me notice. I am plagued with the ability to see the reason in even the most ignorant of arguments. And the worst part is that most arguments aren’t ignorant. Most arguments are made by reasonable, intelligent people.

It’s not that I don’t think my arguments aren’t valid. I know they are. I know they are important. But I am one kid. I am 21-years-old. Most of the issues I think are important, I’ve only been thinking about for five years tops. And for the first two or three years of that, I thought Atlas Shrugged was the fifth Gospel. So, obviously, I’ve been misguided before.

I tend to ignore absolutes. If someone says they are “for charter schools,” I usually take that to mean that they have seen charter schools do good things, not that they think that charter schools are good 100% of the time. The latter would be an indefensible position.

There is too much truth in both sides of any argument that we should never completely write-off an opposing side.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been dragged firmly into the ed reform debate. Not the childish one that goes on at most college campuses where people honestly don’t know that there is an achievement gap, but the real one. The one where people have opposing ideas about how to close that gap.

Mostly this has made me want to tear my hair out. I’m not a debater. It’s not in my blood.

Because here’s the thing: both sides have legitimate truths. The typical TFA/SFER/DFER/Students First angle is that advocating for student and parent choice is the quickest way of ensuring that a lot of students (much more than are being served now) can receive excellent educations. The typical Ravitch/teacher union/anti-reform angle is that choice isn’t the best way long-term of ensuring an equal education for all. Both of these ideas are probably right. Charter schools aren’t going to solve the problems of classism and racism in this country unless we pair them with intense laws concerning integration and maybe also outlaw private schools altogether. And if we are going to go the charter route, we should probably also start thinking seriously about if we want for-profit schools. Admittedly, that does sound a little scary.

The design of neighborhood schools, though, is probably outdated. The middle class isn’t staying in one place anymore. The lower class is stuck in cities and rural areas. So while the middle class can move to good school districts and make choice that way, the lower class doesn’t have that benefit. In Ohio, the way we fund schools has been ruled unconstitutional on several separate occasions. Funding by income tax DOES NOT provide an equal education for everyone.

I would love to see a completely socialized education system that works in the US. But that’s probably a long ways from happening. We don’t like socialism in this country for various reasons. And even if we got rid of charters and parochial schools, we would still have to deal with the fact that our upper class parents were sending their children to private schools.

Mostly, I feel defeated. I feel like I’m up against a rock and a hard place. I’m not a politician or a millionaire. I can’t walk into my Statehouse and say, “Hey, instead of worrying about charter schools today, let’s start thinking up ways that we can free teachers and administrators in traditional public schools to replicate some of the things that have made some charters so successful.”

I feel defeated because I know that there are bad teachers, and I know there needs to be an objective way to identify them, but I also know that standardized testing is problematic.

I feel defeated because I suspect that there are many Republicans who support ed reform because it might mean union busting, and I don’t want union busting.

I feel defeated because while we argue about what’s the best way to fix the education system, even more students drop out, get a bad education, and are incarcerated.

Asking Better Questions Can Lead to Better Conversations

What kinds of questions are education reformers asking?

Part of my job as a Students for Education Reform chapter leader is to ask questions. I am constantly thinking about how to best invite people into the education reform conversation. The questions we ask have a huge impact on the answers we get.

I’ve recently been mildly obsessed with a website called Quora. I joined a couple weeks ago and have quickly added it to the list of websites I check daily. Quora was founded by Adam D’Angelo, a former engineer at Facebook. Quora allows its users to ask any question and then answer other users’ questions. The website protects against spam and the idiocy of sites like Yahoo! Answers in two ways. First, each user must have an account with a real name, typically tied to a social networking site. Second, Quora has created a currency. It costs “credits” to ask questions.

People ask questions on a variety of topics. And there are probably tens of thousands of questions already on the site.

I bring all this up because Quora is a great model for how we might begin asking the types of questions that will lead to real solutions in education reform.

The Education topic on Quora is one of the most thought-provoking on the site. Questions consider everything from curriculum to college loans to different learning styles. But there are two specific questions that stick out.

The first is this question: How can we solve the problems with public education in America? This is a great question and has generated 17 responses to date.

It’s follow-up question is interesting, though: What are some of the biggest problems with public education in America?

To this question there have been 31 responses, including one from Michelle Rhee, former Chancellor of DC public schools and founder and current CEO of Students First.

 

This answer is obviously overly simplistic, but it illuminates two major points. One, there is inequality in the education system in terms of class. And two, there is inequality in the education in terms of availability and stake-holding. If there were a diplomat’s child in every single school, you better believe that every single school would be great.

While I love this answer, I think that we should be critical of it. First, I think it’s telling that the “what’s wrong” question came after the “how can we fix it” question. Sometimes we ask the “how can we fix it” question, realize that not everyone knows what we should be fixing, and then have to ask the “what’s wrong” question. Sometimes, this is beneficial, but we need to stop taking these steps backward. What’s wrong with education? It’s not equal. Not everyone gets the same education in this country. That’s the issue.

The “what’s wrong” questions encourage buzz words. They encourage these overly simplistic answers. If we start asking the “how can we fix it” questions, we can support, fund, and develop the solutions.

Why I SFER

Recently, there has been a lot of alarm about an organization I am a part of – Students for Education Reform. I think this alarm mostly started with this post by a really smart girl from Rutgers named Stephanie Rivera. Diane Ravitch, a prominent player in the education reform conversation, then got hold of  Rivera’s post, and applauded her and took a stance against SFER. And next thing I knew, my Twitter feed was blowing up. I have been thinking about this the past week or so, and I think it would be helpful to explain why I, a student, started a chapter of Students for Education Reform at Ohio University. This is going to be a long post so I thank you in advance for your patience.

My name is Spencer Smith. And I SFER because I think that every child deserves a great education right now.

I went to school K-12 in Springboro, OH. Springboro is the ninth richest school district in Ohio. Our graduation rate is over 97%. Of those 97%, most go on to college. I tell you this knowing full well that if critics want to throw the privileged spear at me, they can do it now. But better I come out and say it then someone think they are digging up the information. 

I didn’t get into my top choice universities. I landed at a great honors program at the very public Ohio University. OU is routinely ranked as the number one party school in America. When I would tell my high school friends where I was going, they would wrinkle their noses. But really, OU is a relatively good school. It holds its own against the much bigger Ohio State University and the slightly more prestigious (maybe) Miami University. The middle fifty percent of admitted freshman are a good bunch. They are good students. Not great students. But good students. Probably B students, most of them. Additionally, because of its location in Appalachia and its middle-of-the-line tuition, it’s home to many first generation college students.

For my first two years at Ohio University, I didn’t think much about education. I had made it to college. I figured that everyone who wanted to be at college was there. It was a done deal for me. I grew a beard, and started thinking about things like racism, sexism, and heteronormativity the way only a white straight dude from the ‘burbs can – theoretically. Then, at the end of my sophomore year, Teach for America invited me to be part of a series of leadership seminars. I heard about the achievement gap for the first time. My world was rocked. There were places where only 8% of students graduated from college? This was huge news for a kid coming from a place where it seemed like 80% of students were going to graduate from college. (This is probably an exaggeration, but that’s what it felt like).

I stayed in contact with Teach for America. I participated in a summer book club. One night, I was on a call discussing Mike Johnston‘s In The Deep Heart’s Core. Mike Johnston was on the call and he offhandedly mentioned Students for Education Reform. I sent an e-mail to Alexis Morin that night. Because she was listed as a co-founder on the website, I didn’t expect to hear back from her. But I heard back almost immediately. That summer I learned a lot about the organization. I learned how it started in a dorm room with e-mail blasts between the early members. I learned how it was infectious. And certainly, Alexis’s and Catharine Bellinger‘s enthusiasm and optimism is infectious. They come from a tradition of thought that says when you believe something, you do something. You don’t sit on the sidelines. You get up and say something. I wanted to do something, too.

So I did. And for the past year I’ve been the Chapter Leader at Ohio University. In that year, my knowledge of the education crisis in this country has grown more nuanced. I used to think that there was someone to blame for the whole thing. And that wasn’t anything SFER taught me. That was just me being a dumb college student. Thanks to SFER and other opportunities, I had the chance to study ed policy more in depth. Through Chapter Leader training and the weekly discussion series our chapter held on campus, I was able to approach issues from multiple angles. A lot of the members of our chapter are future teachers. (I’m a future teacher, too!) We aren’t calling for the abolition of teacher unions or the privatization of education. What we are calling for is conversation. We want to put everything on the table. We want options.

Because of SFER, I have done and seen things that I would have otherwise never done or seen. I organized a school visit to KIPP Journey in Columbus. I learned that whether or not you agree with charter schools, there are kids who are benefiting from them. And those kids can articulate that. They know that they are going to college. And they know that precisely because of the school they are going to. I was so impressed that I interned with them for a while.

SFER hosted a national summit for all the chapter leaders. By the time the summit rolled around, there were almost 100 chapters. I was struck by our diversity. Sure, I was a dude from the ‘burbs. And sure, there were Ivy League schools represented. But there were also chapter leaders who were mini-miracle stories. They had beat the odds in low-performing school districts, made it to college, and were now working to make sure that more students had that same opportunity.

Additionally, because of the SFER national summit, I learned about the Breakthrough Collaborative. I applied to Breakthrough, got accepted, and spent my summer teaching ninth grade English. I learned that 30 high school and college students can alleviate summer drain for over 100 middle schoolers.

Because of SFER, I believe that education reform is not just a conservative thing, a liberal thing, a union thing, a student thing, a teacher thing, a parent thing. Education reform is all of those things. We aren’t going to get anywhere by eliminating each other from the conversation. Maybe you don’t agree with SFER or Teach for America or Democrats for Education Reform. That’s fine. You don’t have to. But don’t be against them. Be against the achievement gap. Be against the failing education system. I promise you we can work together.

Three Conversations Ed Reformers Need to Move Past

I made a Tumblr last week for ed reform. I want to talk about education from a global platform, but I don’t know how. The Tumblr is my first step in that direction. But right now, it doesn’t have the kind of audience this blog has.

I’ve been talking about education a lot the past couple of days. I was at the Statehouse for a while listening to legislators talk about it. And I’m frustrated. I’m actually beyond frustrated. I’m angry. We never get to talk about the good stuff, the stuff that will change kids’ lives because we are so busy misunderstanding things and phrasing questions in the wrong way. Here are three things we are doing wrong in the education conversation in this nation:

1. Whose kids are going to go to the trade schools? Legislators love to talk about how it’s not that we don’t have enough jobs to go around, it’s that we don’t encourage children to learn trades. We are always going to need electricians, they say. That’s true. We  will always need electricians. But no legislator would encourage his or her child to be an electrician. Their  children are too smart for that kind of job, right? And that’s where we run into a wall. In this country, not every student has the option of going to college, even if he or she is achieving at the requisite level. And so encouraging kids into trade schools starting in the ninth grade is a form of forcing complacency. Give these kids a trade in which they will be earning $40,000 a year, but don’t give them the education my children get, the legislators say. And so while we masquerade the trade school solution as the thing that’s going to decrease the gap between the haves and the have-nots, it’s actually just a way to make it bigger. Senators’ sons will turn into more senators, and electricians’ sons will turn into more electricians until those two worlds hardly ever talk. So let’s put the trade school conversation on hold until we are sure that every kid, no matter of their zip code or parent’s income, is getting the option of going to college.*

2. Liberty and equality are not opposites. I heard a speaker the other day that was trying to tell me that they are. But they aren’t. If I have a penny, and I want a bagel, but the bagel costs $2.50, I can’t buy that bagel. I’m not free to buy that bagel. That’s how education works. If I have a second-rate K-12 education because I grew up in inner city Detroit, and college expects a first-rate education, I can’t go to college. I’m not free to do the things that I want. Equality is not (as some people like to put it into metaphor) about making sure everyone is on the same starting line or about putting some people in front of others for the start of the race. It’s about making sure that no one shoots any of the runner’s in the leg, while they are running.

3. If you get rid of standardized testing, what do you put in its place to evaluate schools, teachers, and students? Look, I’m no idealist. I don’t think standardized testing is perfect. And if I could come up with something that took more of the learning process into account, I totally would. But we can’t just keep saying “Get rid of standardized testing.” That’s not helping the conversation. Come up with an alternative. Then we will talk.

Please, when we talk about education, let’s stop having the above conversations, and let’s start talking about how we are going to save the kids.

*I want to point out that I don’t believe that being an electrician or having any other trade is anything to be ashamed about. All I’m saying is that when a senator’s kid is good at math, that kid is encouraged to become an engineer, not an electrician.