A few days ago, I wrote a post about the determination of North Carolina’s Tea-Party dominated legislature to allow charters, including for-profit ones, to take over low-scoring schools, a proposal modeled on Tennessee’s Achievement School District. My post was a refutation of an editorial in the Charlotte Observer, which endorsed the idea of using the ASD as a model for North Carolina. My post was titled “North Carolina: Yes, Let’s Copy a Failed Experiment.” Pamela Grundy, a public school champion in North Carolina, also complained to the newspaper and proposed that NC should try reducing class sizes.
The author of the editorial, Peter St. Onge, is associate editor of the editorial pages. He didn’t like my post at all. He says that the Tennessee ASD has not failed; it hasn’t had enough time. This follows on a Vanderbilt report about the ASD that concluded the program had “little or no effect” on student achievement. (Here is the link to the report.) NPR summarized the finding of the Vanderbilt study thus:
While there were some changes year-to-year — up and down — there was no statistical improvement on the whole, certainly not enough to catapult these low-performing schools into some of the state’s best, which was the lofty goal.
St. Onge says the Vanderbilt study didn’t say the experiment failed, it just hasn’t succeeded yet. That is true. The Vanderbilt study did not propose closing down the ASD; it said reform takes years. But please recall that Chris Barbic, who led the ASD, said he could turn around the lowest-performing schools in five years and make them among the state’s highest-performing schools. Clearly that will not happen. Of course, a child attends an elementary school for only four-six years, so they can’t wait ten years. So if we take the original promise of the ASD, it will fail to reach its goal of turning low-performing schools into high-performing schools in five years.
One of the lead researchers in the Vanderbilt study, Professor Gary Henry, was in North Carolina this week, where he spoke to a public policy forum. The legislature happened to be holding hearings on the NC version of ASD, but Professor Henry was not invited to testify. Why didn’t the legislature want to hear from him? He told the forum that the model sponsored by the public schools, called the iZone, had significant improvements, but the ASD did not. He said the study was based on only three years of data, so cautioned not to jump to conclusions.
So, yes, Peter St. Onge is right. It is too soon to declare the ASD a failure. But it is certainly not a success. Usually, when you look to copy a model tried elsewhere, you copy a successful model. Why should the state of North Carolina copy a model that has thus far shown little to no significant effects and has not shown success? A track record like that of the ASD does not lend itself to being called “a model.” A model for what? For throwing millions into an experiment that alienates parents and communities and after three years has little to no effect on student achievement?
When Chris Barbic resigned as leader of the ASD, following a heart attack, he made a statement boasting about gains that included this interesting observation:
Let’s just be real: achieving results in neighborhood schools is harder than in a choice environment. I have seen this firsthand at YES Prep and now as the superintendent of the ASD. As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results. I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.
This is a sage observation. A brand new charter school can choose its students. Even with a lottery, the families are applying and informed and motivated. That is very different from taking over a neighborhood school, where parents resent that their school was “taken over” by outsiders without their consent. Charter schools have been notoriously unsuccessful at taking over neighborhood schools. KIPP, for example, took over Cole Middle School in Denver, and abandoned it a few years later. KIPP claimed it couldn’t find “the right leader,” but the reality is what Barbic said. It is much harder to take over an existing school than to start a new charter.
The Charlotte Observer, or more accurately, Mr. St. Onge, scorns those he calls “public education advocates” as if all those in favor of the model in which the public is responsible for the education of all children are self-interested and impervious to evidence. I think it is fair to say that in the North Carolina climate, those who promote charters are self-interested and impervious to evidence. The charter operators are in many cases operating for-profit, which is certainly not the motive of public education advocates. Those who claim that the ASD is a worthy model for North Carolina, despite its lack of success, are impervious to evidence.
If you can’t call the ASD a failure, you surely can’t call it a success. As the subtitle of the editorial states, “Judging Should Be Based on What Works.” We agree. Children should not be subjected to experiments that do not have a track record of success. Do what works, based on evidence and experience. Reduce class sizes where there is concentrated poverty and segregation; recognize that poverty and segregation are root causes of poor school performance and act to address root causes; make sure there are school nurses and social workers; make sure there is a library; hire experienced teachers, with school aides. Add classes in the arts. Give poor children what all parents want for their children. If you want to see the research base, read my book “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.” Or closer to home, call Helen F. Ladd at Duke University and get her advice.