The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Opinions of Charter Schools from Those who Know Education

Sunday in the Letters section of the New York Times the only letters published  disagreed with a recent opinion piece by David Leonhardt that supported charter schools. Because I found the arguments in the letters persuasive, I will offer a quote from each one of them as today’s post and briefly mention the backgrounds of their writers.

Those who wish to read the original Leonhardt essay or the full letters that appeared in dissent can find them at these links.

From a retired science teacher:

Although charters often use a lottery system, many do not accept special needs students on the grounds that they cannot meet those need. In addition, charter schools such as the Success Academy network in New York City expel students whose behavior does not meet school standards that have been shown to be punitive, harsh, and controlling.

From a former New York State deputy commissioner of education:

David Leonhardt provides some pretty thin evidence in support of charter schools as an alternative to traditional public schools and vouchers. It is true that charters have proven to be effective when states have implemented clear education standards for them. But there are for too many states where the oversight is lacking, including Michigan, where Education Secretary Betsy DeVos led efforts to opposing stronger requirements.

From a current public school teacher:

Charter operators benefit from a populace that has a weak and confused understanding of public institutions and the public good. Calling a charter school a public school is like calling a defense contractor a public institution because it consumes public funds.

From the executive director of Class Size Matters:

David Leonhardt ignores the fact that very few charters enroll and retain equal numbers of at-risk students as traditional public schools—children with serious disabilities, those who receive free lunch, and/or recent immigrants and English- language learners.

From a retired teacher:

While charter schools are given much freedom in regard to curriculum design and innovation, traditional schools are run in a top-down manner, with teachers being given less and less opportunity to design curriculum or innovate. By the time I retired, I no longer felt like a professional expert in my field. I was simply handed a boatload of curriculum and told to stick to the calendar.

Although I have never observed in a charter school, everything I have read about them bothers me. The processes of selection and retention of students seem unfair, the teaching practices wrong for real learning, and the discipline very harsh.  My greatest concern, however, is the huge drain on the funds that should be going to public schools. Basically, the ways charter schools are founded and sustained look like a swindle, aimed at enriching private owners and operators and, ultimately, destroying public education.

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Suggestions for School Survival in Hard Times

As I promised, today I will suggest the things that can be removed from school budgets and explain my reasoning. Although I did some research I could find only the costs of one item: commercial tests, and they varied. The costs of other common school items depend on the number of students at a school and in each classroom, and the structure of school services.

 As I read the news about public schools everywhere, I saw that the funds provided by states and the federal government are decreasing year by year while requirements are expanding. In addition, many school buildings are deteriorating physically, and there is no money at the district levels to restore them. As a result, many communities are asking citizens to vote for higher taxes.* Is that the only solution?

In my view a better remedy is for states to allow schools to reduce or remove some of the things they have provided until now. From my own experience as an educator for 45 years and my awareness of today’s school operations, I will identify a number of items that I think can be reduced or eliminated without harm to students or teachers or put an additional burden upon parents.

My strongest feeling is that all commercial student testing should be eliminated. The only purpose it has served over the past 15 years is to show that many students are not improving their test scores enough to please government entities, critics, or citizens unfamiliar with the current situation of public schools. At the same time many parents, teachers, and involved citizens believe that those tests are not a fair measure of students’ abilities or teachers’ teaching. In my opinion it would be better for teachers to work together to design, execute, and score tests for their students. In that way students would be tested on what they had actually been taught, not the unrealistic expectations of the Common Core State Standards.

I also think that state and district efforts to improve teaching or introduce new programs by sending trainers to schools should be eliminated. Research shows little or no positive effects from these efforts. My own experience convinced me that positive changes almost always come from within a school when teachers believe they will be improvements.

At the elementary school level commercial workbooks and many textbooks should be eliminated. Materials created by teachers are far better for introducing skills and information to students and also providing them with the necessary practice. In addition, experienced teachers are the ones best qualified to know what supports students need for successful learning. My own teaching experience convinced me that copies of paperback fiction and non-fiction books are far better tools—and much cheaper ones– for teaching reading than textbooks. As a school principal I learned that most teachers are capable of teaching phonics, spelling and grammar without textbooks.

At the middle and high school levels—where I also taught–workbooks should be eliminated, and purchasing new textbooks should be limited to the times when current materials are no longer accurate or in decent condition. As far as possible, textbooks should be used in classrooms, not carried around the school building all day or assigned for homework. For teaching English, fiction and non-fiction are better choices than textbooks  which focus too much on technicalities and too little on interesting, well-crafted material.

School libraries at all grade levels should be the major sources of supplementary materials for classroom units. Librarians who consult with teachers are the experts in choosing what is of high quality and relevant for student learning.

As far as possible, all schools should become “community schools” linked to accessible and affordable health, recreation, and social services. For far too long schools have been the sole providers of all services outside the classroom.

School principals and district leaders should not race to purchase commercial programs for new ideas such as “personalized  learning” or teacher re-training.  The best approach is to designate a small group of experienced teachers and school administrators to examine new resources and determine their usefulness.

If a school’s budget becomes so stressed that the basic needs of students, teachers, other staff members, and building conditions cannot be properly maintained, the principal and district officials should consider making cuts in extra-curricular activities. Unquestionably, high school sports, music and drama performances, event uniforms, and popularity contests as they now exist are expensive. Since these are areas about which I am not experienced, I will not suggest any specific cuts; but I think that school leaders should consider reducing or eliminating those that are not absolutely necessary in times of inadequate funding.

Obviously, everything I have suggested above has grown from my own experiences as a teacher,  principal,  school district supervisor, and in retirement, a frequent observer in many schools. Others may have had different experiences or feel that I am no longer in touch with reality. In either case I welcome the views of those who disagree with me.  But I hope that anyone who does will also suggest ways for our public schools to do a good job with their current funding allocations.


*At present, Portland Oregon is asking citizens to approve issuing $790,000,000 in bonds to “improve health and safety, modernize and repair schools, and build education facilities.” If the measure passes property taxes will be increased.

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The “No Lunch for You!” Problem

Today I will review and comment on a NY Times article about shaming students whose parents were not up to date in paying for school lunches. The practice is much more widespread and uglier than I realized. 

 P.S. My hand is somewhat better, but still painful when I use it too much. I intend to write shorter pieces until it heals completely.

When parents are late in paying for school lunches many schools punish the child publicly. One tactic widely practiced is for a server to throw the unpaid for lunch into a trashcan when the student comes to claim it, with other students looking on. That action, in itself, is humiliating, but things get worse when classmates make insulting remarks and the victim goes without any lunch that day. Even when lunchroom servers provide a child with a sandwich instead of the regular lunch, many other children are aware of what has happened and why. Often, the teasing goes on for days, and the victims are marked as outcasts–maybe permanently.

This ugly scene and its results are widespread. According to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture almost half of all districts providing school lunches use some form of student shaming in order to get parents to pay up. In Alabama, for example, one school stamps the arms of children whose parents are in debt with the words “I need lunch money.”

As I remember my time as a teacher and a principal, things were very different. In the first place lunches were prepared at schools, not provided by outside suppliers. Most students brought their lunches from home, a small number got free hot lunches because their family incomes were low enough for them to qualify for the Federal free meal program, and another small group had parents who were paying promptly for their lunches. If a child forgot his lunch box or a family was behind in paying, the servers had extra hot food for them or were able to put something comparable together at the last minute. There were no student punishments.

When a family got behind on payments or was careless about sending homemade lunches, the principal’s job was to contact them and work out a plan for paying up or providing lunches regularly for their child. Problems were rare, everyone was fed regularly, and no one was shamed.

But now that the good old days are gone, what can be done to make sure that all children who need a hot lunch get it and no one is shamed? Last year the Department of Agriculture decided that all states had to formalize a policy for  working out payment plans with parents and bans penalizing children. Several states have now done that and figured out ways to get financial support from local sources for schools that still find it hard to get payments from parents on time. In some communities, individuals and groups have set up charitable entities that work to raise money for student lunches and to insure that no one is denied a hot lunch or shamed.

In the long run however, all schools need a stable internal fund for emergencies such as this one. To make that happen school funding must be more adequate than it now is, and school spending must be more focused on students’ and teachers’ essential needs rather than frills. In my next post I will suggest some specific cuts in school spending that I believe should be made in order to enable schools to serve their basic mission.

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