Governance: The Real Innovation

In education reform, it’s hard for an experienced educator, let alone an average citizen, to know what to make of the seemingly endless and shifting debates about The Next Big Thing.  Teacher evaluation.  New standards.  New tests.  Newer standards, and newer tests.  Magic technology tools. Videotaping teachers.  Not videotaping teachers.

Have you noticed that none of the Old Big Things have both stuck around and had a real, measurable impact on our problems?  Have you noticed that we are constantly moving on to another Next Big Thing?  I’ve noticed, and it’s why I ignore the Next Big Thing in favor of some Old Fashioned Things.

I want to tell you about one Old Fashioned Thing, where the charter law truly has provided innovation that will last.

That Old Fashioned Thing is governance.

Governance matters because all the Big Things and new initiatives in the world won’t make a difference if there isn’t clear agreement on the principles and vision that should guide schools.   In The System where these fancy innovations live, we are nowhere near agreement on those principles and that vision.

Absent such a vision, schools—like any organization—are in danger of being simply employment agencies (and in this case, child warehouses) drifting from initiative to initiative.

I’ve been in The System and I know that just keeping up with the mountains of often conflicting mandates is enough to keep one occupied full-time, distracted from the real work of serving children and families by understanding them and pushing them to high levels of engagement and achievement.

So the real, lasting charter innovation is not a set of instructional tricks or better use of technology.  It’s not eliminating the union contract or doing test prep better than anyone else.  It’s the fact that charters can replace those endless, confusing mandates with the focused attention of a diverse group of professionals who have a singular focus on one community of students: an independent, effective and attentive board of trustees.

You might say, “Well, The System has one of those.”  The current iteration for New York City district schools, the Panel for Educational Policy, indeed features intelligent, accomplished leaders who have earned the public trust.  But those 13 appointees make fundamental policy and resource decisions for over 1,500 schools educating over 1,000,000 students.  Their time is filled with rubber stamping decisions they don’t have time to review, picking a battle here or there in which to engage, and sorting through the divergent protesting voices they constantly encounter and probably rarely understand.

Our board makes those exact same decisions for one school with 300 students.  The difference in vision, consistency and focus cannot be overstated.

Our board has made four critical resource decisions in the past few years addressing employee benefits, class size, our co-teaching model and our top five-year priority, after school.  Each decision followed months or even years of research, planning, consensus building and finally decisiveness, in which all parties felt that they were heard and in the hands of a capable and fair authority.

Innovations will come and inevitably, they will go.  Maybe some gadget or textbook will be so great that it will move the ball forward by a few yards toward the goal.  But unless the goal posts stay in one place, it won’t matter in the long run.

Just wait and watch.  The Big Charter Innovation of school governance will outlast all of them.

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Word Gap, Play Gap

A recent report, Little to Gain and Much to Lose, calls for a moratorium on kindergarten Common Core reading standards. The report argues that the “many children are not developmentally ready to read in kindergarten.” Therefore, expectations for reading in kindergarten should not be forced on children, who “learn through playful, hands-on experiences with materials, the natural world, and engaging, caring adults.”

The report raises a pressing issue that we face every day at Harlem Link. We are struggling to balance the developmental needs of children to play and explore with the academic demands that are heaped on us not only by Common Core but also by the imperative to improve college and life outcomes that were the impetus of Common Core’s development. Every year we at Harlem Link want children spend more time with blocks, developing spatial awareness, nimble brain functioning and problem solving skills. At the same time, we feel pressure to put the blocks away and take the pencils out. While talkative experts are ready to pounce on Little to Gain to attack Common Core, the esteemed authors of the report and other critics point out a dilemma we will never resolve as long as we ignore the root of the problem.

Unstated in the report is the socioeconomic divide of “developmental readiness.” Here’s the sad and scary truth: children from higher economic classes and whose parents have a higher level of education enter kindergarten with far more literacy and language experiences than children from lower economic classes. In simpler terms, wealthier parents tend to read and talk to their kids a lot and do those things with purpose and verve. Lower income parents, much less so.

The authors throw “developmental readiness” around as if it were an innate, biologically determined quality that each child brings to school. Nonsense. Child development is highly dependent on environmental factors, and home experiences trump just about everything else when it comes to being “developmentally ready” for kindergarten. The now-famous 1995 study by Hart and Risley demonstrated that by age three children from lower-income families typically hear 30 million fewer words than their affluent peers.

Taken to its logical conclusion, the Little to Gain report says to me, “Some kids just aren’t going to go to college. They enter kindergarten not ready to read, so why force them?”

On the other hand, study after study shows, “If you aren’t ready to read in kindergarten, you better catch up fast because by the time you should be going to college, the odds are you’ll be looking for a minimum-wage job instead because you won’t be qualified for higher education.”

So implicit in the report, for me, are two real questions, neither of which is answered by the report:

  1. What do we educators and policymakers do about the massive word gap that lower income children face even before they enter kindergarten?
  2. What do we do for the children, regardless of the income of their families, who enter kindergarten “unready” for reading?

As I said above, we’ll never have a satisfactory answer for Question #2. I know; I’ve been trying to find the balance for the last 10 years. It’s a wild ride on this particular pendulum.

But Question #1 does have an answer, and done well, it will attack the root of the problem and break the cycle of poverty.

The answer is about parent education and parent resources. Our school has many families who prove that a low-income doesn’t have to mean a literacy-poor home (although some parents need extra support and creativity; how can you read to your child every night when you are a single parent working the night shift?).

There are multiple organizations working to educate parents on how to support literacy at home, beginning at birth. As part of our new Start to Finish program, we partner with Reach Out and Read, through which pediatricians provide books and training to new parents. The Parent-Child Home Program sends literacy specialists on structured visits to low-income homes to teach literacy-supporting parent-child interactions.

It’s time that elementary schools saw contributing to the solution for Question #1 is a central part of all of our efforts. We must work together to ensure that no community is labeled “developmentally unready.” Every school should be engaged in supporting community members to meet the vision of the Parent-Child Home Program: “Every child enters school ready to succeed because every parent has the knowledge and resources to build school readiness where it starts: the home.”

When that vision is met, there could be a proper celebration in every kindergarten, and a developmentally appropriate one: a block party!

This post also appeared on Chalkbeat NY.

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City Council Charter Schools Hearing Testimony

Later today, the City Council Education Committee will hold a hearing regarding oversight and accountability of charter schools.  While we could not attend, we were able to have a parent and a teacher attend in our place.  And we have submitted the following written testimony.

Testimony of co-founders of Harlem Link Charter School
Steven Evangelista, Principal
Margaret Ryan, Founding Principal and Director of Curriculum and Professional Development

City Council Education Committee
May 6, 2014

We are submitting written testimony since we cannot attend today’s hearing in person.  Our school is closed today for professional development, and our presence is needed there throughout the day.

Our school’s being closed today is significant; at certain points in the year, we make plans that differ from those of the New York City Department of Education, not to mention different policies and procedures.  We do so when it serves the interest of our students and our community, and we cherish the autonomy the charter law gives us to make local decisions.  Today, our staff will take important steps in planning for the 2014-15 year in curriculum, assessment and school culture.

Having both been teachers and members of School Leadership Teams in conventional public schools in four different New York City districts, we know that this type of planning would be impossible for us without the charter law’s autonomy.  While as a charter we are constantly fighting to justify our existence and to scrape for resources (that the public often thinks we already have), we are thankful every day for the protection we enjoy from the political battles that constantly seem to engulf the operation of district schools.

As this is a hearing on oversight and accountability, we will share some thoughts related to each of these topics, which, of course, are related to the special freedoms we enjoy as a public school that is its own single-school district, and Local Education Authority, and can set its own hiring policies, negotiate its own work rules, approve its own budget every year and self-perpetuate its governing board.

With three examples and one final note on my experience, we shall show you that our authorizer, the State University of New York’s Charter Schools Institute (CSI), has been transparent, consistent and rigorous in holding us accountable over the years.  The oversight and accountability we have had from CSI stands in stark contrast to the culture of gamesmanship, evasion and dog-and-pony-show that pervaded the DOE when we were teachers (and, we would hazard a guess, probably still does).

2006: Opening Year Accountability

In 2005, Harlem Link opened with a lot of great ideas but lacked in the leadership experience and structures it needed to be successful.  Classes were not uniformly orderly, and even as conditions improved, basic student safety was still an issue.  As novice school leaders, we had been putting Band Aids on some of our biggest problems and were not in complete agreement on the prioritization of steps to improve the school.  But when the members of CSI’s visiting team assessed Harlem Link during the Institute’s annual inspection on March 15, 2006—a date we still remember because of the impact of their words and tone—they did not mince words.  After observing every classroom, interviewing every staff member and reviewing a trove of documents, the team members came to a disconcerting conclusion about the state of our school.  They threatened corrective action, demanded a plan of action to prioritize improving the most important areas of school culture and ultimately predicted that, if things did not improve, they would pull our charter and shut down our school at the end of that year or the next year.

And all of us in the room knew that despite the harsh word from CSI, our school was already safer, more orderly and richer in learning than most of the surrounding schools in the district, including the one right downstairs with which we shared space.

Since we are still open, you can guess the tale: prompted by their words, we sprung into action with a new plan, and a new sense of order that eventually led to the calm, focused and joyful school environment we currently know and love.

2007: A Contrast with DOE Accountability

The following year, the DOE expanded its initiative to hold schools accountable by providing Quality Reviews (QR) across the city.  Charters could volunteer to undergo a QR, so, as part of our quest to learn as much as we can about our school, we asked for a QR, which was scheduled for the spring of 2007.

Having both taught at the district school downstairs prior to opening Harlem Link, we were surprised to see lesson plans posted outside classroom doors one day in December.  We learned that that district school was going through a QR that week.  When the QR ended, the lesson plans for that week remained up on the wall—for the rest of the year.

This ersatz approach to accountability made sense after we actually went through the review.  The reviewer sat and spoke with one of us for about fifteen minutes and then as we recall, he said, “Sounds like you have a great school here.  Which classroom do you want me to see?”

So we steered him to a classroom that, at the time, we felt was a strong one.  After a brief visit and a few checklists, he was ready to go.

“Wait,” we said.  “You’re not going to see the rest of the school?  We only have five more classrooms.  We really want to learn from you, not just show you what we already know how to do.”

Half an hour later, the reviewer was alarmed.  “There is uneven quality across the classrooms,” he stated.  “If I had known that every classroom wasn’t functioning the way the first one we visited was, I would have felt very different about making my comments.”

The feedback was nonspecific, nothing we did not already know, and it did not help us improve.  The school downstairs received top marks.  We were labeled “Developing.”

2013: Renewal Nine Years Later

Nine years after the SUNY Board of Trustees approved our charter—and nine stressful and thorough school visits later—our school found itself up for charter renewal for the second time.

Are state test scores the primary driver of our authorizer-mandated Accountability Plan?  Yes, but as a CSI official told one of us and we documented on our school’s blog, “I can’t defend this system.  But it’s the best one we’ve got.”

The point is, the visitors were willing to be transparent.  But most of all they were consistent.  The Accountability Plan agreement we drafted in 2004 was, basically, the rubric by which we were evaluated in 2013.  It was like an old critical friend making good on a promise made literally a decade earlier.  Is there anything in the district public schools about which that can be said?

Oversight and Fraud

In public education, as the famous Roslyn, Long Island embezzlement scandal showed, there is always the possibility of fraud.  When school officials operate outside of the law, it feels like even more of a betrayal of the public trust than other instances of public corruption.  We members of the public send our children along with our tax money to these institutions, and we expect them to be upstanding.

Because the vast majority of educators we know (independent, district and charter) are well-meaning, good people, we don’t think there is a greater risk of fraud in one community than another.  We believe that charter school educators and board members are just as much at risk as their district school counterparts—and vice versa—of betraying the public trust and cheating our kids.

There is one crucial difference, however, and one advantage the charter system has in preventing and uncovering fraud: our model system of governance, which is the true innovation of the charter law.

Here’s the thing: with charters, it’s one board for one school; with NYC DOE, it’s one board for 1,400 schools.

Anti-charter rhetoricians complain that there is no elected official ultimately responsible for making sure charter schools are honest.  We reply: does having elected officials choose the members of the Panel for Education Policy (or did having locally elected Community School Boards in past decades) ensure that officials are doing the right thing, that parents have a voice, that there is no fraud?  The system is so unwieldy and large that a skilled fraud could siphon resources without anyone noticing.  A parent whistleblower would have a hard time getting the attention of the PEP (and so, probably, would the marginalized Community Education Council) amid all the other business the panel has to conduct each month.

At our charter school board monthly meetings, the board reviews financial reports for our one school each month, questions me and other staff members about what’s going on and has the power to use the four committees that meet in between board meetings to question any suspected wrongdoing.  Most of all, our board members are motivated to uncover fraud because they put their professional reputations on the line by representing our school.  Cheating by one of us would turn their community service into a blight on their careers.  And at the end of the day, CSI is there as a check on the behavior and diligence of our board.

When parents attend our board meetings, our board chair has always given them the floor and asked them to speak up on whatever issue is on their minds, within time constraints.  In this public meeting (guided by the NYS Open Meetings Law), parents have direct access to my supervisors, the ultimate authorities of their children’s school.

One of our board members sat on the PEP for almost a year in 2013 and 2014.  What did he have to say about parent participation in PEP meetings?  “Screaming and police protection.”

Which governance model sounds more reasonable and effective to you?

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Letter to Testing Families

March 28, 2014

Dear parents of third, fourth and fifth graders,

As you know, the English Language Arts test is next week—Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

You have probably heard about all the controversy of parents “opting out” of the test and all of the fear and wrangling that’s going on. If you haven’t, ask around and get up to speed on the current debate in education, because we are in historic times and you can empower yourself and our community with information.

To summarize, many families are taking the extraordinary step of refusing to have their child take the state test because they are worried that there is too much emphasis on the “high stakes” test.

I very much agree with why those families that are protesting—but I think that opting out is the wrong way to approach it. Tests, good and bad, are a part of life.

At our school, we make our own decisions about teacher evaluation and student promotion. Test scores are only a part of those decisions. Our relationships with students and all of the in-class data we collect weigh much more heavily. We put the tests in their proper perspective, and they only serve to confirm or enhance what we already know about how we are doing.

I know that our scholars are ready for the test. We won’t be perfect, but we are going to do our best and use the test to show how much we have learned.

I want you to know that we have a number of incentives for doing well on the state test. If students hit their target test scores, they get to attend the Laser Tag trip coming in the fall. But even better, if they try their hardest and do their best (they will judge that with their teachers’ help), no matter their score, they will have a special dress-down day and outdoor ice cream party on a sunny day later in April. We are more interested in effort and improvement than we are in going crazy over high stakes scores.

Please support your child to do his or her best—get a good night’s sleep, eat a healthy breakfast and be ready to focus and attack that test like a tiger!


Steven Evangelista

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Enrollment: The Central Issue in Today’s Charter Debates

Charter News on Fire
Charter schools are all over the news these days, and the cool reception to charters by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration is at the center of all this attention.

The media has had a field day with the high drama of de Blasio, the new progressive standard bearer, putting dozens of black and Latino children out of district public school buildings by reversing the facilities plans for Success Academies.  Unless Success can broker a deal or find some other space on short notice, the kids may be booted entirely out of their schools, which are well-known for attaining high scores in standardized tests.  (Update: the city may in fact help them find space.)  To add to the drama, the governor has pitched his tent with the charter networks, promising to “save” charters and setting up a proxy war between the state Capitol and City Hall.

Reading the past couple of weeks’ news articles, one would think that two opposing sides in the Democratic Party and in the charter movement have evolved and are looking for a showdown.

What’s Really Going on Here?
As an insider, I reject the “two sides” description of this debate because I happen to agree on at least some points with both of the so-called sides.  Instead, my view is that we the people have created this monster by developing and endorsing a patchwork of reforms to address the crisis faced by our schools.

Specifically, I believe that the lack of a school system-wide and society-wide agreement about how enrollment should work is the main cause of this controversy.  We have had at least 60 years to come up with such agreement; the Brown decision in 1954 desegregated schools and led to everything from “magnet” schools to busing kids across town and even to school vouchers and charter schools.

In New York City, I don’t think we have even come close to a shared civic understanding of how enrollment ought to work.  People with integrity and passion for the same goals are fighting each other instead of the shared problems of inequity in education, lack of access to high quality educational environments for certain communities and a stratified post-secondary enrollment profile that mirrors our widening society wide income inequality problem.  Since we don’t agree on the first principles required to form a strong set of enrollment policies across the city—and because of that, we have a dizzying variety of procedures and rules that are at best confusing and intimidating to parents and at worst unfair and polarizing—we are all trying really hard to accomplish entirely different things and getting angry at each other for not having our efforts and accomplishments recognized and valued.

Charter Enrollment: School Choice
Why would I argue that this debate boils down to enrollment?

When charters were introduced to New York State in 1998, a different enrollment structure based on school choice was a key, though not the only, innovation promised.  Never have the implications of this simple switch been fully debated in the public sphere, yet after 15 years of charters, we now have a lot of information about the pros and cons of this version of school choice.

Who signs up?  Who stays? Who leaves and does anyone replace them?
No one can argue with the incredibly high test scores of the Success network, as well as those of charter networks across the city. However, critics argue that because they are schools of choice, either (a) only motivated parents sign up or (b) only really motivated parents finish because the others either transfer out in frustration or are purposely pushed out by the schools.

Whether those observations and assumptions are true or false, what we know as fact is that most of the highest performing charter schools (the Icahn network, I think, is a notable exception) do not enroll new students after a certain point, something like first or second grade.

At our school, which continuously enrolls students all the way to fifth grade, we know the challenge of integrating new students to our school years after kindergarten, when everyone else has been with the program, understands the rules and has made great academic progress.

Time and again, new students in the upper grades absorb a hugely disproportionate amount of time and effort from classroom teachers and intervention specialists alike.  We are constantly robbing Peter (our longtime students who are doing well but could do much better with more attention) to pay Paul (the new kids who require enormous effort just to get up to the baseline).  It would be much easier—and better for our test scores—to keep the kids we have, shrink the cohorts over time as students whose families are less stable or less invested move on to other neighborhoods and schools, and work with the “survivors.”  Given this choice legally available to charter operators (that is, not to replace those students who leave in a process inhumanly called “backfilling”) there does not need to be anything nefarious at work in order for school choice-enabled enrollment changes to positively impact student test scores at a school.

A parallel issue—that is, separate but related—is the narrowing of the curriculum.  We the people agreed through our democratic process to enact No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001, despite vociferous opposition from many educators.  The rules became explicitly about standardized test scores.  Who can blame Eva Moskowitz for achieving the incentives set before her by NCLB, and for playing by the rules while doing so?

The pink slime mandate
Let me illustrate the quandary faced by charter operators with a personal story.  The family of a friend of mine owns a farm that produces, among other things, the pink slime meat product that made headlines a couple of years ago.  Pink slime, called “lean finely textured beef” by the industry, consists of the “leftover” bits of meat, or trimmings, that are left on the bone after a cow has been butchered to make higher value cuts.  These sinews, tendons, and connective tissue are mechanically stripped, then heated and separated from the fat in a centrifuge, and ground up and recombined into a sort of paste that is used as filler for ground beef.  Along the way ammonia gas or citric acid is used to sterilize the meat product (perhaps giving it the eponymous pink tint), and it is soon ready to appear at fast food chains and school cafeterias.

When activists complained about the frankly disgusting nature of this process, the presence of ammonia in school food, and the lack of transparency over what is otherwise called “ground beef,” school districts and fast food companies responded and dropped the product from their kitchens.

Farmers, according to my friend, are livid. To paraphrase him: “They complained that we were wasting a lot of meat, that we were inefficient because we were leaving edible parts of animals on the bone and only selling the higher value stuff, and mostly that we were not producing enough lean beef because Americans were eating too much fat.  We worked hard to innovate and now we are told they don’t want it after all.”

Farmers perceived a mandate—sell leaner beef, and do so efficiently—but it was an incomplete one, and when the results of their efforts came out, the public reacted with distaste.

Charter operators have taken up our own mandate: close the achievement gap. Give poor families the chance to send their kids to college, by any means necessary.

Haves and have nots
One reason why we haven’t come to a consensus, as a nation or even as a city, on how enrollment should work is that it’s darn complicated.

Every time I talk to a parent who says, “Thank you for providing a safe and structured environment for my child,” I find myself saying, “Thank you for looking out for a safe and structured environment, and for being supportive of our expectations.”

And when I hear a parent with the opposite attitude say, as I have on more than one occasion, “I don’t think my child needs to show up to school on time or follow all y’all’s rules,” I know that despite all of our positive outreach, relationship building and co-planning, this parent may eventually choose to head out the door and enroll in the zoned school in his or her neighborhood, where the reality or the perception is that “that school won’t bother me all the time with this crap.”  The zoned school will see a predictable pattern and say, “There goes another charter school, sending us the kids that they don’t want,” and we will shake our head and say, “What could we have done differently?  We can’t lower our standards.”

In these tug-of-war scenarios, the youngest people involved often have the least input.  But when their educational environment shifts beneath them or turns out sub-optimal, it’s those little people who suffer, not the grown ones arguing.

I’m not blogging to say that I have any answers; I don’t.  I’d like to hear the conversation focus more on the first principles behind what fair and equitable enrollment looks like, so we can move away from that patchwork of inconsistent plans, and use our uniquely American talent for coming up with a compromise that moves us, inch by inch, closer to a truly fair and equitable system.

After all, fair and equitable describes the system our kids and families—all of our kids and families—deserve.

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