The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Choice is Fine If You Know What You’re Getting.

Today’s post is a recount of the schooling situation in Detroit, Michigan. Since it is a long and complex story, I have chosen to use lengthy quotes from an article written by Kate Zernike and published in the New York Times on June 28 rather than my own words.  I copied the significant paragraphs that give the history of charters in Detroit and omitted the stories of families who have suffered under the charter system. I wrote only the first three paragraphs below. Everything after that are quotes from the article.

The biggest problem with today’s charter schools is that they are almost always “a pig in a poke.” Many parents buy into them because of their lofty titles, false advertising, and exaggerated promises. They don’t really know anything about the teaching or behavioral systems in a school, nor are they likely to find out before enrolling their children.

This situation is especially true in high poverty areas where the public schools have been under-served for decades and acquired a bad reputation. The local officials give up because they haven’t the money, time or expertise to repair the physical damage to school buildings or to create high quality school programs. And, so, the vultures move in and start feasting on public funds, unwary parents and helpless children.

One city that is a showplace for expansion of charters and the destruction of public schools is Detroit. We’ve been hearing about the educational disaster there for years, but Detroit now has a bigger share of students in charters than any other American city except New Orleans, which turned almost all its schools into charters after Hurricane Katrina. Sadly, half the Detroit charters perform only as well, or worse than, its traditional public schools.

“The point was to raise all schools,” said Scott Romney, a lawyer and board member of New Detroit, a civic group formed after the 1967 race riots here. “Instead, we’ve had a total and complete collapse of education in this city.”

“The 1993 state law permitting charter schools was not brought on by academic or financial crisis in Detroit — those would come later — but by a free-market-inclined governor, John Engler. An early warrior against public employee unions, he embraced the idea of creating schools that were publicly financed but independently run to force public schools to innovate.”

“To throw the competition wide open, Michigan allowed an unusually large number of institutions, more than any other state, to create charters: public school districts, community colleges and universities. It gave those institutions a financial incentive: a 3 percent share of the dollars that go to the charter schools. And only they — not the governor, not the state commissioner or board of education — could shut down failing schools.”

“For-profit companies seized on the opportunity; they now operate about 80 percent of charters in Michigan, far more than in any other state. The companies and those who grant the charters became major lobbying forces for unfettered growth of the schools, as did some of the state’s biggest Republican donors.”

“Sometimes, they were one and the same, as with J. C. Huizenga, a Grand Rapids entrepreneur who founded Michigan’s largest charter school operator, the for-profit National Heritage Academies. Two of the biggest players in Michigan politics, Betsy and Dick DeVos — she the former head of the state Republican Party, he the heir to the Amway fortune and a 2006 candidate for governor — established the Great Lakes Education Project, which became the state’s most pugnacious protector of the charter school prerogative.”

“Even as Michigan and Detroit continued to hemorrhage residents, the number of schools grew. The state has nearly 220,000 fewer students than it did in 2003, but more than 100 new charter schools.”

“As elsewhere across the country, charters concentrated in urban areas, particularly Detroit, where the public schools had been put under state control in 1999. In 2009, it was found to be the lowest performing school district on national tests.”

“Operators were lining up to get into the city, and in 2011, after a conservative wave returned the governor’s office and the Legislature to Republican control for the first time in eight years, the Legislature abolished a cap that had limited the number of charter schools that universities could create to 150.”

“Some charter school backers pushed for a so-called smart cap that would allow only successful charters to expand. But they could not agree on what success should look like, and ultimately settled for assurances from lawmakers that they could add quality controls after the cap was lifted.”

“In fact, the law repealed a longstanding requirement that the State Department of Education issue yearly reports monitoring charter school performance.”

“At the same time, the law included a provision that seemed to benefit Mr. Huizenga, whose company profits from buying buildings and renting them back to the charters it operates. Earlier that year he had lost a tax appeal in which he argued that a for-profit company should not have to pay taxes on properties leased to schools. The new law granted for-profit charter companies the exemption he had sought.”

“Just as universities were allowed to charter more schools, Governor Rick Snyder created a state run district, with new charters, to try to turn around the city’s worst schools. Detroit was soon awash in choice, but not quality.”

“Twenty-four charter schools have opened in the city since the cap was lifted in 2011. Eighteen charters whose existing schools were at or below the district’s dismal performance expanded or opened new schools.”

“With about $1.1 billion in state tax dollars going to charter schools, those that grant the charters get about $33 million. Those institutions are often far from the schools; one, Bay Mills Community College, is in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, nearly 350 miles away — as far from Detroit as Portland, Me., is from New York City.”

“By 2015, a federal review of a grant application for Michigan charter schools found an unreasonably high number of charters among the worst performing 5 percent of public schools statewide. The number of charters on the list had doubled from 2010 to 2014.”

“With all the new schools, Detroit has roughly 30,000 more seats, charter and traditional public, than it needs. The competition to get students to school on count day — the days in October and February when the head count determines how much money the state sends each school — can resemble a political campaign. Schools buy radio ads and billboards, sponsor count day pizza parties and carnivals. They plant rows of lawn signs along city streets to recruit students, only to have other schools pull those up and stake their own.”

“Charter schools are concentrated downtown, with its boom in renovation and wealthier residents. With only 1,894 high school age students, there are 11 high schools. Meanwhile, northwest Detroit — where it seems every other house is boarded up, burned or abandoned — has nearly twice the number of high school age students, 3,742, and just three high schools. The northeastern part of the city is even more of an education d Like others elsewhere, charter schools receive roughly the same per-pupil state dollars as public schools. But in Detroit, it is about $7,300 a year — roughly half what New York or Boston schools get, and about $3,500 less than charters in Denver or Milwaukee.”

“This winter, as Detroit Public Schools ran out of money, Mayor Mike Duggan, a pro-charter Democrat now in his third year, argued that the traditional schools needed a solution that would address the problems posed, and faced, by charter schools.”

“He proposed an appointed Detroit Education Commission to determine which neighborhoods most needed new schools and set standards to close failing schools and ensure that only high performing or promising ones could replicate.”

“Backed by a coalition of philanthropies and civic leaders, the teachers’ union and some charter school operators, the mayor got a Republican senator from western Michigan to sponsor legislation, including the commission. Governor Snyder, distracted and shamed by the scandal over the lead poisoning in the water supply of the mostly black and state-controlled city of Flint, was in no position to defend the state control of majority-black Detroit Public Schools, and supported the proposal.”

“In February, four prominent Detroit Republican business executives, including two sons of former governors, testified in support of the plan before the Legislature, arguing that 20 years had proved that the free market alone is not enough to improve schools. One of them, Mr. Romney, likened schools to a public utility.”

“But the Great Lakes Education Project and other charter school lobbying groups warned that the commission would favor public schools over charters and argued instead to kill off the Detroit Public Schools.”

“In the waning days of the legislative session, House Republicans offered a deal: $617 million to pay off the debt of the Detroit Public Schools, but no commission. Lawmakers were forced to take it to prevent the city school system from going bankrupt.”

“For parents, the search remains for good schools—charter or public.”


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One Small Step for Children

I didn’t plan to write anything for my blog today, but then I read an article in The Oregonian this morning that had some good news, and I just couldn’t hold off telling readers about it for another day.

Although the research findings that doing homework has no positive effect for elementary school students have been around for several years, nobody has paid much attention to them. Not only do most schools still pile homework on young kids, but most parents also want it for their children, even if they have to spend a lot of time helping them understand what to do and checking the finished product.

However, at least one school in Portland, Oregon has gotten the message and acted on it. Cherry Park Elementary School, has declared loud and clear to its students’ parents that their children should use their after school time for playing, exercising and enjoying family interactions. The school still encourages parents to read to their children if they have the time and the children want it, but it is doing away with the reading logs required until now that had to list the number of minutes a child read or was read to each day and be signed by a parent.

I wish I could say that all this has happened through teacher and principal enlightenment, but from what I read it sounds more like widespread aggravation. Cherry Park School is in a high poverty community where families speak more than 30 different languages. I wouldn’t be surprised if getting reading logs with the requested information has been a hassle and that many parents complained about doing it.

Personally, I don’t approve of homework for elementary students either, but I believe strongly that having parents read aloud to their children is a powerful force in building their interest in books, knowledge of literary structure, and vocabulary. In this case it seems like it just wasn’t feasible on a grand scale. Still, I hope parents who can handle it will still continue, and that classroom teachers will fill out the empty places by reading aloud to their students as often as possible. Even 10 or 15 minutes of listening to a good book can mean a happy ending to the school day for many children.

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Our Special Education Program, Part Two

When I decided to describe the special education program we created in our schools in a small Oregon school district it was because it was so different—and far better for the children involved—than what exists in Georgia today. I was appalled by what was described about Georgia’s segregated schools for disabled students, and so proud of the program we created, that I wanted to shout about it from the housetops. However, over the past couple of days I realized that I was giving much more information about our program than most readers would need or want to know. But, since it was too late to cut off my story in the middle, I finished it here, below. I hope that among my readers there are still some people who are interested in programs for disabled children in our public schools.

 From the beginning, our special Needs Program was supported by the structures and practices that already existed in our schools. Our elementary classrooms were mixed-grade, and classrooms at all levels included children of varied abilities and interests. The K-8 curriculum we developed was flexible and project-centered. To teach it we used tradebooks and reference books at various reading levels–no textbooks. Inside classrooms the furniture arrangements were informal and inviting, and the restrictions on student time and movement were few.

For the most part teachers taught small groups of students, brought together for a specific purpose and dissolved after the goals were reached. Large group instruction was used mainly for modeling new assignments or strategies that everyone needed to know or making changes in classroom rules or procedures.

All students—including special needs children– were expected to work with a partner much of the time, acting as collaborators, reciprocal tutors and critics. Everyone was evaluated on his or her own progress, effort, and ingenuity. When some students had difficulties that got in the way of learning, teachers worked out individual plans to help them succeed.

Rarely did we retain any students in grade. It seemed better to promote them and arrange to teach what they needed over the next year in a mixed grade classroom. For us “standards” meant that we expected the best from each student within the range of their abilities and experiences, not a fixed quantity or quality of work

Using this foundation we designed appropriate programs for each special needs student. Late in each school year teachers would assign students to classrooms for the coming year. Their goal was to create good academic and social combinations everywhere, yet also to keep the total number of special needs students in any classroom manageable.

In addition to classroom teachers, who were the plan managers for special needs students, some special needs students needed an adult friend at school. We did our best to find mentors within our staff who had the time and willingness to develop a relationship with such children. In most situations it was enough for the mentor to make regular contact and show interest in the child’s life, but a few needed more in terms of time and attention. So our special education teacher took on those hard cases, doing such things as playing board games during recesses with a boy who had trouble controlling his temper on the playground or eating lunch with a girl who was ignored at home.

Since children with disabilities often have trouble making and keeping friends, mentors also spent time talking about, modeling, and rehearsing social skills. In addition we adopted a device called “A circle of Friends” to help children enlarge and strengthen their social world.

Because we never had the time or the skills to do a formal study of our program, we based our evaluations on what we could see in the actions of students, teachers, and parents. What was clear after the first year of operation was that the people affected liked the new program better than the old traditional system. Our only “hard data” were records of detentions, suspensions, and expulsions. Over the first three years of program operation those records showed dramatic improvements. In the first year only three students received severe disciplinary actions, and over the following two years no one needed such actions.

One thing was certain—though it may be indelicate to say so—we saved a significant amount of school funds by using the new program. Educational assistants came cheaper than special education teachers, and having only regular classrooms was cheaper than also providing special education classrooms. Although economy was never one of our goals, we were pleased to have more money to spend on enriching the new program and expanding the school library, art classes, and extracurricular opportunities for all students.


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What Should Special Education Be?

An article in the Huffington Post last month, authored by Rebecca Klein, described the system of special schools for disabled students in Georgia and the lawsuit recently filed against the state by the U.S. Department of Justice. That article triggered my desire to post a piece I wrote many years ago about the system we created when I was the principal of a small rural school district in Oregon. In two episodes—because what I want to say is very long–I will summarize the situation in Georgia and describe our special education program.

The Huffington Post article tells of a lawsuit the federal government has recently filed against the state of Georgia for violating the principles of the American Disabilities Act (ADA). Georgia places all students classified as “disabled” in segregated schools where they never mix with ordinary students and are denied the educational and recreational opportunities available in regular schools.

The suit also claims that the schools for disabled students are poorly maintained and often lack grade-level instruction, certified teachers, electives, and any extracurricular activities. In addition, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal Constitution found that the numbers of African American students are disproportionate when compared to the state population.

Even more upsetting is the fact that disabled students are sometimes abused in those segregated schools. Some students have been restrained with leashes and placed in solitary confinement rooms for misbehavior. In 2004, a 13 year old boy hanged himself in such a room, which had no windows or furniture. He had been placed there 19 times over 29 days.

Although none of the situations described above existed in our schools, the teachers and I were not happy with the structure of our program for disabled students. We believed that there must be something better than having children drifting in and out of remedial classrooms all day long, not involved with anything, not belonging anywhere. If they were placed in regular classrooms we figured that they would at least have a chance at being regular kids. We decided it was time to make some significant changes.

Before designing anything new, we closed our special education rooms and put all our disabled students back in regular classrooms for the time being. We wanted to see what those students really needed in the way of instruction and support. Although our new program took a long time evolving, we were convinced that our special Ed students benefitted from the instruction, acceptance, content richness, and creative opportunities they found in the mainstream.

The special needs program we created grew out of a general philosophy that views all children as developing—yet always whole–human beings, whose cognitive, affective, moral, and physical sides must work together to make sense and value out of their experiences. Normal children learn by bringing a combination of faculties to bear on tasks they believe they can do and see as worth doing. We found no reason to adopt a different philosophy for students with disabilities, who are essentially the same as their ordinary peers except that they have more trouble getting all their parts to work in harmony. That is the all the more reason why they need coherence in curriculum and instruction.

Based on our beliefs we decided that our program would no longer be a separate, specialized system, but an array of small, purposeful variations in regular education provided for every child who needed them. We also decided to implement those variations in regular classrooms, and only distinguish disabled students from ordinary students to the extent required by law.

We would keep all grouping within classrooms pragmatic, socially acceptable, fluid, and unstigmatized. If, for example, we had to separate two children for their own good, we would keep the time and distance of such a separation as small as possible and consider it a necessity rather than a punishment.

We also decided to use our disability specialists in regular classrooms working with those students who needed extra help, whether or not they were classified as Disabled. We wanted everyone to see that what those teachers did was just plain good teaching, and also wanted specialists and regular teachers to learn from each other.

The specifics of our new Special Education program will be described in my next post two days from now. In the meantime, have a pleasant Labor Day.


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Oregon’s Graduation Rate Insanity

I haven’t written anything this week because I’ve been busy having fun with my sister who is visiting from New Jersey. Fortunately, I have been saved from complete inactivity by a friend, Doug Garnett, who is a parent, businessman, and member of Oregon Save Our Schools.  He is the author of  the article below which contains important information for all readers, but especially for Oregonians.

Every fall, Oregon leaders wail and rend their clothes when the annual state-by-state report on high school graduation rates is released. After all, each year Oregon ranks no higher than 40th lowest out of 50 states.

These politicians, state education bureaucrats, and newspaper writers tell us the report means our schools (and students) are bad. And they trot out the latest magic bureaucratic powders promising make every child above average.

But it’s time to take a deep breath and think a little more clearly about graduation rates. Because this has been going on for so long it’s time to question what the report really means.

First, graduation rates are a problem – but a major societal problem. In today’s job market it is virtually impossible to get a job (any job) without a high school diploma.

That means every time a school denies a diploma, or a student fails to make their way through the bureaucratic maze of high school requirements, that student will struggle to get a first job, much less establish financial independence.

This is a very human problem for society.

State-by-state graduation reports are misleading. None of Oregon’s politicians, bureaucrats nor even the Oregonian take time to stop to figure out whether it’s valid to compare graduation rates between states. I suppose they assume that common sense says “high school diploma” means the same thing everywhere.

But it doesn’t. “High school graduation” means something different in every state in the union.

What does graduation mean in other states? Many states offer 4, 5, or even 6 types of high school diplomas. Many offer life credits or reduced requirements with students receiving these different flavors of diploma.

These diplomas aren’t offered to drive up their rankings in these reports (although that’s probably a nice benefit). Published interviews with officials from those other states note how critical it is for students to have diplomas simply to find employment. And that it’s the school’s job to respond to society.

What about Oregon? In Oregon, we have one primary graduation option — the full diploma. Up until last year, Oregon only reported full diplomas in our reports to the US Department of Education. Oregon also issues “modified diplomas” for special education students (I have a son who is on the modified diploma track).

Prior to 2015, modified diplomas had never been reported by Oregon as a “graduation” even though most other states did report them. When Oregon finally changed, our graduation rate jumped by about two percentage points from 70% to 72%. Not bad for correcting a reporting error.

Yet, today these are the only two options possible in Oregon. After tracking this issue for some time, this limit puts Oregon low on the list – NOT weaknesses in our schools. And that means politicians are messing with schools every year based on false data.

Does a single diploma option even make sense? When I came to this realization, I started really pondering a fundamental question: what should a diploma indicate?

It strikes me as odd to demand that the future physicist or mathematician meet the same requirements as the future writer or musician who also meet the same requirements as the future machinist or army ranger.

These requirements seem based on an idealized 1950’s view of 4-year high school. They also seem to assume a diploma must mean “ready for college” – a silly criterion given that the majority of kids won’t go to a 4 year institutions.

I’m not suggesting we “weaken” requirements. Rather, Oregon would be stronger if we created ways kids earn diplomas doing things that are most appropriate and meaningful for their future. A one-size-fits-all diploma doesn’t do this.

For example, not all high school grads need algebra (nor do most college grads). Yet it is required throughout our system. (I wish that K12 and colleges would align requirements with student needs instead of being driven by the University need to establish higher positioning on the US News Rankings.)

And if a student’s intelligence lies outside the classic academic track, they should have options in areas more appropriate to their nature – like woodworking, automotive, business, marketing, health, etc… And THOSE classes should be able to replace fundamentals currently required by the state.

But I started with a headline about insanity. Why insanity?

 Politicians, ODE and the Oregonian fit perfectly the old saw…that doing the same thing but expecting different results is insanity.

Every year they see the same results. Every year they wring their hands. Every year they demand that we impose drastic changes that hurt schools.

It’s time to stop the insanity. It’s time to re-think what a high school diploma should mean. And, it’s time to create a wider range of diploma options for Oregon students because it’s important to society.


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