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Sep 24, 2018

Living with mistakes: Charter schools and evidence

About 37% of all births in the US were unintended; they are mistakes. Should that fact affect the lives of people born by mistake? I hope that no one thinks that way. What about whole institutions? How many of them are here by mistake or by accident? For example, the US taxation system is here by accident, and is thoroughly irrational. In Ohio, I used to file four tax returns – federal, state, city and school district. Instead, one agency should collect all the money, and send it on to others. The Electoral College is another mistake, designed to prevent excesses of popular vote, but in practice, it allows the minority to impose its will on the majority of the country. However, legacy trumps rationality more often that one may think.

The story of charter school movement is a testimony of the persistence of an error. Social sciences contain one essential, unavoidable paradox: To evaluate effectiveness of any policy, one must implement, or at least massively experiment with it. However, when many people get involved in the experiment, it growth a thick crust of emotional attachments, opinions, ideological biases, ego and career investments, and material assets. Experiments, like children, take on their own lives. The fate of the pilot becomes invulnerable to social science evidence, unless it experiences a catastrophic failure. Charter schools have definitely not failed; they just did not manage to outperform traditional public schools on average, which was exactly the promise of the experiment. Hattie calculates the effect size at .09 SD, which is still positive, but miniscule. There is some evidence that charters may actually harm minority students. Yet because of the crust, we must now learn to live with charters for the foreseeable future. Unless we see a fundamental shift in all schooling, charters are here to stay.

The origin of the idea is not clear. It probably originates with libertarian ideas of Milton Friedman (1955), only made more politically palatable for the Democrats to sign up. Others (Kolderie, 2005) attribute the idea to Ray Budde, a University of Massachusetts professor. Regardless of the origin, the idea of choice in education was sufficiently appealing to both American political parties. And why wouldn’t it? There was no evidence to the contrary at that time. In the early 1990-s, people were hoping that freeing schools from bureaucratic constrains would make them more innovative, and more responsive to students’ needs and parents’ expectations. We do not have a reliable way of measuring innovativeness and responsiveness, but we can measure academic achievement. Even those studies showing modest impact of charter schools on educational achievement sound disappointed that greater results cannot be found. The promise was revolutionary, the results are, well, modest is any. The negative side effects have been fairly visible, most notably, on the finances of public districts. The negatives are not strong either. And then there is a more philosophical question: should parents have a right to chose a school even if their choices do not lead to better outcomes for children? After all, we want to choose our doctor without any need to prove she or he is any better than the other? This one is impossible to answer with evidence; it is a matter of values, beliefs, and preferences.

The most troubling part in the story for me is that we do not really know why the original idea has not worked. Why did not competition spark innovation and why did not innovation bring about better results? Is it because schools in general do not play a big role in children’s educational achievements? Is it because we do not invest in educational R&D and literally do not have any great innovations to play with? Has schooling reached some natural limits of effectiveness and are no longer improvable?

The 2017 EducationNext poll shows a sharp decline in charter school support among both Democrats and Republicans. I find it highly unlikely, however, that the movement will dwindle and wither away, for the reasons already stated. A responsible policy would be to figure out how to regulate charter schools, to minimize their side-effects, including some limits on proliferation. However, scaling the charters back is not plausible. The original idea included a promise of swift closures of school that did not perform. Well, it is just as difficult to close an underperforming charter, as it is to close a traditional public school. The cultural practices of schooling imply school stability as an essential identity building mechanism. Students who must often change schools are considered to be disadvantaged, because of the relationships they build with teachers are not easily replaceable. Regulating charter schools is not a simple task; partly because they were envisioned as free from most regulations, and partly because they serve a critical social function as any school does.

It would be unwise for any politician, to take a radical exclusionary position toward charters, and they rarely do. Depending on a state, there may be many thousands of people, including parents, teachers, board members, and supporters that feel invested in the movement. None of them will accept the statistical findings about the efficacy of charters in general as a reason to retreat and desist. The local argument is never about charter schools as an abstract, but about their own particular school, or a classroom teacher their child likes. Politics is an art of building coalitions; and it cannot be done by becoming more and more radical. Charters support more funding for public education, the values of equity and inclusion, the value of the good teaching preparation.

Now, we are a public university with a strong access and equity mission. Public school districts are our main, critical partners; this may never be in doubt. Building relationships with them is our priority. However, just like politicians, we cannot risk alienating a whole segment of K-12 education by taking a strong anti-charter stance. We would lose more than we gain.

(Some of this text has been published in the Journal of Transformative Leadership and Policy Studies 7/ 1).

Sep 16, 2018

Oops, we did it again: A manifesto of Multiculturalism 2.0

We scheduled a major event next week on the eve of Yom Kippur, and I have very little excuse. I have many Jewish friends (duh, I work in education), have made this very error before, and until recently, had both Jewish and Muslim calendars installed in my Outlook. Here is another oops: in our Fall retreat, we planned break-up groups by issues, completely forgetting that we only have two ASL interpreters, and thus rendering the choice impossible for our Deaf colleagues. Again, Deaf faculty have been at our College for decades, and yet somehow, inexplicably, we all forgot to check this one activity for the potential to exclude. I wish I could report these were the only two errors like this, or that I am the only one to make them. We all say offensive things to each other without thinking, exclude someone by forgetting, and impose a whole host of small indignities on each other.

It is easy to declare, and easy to believe in the idea of inclusive society. Well, maybe not so easy, but here in California’s Academia, we are well past that. Yet practicing the inclusivity is not so easy. It is not so much a problem of knowledge – we collectively actually know quite a bit about inclusive language, about inclusive practices. It is a matter of discipline, organization, procedure, of extra effort, and of habit. Some bigots may tell you that a fully inclusive society is impossible – too many things to remember, too many words to avoid. That is not true. It is within reach; we can actually see it. All we have to do is to learn a few things that annoy or offend the people we interact with every day – there are not too many of them, and they belong to not too many groups. So, we have gay, lesbian, and transgendered people, men and women, Latinx, African-American, several Asian groups, Deaf people, hard of hearing people, older and variously shaped people, limited mobility individuals, a few different religions, immigrants, etc. If I forget someone, it is probably a couple more categories. So, let us say 20 groups, and one needs to remember 10 things about each. That is only 200 facts – a really trivial task for an average human memory. Each of us remembers thousands of trivia facts that have very little relevance for anything. I can list forty Indo-European and twenty Turkic languages right now. Someone else can name a hundred football players of a sing a thousand tunes. The inclusive society is not limited by human memory; that is for sure.

The map of inclusion is complex not because of the sheer number of marginalized group. No, it is complex, because most of us are in both dominant and a dominated group, depending on who is next to us. The way we project power is not only by intention, but also by forgetting. We were taught to forget, and it is always hard to re-learn. We all are limited by the narrow conception of politeness we all learned as children. The taboo words and actions we learned were created for different times and for much less diverse and less inclusive societies. In the end, it is all a matter of learning, of will and persistence.

I am wondering that in the vision we developed, we somehow ignored our own imperfections, as if our ideal of a fully inclusive society is here already. That is obviously not true – the ideal may be here, but an every-day inclusive practice is not here yet. It would be great to spell out where we want to move next, and actually do it. It is a different idea of progress – not just to be famous and respected, not just to get more resources, and do better things, but also be someone else, evolve as a community of people, become an ideal we believe in.

Sep 10, 2018

Teaching is not a constitutional right

Years ago, in another state, I denied a man an institutional recommendation for a teaching license, which in effect, prevented him from ever working in schools. He already completed our program, with good grades and successful student teaching, paid tuition, and spent a year of his life. And only then did we discovered an old incident. About 10 years before we ever knew him, he savagely beat up his job supervisor. He was never convicted of a crime, just arrested; had no other criminal history. When asked to explain, he refused to talk about it. I told him something like this: “You have obviously not dealt with whatever the problem you had at that time, and your refusal to talk about it makes me worry that you may repeat something like that, without wanting to. Sorry, we cannot let you near children.” He was upset, considered legal actions against the university. Then a few years later wrote me a message saying I was right, and he does have psychological issues.

I probably had six or seven conversations like that with students at different stages of their preparation, trying to explain that desire alone is not enough to be a teacher. There is no right to teach; it is a professional privilege. If you are recommended, the university faculty vouch for you, stake their names and reputations on you. The grades are not enough – we have to be personally sure you will be OK, and will not harm anyone. This pertain not just to violence; some of the students I remember were just too timid, or their affect was somehow off the mark. We do have all those measurements and standards, but in the end, it is our collective professional opinion that matters.

I have never met a group of teacher educators that would take such decisions lightly. We do normally root for our students, and understand that no one is perfect. After graduation, there is a long road ahead for a new teacher, and not everyone will be successful. There is absolutely no reason to expel anyone without a substantial concern. Students always have a right to appeal, and the right to a due process. However, the question we ask is very simple: would I want my children or grandchildren to have a teacher like this? If the collective answer is “No,” than the only ethical thing to do is to say “No” to the student. Granted, we all may be mistaken for no one knows the future, no one is able to judge another person’s ability to change with any degree of accuracy. I wish we did have more objective instruments measuring professional fitness. But the lack of instruments does not relieve us from the ethical responsibility to protect children, so we must act.

There are many other careers available, many options in life. The desire or “love for children” is not enough. I may want to be a pilot, but have a bad depth perception. Would you want to fly with me, even if I really-really-really want to be a pilot? If it was my dream for the entire life? If I know the theory of flight? If I am a straight-A student? Well, how is it different with teachers?

Sep 4, 2018

On shameless self-promotion

I had a number of interesting conversations about whether faculty should promote their own work, and how to do that. On one hand, the ethos of Academia seems to include an assumption of dignified expectance that someone else will discover us and recognize our achievements. On the other hand, some people do promote their own achievements. It could have been a matter of individual choice, individual style, right?

Yes and no. Many individual choices taken as an aggregate almost always become something more systemic. It looks like women in academia tend to be much less likely to engage in self-promotion, much more hesitant to share their publications, awards, recognition on social media, much less likely to reach out to their universities and their societies to help with promotion. It is in part, because women have been socialized to be less assertive and more modest. In part, it is because our culture rebukes self-promoters, and women often face much higher informal sanctions than men do.

From the institutional point of view, self-promotion is a good all around. Academic book publishers are in a long-term decline, and most have no advertising budget. They rely on authors themselves. Journal articles have never been really promoted, but there are more journals now, and it is difficult to get noticed and cited, even when work is excellent. (My advice is to upload a free copy of your paper somewhere; most journals are OK with that. Google Scholar will eventually pick on the free copy, and free access copies are more likely to be cited). Our service and teaching achievements are even harder to get out there, because traditional mass media are not that interested in good stories. We live in the age of social media, where warm contacts are much more effective than traditional advertisement. Every time one of our faculty members gets noticed, Sac State and our college bask in his or her reflected glory. It helps our public image and invites potential partnerships. This is why we really try to help with such efforts, and will share any good stories on our social media and beyond. Yet we need to hear about the story first, and that is where many faculty members are hesitant to share, for the reasons I described. It is impolite to brag; more so for some people than for others.

The best thing we can do is create a culture where sharing is encouraged not just the dean but also by peers. Let your friends and colleagues know – it is totally fine to send a link to a new paper, to take a picture at a community event, to share news about a new amazing class activity you tried this semester. You are not going to be called an showoff behind your back. Your story contributes to a larger narrative of who we are as a college. We will like and share your posts, read your papers, help you promote yourself. You are not doing it for yourself – you are doing it for us all.

Is there a limit after which it becomes more annoying than useful? – Yes, probably, but it is a very small risk. It is better to be a little annoying, than completely obscure.