The Blind Side

Much of what has been written about Harlem Village Academies, Green Dot and many other charter schools is the product of a massive PR machine, of whichis just the glossiest example.
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In a recent opinion piece, Brent Staples, editorial writer on education for the NY Times, praised the "Green Dot" chain of charters that began in Los Angeles. Staples writes:

Green Dot is one of the stars of this [charter] movement. Despite the fact that many of its 17 schools serve desperately poor, minority neighborhoods, its students significantly outperform their traditional school counterparts, on just about every academic measure, including the percentage of children who go on to four-year colleges.

Green Dot currently operates 18 schools in Los Angeles and one in the Bronx, according to its website. Yet Green Dot has already had to close one of the first five charters it started, due to poor performance. According to the LA Times, the achievement results at another of its schools, Locke high school, have been "lackluster," despite substantially increased funding. "First-year scores remained virtually unchanged and exceptionally low."

Caroline Grannan, a California writer and one of the founders of Parents Across America, analyzed Green Dot's results. Based on the California Department of Education accountability system, Green Dot schools have shown mediocre test scores, and all but one had worse ratings than the supposedly "failing" public schools that Green Dot organized campaigns to take over, led by the group Parent Revolution.

The Parent Revolution is run by Ben Austin, an attorney who works for the city of LA, lives in Beverly Hills, has no school age children, is paid $100,000 as a part-time consultant to Green Dot, and yet regularly claims to be a typical, aggrieved LA parent.

In his opinion piece, Brent Staples also claims that Green Dot charters outperformed traditional public schools in "the percentage of children who go on to four-year colleges." Yet in an August 2010 interview, Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot, admitted that "We only started tracking our graduates during the past year and a half."

I have searched the web far and wide for any independent analysis or study that might provide evidence that Green Dot schools outperform public schools with similar students, and cannot find any. I emailed Mr. Staples, as well as the Green Dot organization, asking for such data, and neither responded. I emailed Green Dot's PR consultant from the Rose Group, who replied that she thought the information was provided somewhere on Green Dot's website, but it is not.

This is not to say that Green Dot schools may not prove themselves over time, but the assertions in this NY Times column represent yet another example of the inflated claims regularly made in the mainstream media for charter schools.

Deborah Kenny, the founder of two charter schools called Harlem Village Academies in New York City has also had her schools praised repeatedly on TV and in magazines. Interviewed by Bill Cosby for a segment that ran on Oprah, Ms. Kenny said her schools' superior results were based on the way they recruited, trained and supported their teachers: "We attract the most talented teachers and then train them over 5 weeks over the summer."

in a glowing column by Bob Herbert, Kenny again talked about how important it was to "put all of your focus on finding great people...and establish a culture that helps them constantly learn and grow... to provide a community in the school that supports and respects teachers."

In a more recent piece for the Wall Street Journal, Kenny described how in her schools, teachers know that "the principal has your back in difficult situations, and the operations director works tirelessly to support you."

And yet this wonderful, creative and supportive culture for teachers has some of the highest teacher turnover rates in the city, according to the NY State report cards. One of her charters had annual attrition rates of 60% and 53%, for the two most recent years for which data is available; the other had teacher attrition rates of 71% and 42%
This data does not suggest a great working environment for teachers, or an administration which has their "back."

In her Wall Street Journal article, Ms. Kenny also wrote: "When an observer commented that he had never seen middle-school students showing so much kindness to each other... The reason our kids are nice to each other is because their teachers set a tone of kindness and respect. "

But according to the latest data available, the student suspension rates at one of her schools was at the strikingly high rate of 62%.

(Steve Koss of the NY Public School Parent blog has also cast doubts about the actual achievement levels at the Harlem Village Academies, based upon the sharp decline in the number of students in each grade, which reflects either extremely high student attrition or high numbers of students held back.)

Much of what has been written about Harlem Village Academies, Green Dot and many other charter schools is the product of a massive public relations machine, of which Waiting for "Superman" is just the glossiest example. Too often the mainstream media seems to take the accounts fed to them by this machine as gospel, without investigating as to how much is spin and how much reality.

Some charter schools do a great job; others not. We should study the best, and try to replicate their conditions in our district public schools. The Icahn chain of charter schools, for example, are consistently among the highest performing schools in the Bronx, and cap all class sizes at 18. Meanwhile, class sizes have been rising sharply in most public schools under Mayor Bloomberg's control, and more than one third of Bronx Kindergarten students, for example, are in classes of 25 or more, and nearly two thirds of 8th graders are crammed into classes of 28 or more.

Yet to stereotype charter schools as the shining hope of a dysfunctional public school system is wrong-headed. Charters should be regarded as small-scale experiments to test out new approaches, rather than a rapidly expanding parallel system, facilitating the transfer of public money into private hands. As a society, we should be focusing our efforts, our attention, and our resources on the public schools that the vast majority of our students attend.

As for Waiting for "Superman", I can easily imagine a very different documentary, with an opposing point of view, just as emotionally stirring: a film that interviewed parents of children who have been harshly abused at their charter schools, or have been excluded because of their special needs, like the charters currently being sued by parents in New Orleans.

This film could also interview the parents at some of the charters that have seen dismal results, despite promising otherwise. It could also explore the many charter schools whose operators have misused public funds, or interviewed the many teachers who have fled from these schools because of awful working conditions.

The movie might also feature the accounts of hundreds of bitter public school parents in NYC and elsewhere, whose children have suffered rising class sizes and/or lost their dedicated rooms for art, science, or remediation because of the expansion of better-funded charter schools installed in their buildings.

I could easily imagine such a film, as one-sided in its way as Waiting for "Superman" is in the other direction. But such a film is unlikely to be made or distributed. Why? Because at this point, no one with deep pockets is likely to finance it, unlike the billionaires, celebrities, and hedge fund mavens who have made charter schools their current hobbyhorse. So instead, we are confronted with a non-stop barrage of propaganda, carelessly disregarding the actual experience of real life parents, students, and teachers.

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