(Note: This is a guest post from ideastream/WCPN Executive Editor David Molpus.)
This week StateImpact Ohio and WCPN, WKSU and WOSU are focusing attention on charter schools – taxpayer funded schools that are not tethered to the public school bureaucracy or, often, to teacher union contracts. Steven Brill, an investigative reporter and author of a new book called “Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools,” says in some cases the more independent structure has contributed to improved student performance but only when accompanied by strict accountability.
Speaking Tuesday on ideastream/WCPN’s talk show The Sound of Ideas, Brill said states with the most effective charter schools ask a lot of questions.
BRILL: Who are the people who are going to run it? What are you promising on day one? We’re gonna have these teachers with these degrees. They are going to work these hours. Here’s what they are going to be paid. Here’s the support system they’re gonna have. And you’re held to it. When are the inspections?
In places like New York they do a cursory inspection within the first few months and they’ll start to shut you down then. And then they check in a year, again in two years. They won’t let anything go five years.
Brill said that the lack of such accountability in Ohio helps explain why charter schools’ academic performance is often not significantly different from that of surrounding traditional public schools.
BRILL: Ohio is just awful at authorizing charter schools and at supervising them. It’s notorious. In my reporting which was around the country, Ohio just stands out as pretty much just among the worst of the worst.
One of the things that the best charter schools have, according to Brill, is effective teachers who believe that kids from the most disadvantaged neighborhoods can succeed. He described what he saw at Harlem Success Academy, a charter school within a public school building in New York.
BRILL: I sat in one morning on the charter school side of the building watching a teacher with her fifth grade reading class, teaching them how to construct essays and giving them hints and the use of words that were akin to what I try to teach the students I teach in a journalism class at Yale. That’s how sophisticated this stuff was and how intense it was.
I walked ten feet to the other side of the building through a fire door and watched as a teacher in jeans and a t-shirt on the public school side of the building, leaning back in his chair, screaming at a bunch of fifth graders, “how many days in the week, how many days in the week, how many days in the week?” The kids were ignoring him so he said, “alright, let’s move onto something else.”
If you see that difference, you understand what education reform is about. It’s about expectations, it’s about intensity. It’s not about some “silver bullet.” It’s certainly not about spending more money. It’s about changing a workplace, from a workplace where the whole ethic is protection of civil service workers to a place where the ethic is the kids are the ones who count the most and we expect and we count on the teachers and the school leaders to perform for those kids.