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Thompson: The 70% Solution

Bloomberg%20Sharpton%20and%20Gingrich 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


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this seems like a great idea moving forward- focusing on the issues we agree on, rather than trying to resolve those which we don't will lead to much more continuity and a higher standard of education.

I duuno, John. When people don't get their facts straight and report errors that support their ideology, isn't this lying? It's easy to see why Newt Gingrich is endorsing "bipartisanship." The Obama administration has bought the right-wing agenda for education hook, line, and sinker. Other than saying he would prefer school vouchers (now spun as Pell Grants) to Charter Schools, Gingrich couldn't find anything to disagree with.

Was anything positive said about public schools or how to make them stronger? Not a word. A good deal of time was spent on bashing teacher unions. If all the "bad teachers" were eliminated and teacher unions were banned by the wave of a magic wand, would that have any effect on what kids are taught and learn. Of course not.

It's in the instruction. And not a word was said about that.

What was agreed on were platitudes. How to effect the aspirations for schooling is not in the "70% we agree on." Where in the world did that 70% figure come from?

Great piece. I think you've hit on something essential. All teachers/principals should have the ability to do what's necessary to build a functioning school. Right now it's a 'charter thing,' but there's no reason that it should be that way.

Thanks for all of the comments.

Dick, I’m not going to use the word “lying” in print. I draw a distinction between a long-time anti-union activist with very little knowledge of education who attacks unions, and an organization like the TNTP which repeatedly publishes falsehoods. My bigger complaint is people who are to the left of me, like the Ed Trust, who would probably support almost every other union, but whose policies would bust teachers unions; who would probably support pre-school and vocational and other social programs for anyone else in any other context but oppose those efforts within the context of education because they provide “excuses;” and who support constitutional rights and legal equality for everyone but teachers.

But Randi, as much as I love her, stepped into a punch. Students being disciplined deserve fairness and compassion, while teachers just deserve fairness. Also, the interviewer was more unfair than the guests. And to his credit, Newt gave good answers on discipline and on the inappropriateness a national curriculum for helping Detroit. Newt and Sharpton were also far better in addressing generational poverty than the “reformers” who brief them using the educational equivalent of Intelligent Design.

And that was my point. The talking heads know little more about schooling than what their briefers tell them. But apparently they realized that the “reformers” have been spouting too much nonsense even for hardball politics. As I’ve blogged, “reformers” ought to repudiate Rhee, Klein, and the other extremists if they want accountability to survive as a driving force. Politics is a physical game, but everyone should repudiate trying to takes your opponents’ knees out.

I haven’t heard Obama use the 70% number, but still it’s a great idea. Its far better than the Ed Trust demanding 100%, demanding that local districts stop agreeing to a premium for masters for instance. Regardless of the merits of that issue, think of the narcissism involved in micromanaging to that extent. Or think of the vindictiveness of such a proposed federal mandate.

"Everyone should repudiate trying to takes your opponents’ knees out." That's wonderfully put, and very true. I think the Department's response to RTTT suggests that persuasion might ultimately have a stronger effect than mafia tactics.

I think the Department's response to RTTT suggests that persuasion might ultimately have a stronger effect than mafia tactics.

Hmm. As Rahm Emanuel said, "We didn't give up a thing." And the "Department" completely ignored the warning of the National Science Foundation that the four pillars/assurances/reforms have no scientific/technical foundation.


Who are you going to believe, the National Academy of Sciences or Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich?

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