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Thompson: Hard Facts and Spin

Spin

Dean is a hard act to follow. After reading Tom Toch's original document, as opposed to his Education Week article, I still see the same pattern. The Education Sector and the Eduwonk have long battled with themselves over facts and their meanings. Now, Tom Toch and the Education Sector agree that Charter Management Organizations (CMOs). have won "congratulatory coverage in the national media," at a time when Secretary Duncan hopes they can play an increasing role in turning around the toughest schools. But Toch then writes "the research for a report on CMOs that I’ve produced for the think tank Education Sector reveals that many of these organizations are going to be hard-pressed to deliver the many schools that Duncan wants from them." The Education Sector sees the same evidence and writes "state and national leaders increasingly see leading CMOs as an important part of their larger plans for educational reform in the toughest educational environments." (emphasis mine)

Toch describes "four dozen charter networks’ opening about 350 schools with some 100,000 seats over the past decade. This is a long way from the 5,000 failing public schools. ..." The Education Sector introduces the report, writing "nearly four dozen new nonprofit enterprises ... or CMOs, have set to work alongside Achievement First (which hopes to open 30 charters) to replicate the nation's best urban charter schools, .... There are an estimated 4,600 charter schools serving some 1.4 million students."

Echoing Toch, the Education Sector reports "CMOs have expanded more slowly and required more resources than they had hoped" facing "the extraordinary demands of educating disadvantaged students." Somehow, this record is mitigated because CMOs have "sought to create "proof points," evidence that large numbers of disadvantaged students can achieve at sharply higher levels than most do now ..."

While clearly supporting charter schools, Toch writes "getting good results also has required CMOs to spend more heavily than they had expected to support their schools." Moreover, "CMOs increasingly face the challenge of either paying their teachers more as they gain seniority, or churning through teachers and making it tougher to sustain their schools’ powerful cultures." Also, "student attrition is high in CMO schools, fueled by higher standards, long hours, and transient families. A study of four San Francisco Bay Area KIPP middle schools found that 60 percent of entering students departed before graduating. The loss of revenue from so many departing students is devastating, but the price of bringing in replacement students is also high."

The actual Education Report, "Growing Pains," as opposed to the Education Sector’s characterization of the report, then tells the same story. It is particularly astute in explaining the dire lack of principals that would spearhead any expansion of CMOs. "It was a point of perverse pride that [running a KIPP school] had to be a job only for Superman," says John Kanberg, a senior official at the KIPP Foundation. Also, "principals in schools run by prominent CMOs tend to be as young and nearly as inexperienced as their teachers. Aspire Public Schools hired four principals in 2006–07—ages 24, 25, 28, and 30. In contrast, the average public school principal is 49."

So, the difference between Toch’s interpretation of evidence and the Education Sector’s may be no greater than the continued differences between the Education Sector’s research and the spin that it gives to the evidence. And the same dynamic seems to be producing those discrepancies. The Education Sector research duly reports the disappointing results of its favored reforms, but to the Education Sector spin masters, those shortcomings are not as important as the ambitions of "reformers." And it may also be illustrative that the Education Sector concludes by praising "the core mission that unites all leading CMOs" while Toch ends with a plea for collaboration between charters and public school systems. 

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Even in its published form, the Education Sector report lays out a set of challenges its own recommendations do not adequately address. It's interesting that the evidence Toch gathered cannot be very well spun, so I think that genie is out of the bottle.

Both Toch and Ed Sector clearly have a lot of respect for the reawl passion and impressive achievements of the best charter school leaders. It's just that the original report seems much less confident that passion and past achievement alone will pave the way for dramatic expansion without diluting quality.

I can make no sense of Thompson's remarks. Suggestions that Ed Sector slanted the findings in favor of charter schools are unbelievable in light of the fact that Rotherham has called for aggressively closing bad charter schools.

Art makes my point. The issue is the evidence of whether CMOs can be scaled up enough, and responds with what Rotherham has called for. This is more of the "reformers" race to the 18th century. I'm righteous therefore I'm right.

Toch concluded his Ed Week article calling for collaboration between charters and public school systems. In the larger report he goes into much more depth. I can't claim to have thought through his recommendations, but everyone should give his thoughts a careful reading.

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