Thompson: The 70% Solution
Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich, along with Arne Duncan were impressive on Meet the Press. Yes, they flubbed some lines indicating confusion about charter schools, curriculum, and international test scores and they spoke in phrases like "I was told ..., students are told ..., and we were told ...." And Gingrich was incorrect in saying the Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia operate with "the same students" as when the school was a violent, failing neighborhood school. Surely the founder Scott Gordon told his visitors the same thing he told the Philadelphia Inquirer that "the beauty of our model is the high expectations and the difficulty of the model is that kids can walk if you want to go to another school" During the first four years of the Pickett campus, there was a 42% attrition rate - a rate that would have killed their reforms in a neighborhood school. But they were allowed to persevere and worked wonders, while disempowered neighborhood schools keep up a comparable or worse attrition rate in perpetuity.
All schools should be like Mastery Schools and have the power to enforce their disciplinary codes, but I doubt that Sharpton, Gingrich,or even Duncan has been told the whole story of why that power is rarely bestowed upon neighborhood schools. But we should focus on what was true and profound in their words; they endorsed President Obama’s statement that surely we can work together on the 70% of school issues where we all agree.
Students at Mastery Schools must achieve mastery. Surely we can all agree to retire "the memo" (as it was called in our district but different systems have their own way of coercing teachers to lower their academic standards) and the games that perpetuate social promotion while denying social promotion exists. (I don’t know whether I support or oppose social promotion, but surely we can all repudiate the games by which neighborhood schools are coerced into "passing on" students while denying that it is happening.) Surely we can all agree with Mastery Charters that the socio-emotional dynamics are the key to success, and I surely believe that their system of restorative justice is a better way of assessing discipline.
Surely we can all agree that success breeds success and join in celebrating the $2.65 million dollar grant that they earned from the NewSchools Venture Fund. I have always suspected that grants like that are doubly beneficial because they give leverage to school leaders. When the outside world is watching, the district can not pull the plug on an experiment at the first sign of pushback by the small minority who oppose raising standards. For instance, when 130 of 208 Mastery students did not do their homework thus earning detention, that would have been the end of many neighborhood school's turnaround efforts. Other neighborhood schools may have had the confidence to assess a parental conference suspension to the 13 students who did not show for detention. In neighborhood schools a parent conference suspension is a bluff that is usually not enforcable (you can't punish students for their parents' behavior), but I have still seen the tactic used skilfully. Playing such a bluff over detention would likely blow up in the face of a neighborhood school principal where everyone has rational expectations that the school will fold.
But I can not imagine a neighborhood school being allowed to do what Mastery did at Shoemaker High School. When eight students violated their contracts by fighting, they were dismissed from the school! The educators did not want to be so stern, but they could not compromise their credibility. In every neighborhood school that I have known, the educators would have been legally prohibited from enforcing the contract.
Mastery Schools have an intangible advantage that we could all agree to replicate. Neighborhood school students could rise to higher standards, but it is extraordinarily difficult to achieve something that you have never seen. Neither the students or the teachers in neighborhood schools have ever seen a principal with the legal power to enforce behavioral or academic policies. Most neighborhood principals have never seen one of their own being given the power to back their teachers. After all, central offices are legally required to overturn efforts by principals to enforce the policies that are essential to the success of charters and magnets. So, central office administrators can’t visualize schools that try to do "whatever it takes" without coercion, and worry that the power to enforce standards would be abused - pushing out the most difficult students.
So, school systems artificially limit the number of alternative slots, while charters have an unlimited supply of alternatives - that are known as neighborhood schools. Only charters and magnets have the confidence required to break the cycle. It is not so much the number of alternative slots that is the issue, as it is the consistency and the certainty that comes from having legal options.
And that gets us back to the Sharpton, Gingrich, and Duncan message that we must all pull together. They demonstrated agreement with Randi Weingarten (who by the way also flubbed her soundbite showing that we’re all human) who said that our goal must be "a culture of shared responsibility." - John Thompson