The research is mounting: it is simply insane to ignore the summer as we try to improve academic and life outcomes for low income kids. Low income kids lose even more ground in the summer than they do during the school year. Which is absolutely, positively not an argument for abandoning efforts to improve what happens in schools from September to June. But giving up on the summer is an invitation to disaster, because during the summer low income kids get next to nothing, while wealthier kids get lots of chances to grow, travel, explore new worlds, read, etc. (If you have any doubt how important the summer is, check out what people with means do to support their children’s growth over the summer.)

This issue provides a great chance for charter school and district school operators to come together and tell cities to adequately fund the summer, so that kids can get what they need and deserve. Right now many jurisdictions provide no summer school, others provide lousy options. And charter operators are often stuck with no summer supplements, or ones that are so small that you can’t run a good program with them. But as Beth Miller’s report for the Nellie Mae Foundation makes clear, there is mounting evidence about the effectiveness of high-quality hybrid summer programs that combine academics with sports, arts and other creative activities. So let’s demand more of these programs.

Update: Washington Post has a story on how school districts are expanding school options for kids, with good results.

Lots of people are blogging on this, and Whitney Tilson has a good compilation of responses. Unfortunately, some are criticizing Obama for not talking about choice, or specifically, vouchers. Whitney Tilson’s friend John Kirtley, who is involved in the Florida school choice movement, is among these. John takes Obama to task for not supporting private school choice (he does not specifically say that he is talking about vouchers, but when you read the comments it is pretty clear that is what he has in mind).

For example, John asks:

Is [Obama] committed to the idea of public education, or to a system? What is his definition of public education? Is it using an adequate amount of taxpayer dollars to educate children well, regardless of who is educating them? Or is his definition a closed system of schools that children cannot venture outside of? Miami Union Academy is a faith-based school in a poor Dade County neighborhood that graduates 99% of its kids and sends 95% to college. Its tuition is $4,000 per year. It is a faith-based school. Why does Obama not want a low-income single mom to be able to send her child to that school with taxpayer help? How will her doing so be a negative thing?

As I read this complaint, John’s comments amount to a single claim: unless the candidate does not support vouchers, reform-oriented Democrats should be pissed off.

But lots of folks have good reform ideas that do not include vouchers. Education Trust, for example, is by no means beholden to the Democratic party, and they don’t advocate vouchers.

As for Obama’s focus on teachers, John’s comments criticize him for saying that teachers are not the most important thing. But tons of people argue that teachers are the most important factor determining student achievement. Ed Trust says this. In fact, do does Whitney Tilson, who argues in his powerpoint presentation that, “Numerous studies have shown that the most important determinant of student achievement, by far, is teacher quality.”

The bottom line is that some people agree with John that vouchers are really important. But others don’t; some think they are a terrible idea, others are not sure, and lots more think they might do some good but will never greatly impact the majority of low-income kids in America. To suggest that reform-oriented Democrats have to support vouchers (or even charters for that matter) is to incorrectly impose an ideological straight-jacket on people.

I think the real thing to focus on is the merit-pay point, and the fact that Obama made the important argument that criticizing NCLB cannot be the end of the game for Dems. They need to have a proposal, and Obama made clear that his was going to be about improving teacher quality. That is a terribly important idea.

I want to take a second to promote the work of Venture Philanthropy Partners, who fund a number of groups in the DC Region, including See Forever and Maya Angelou. Fundraising is hard business, but these folks really get it. They listen to the non-profits they work with, they are in it for the long haul, and they care. They just announced a new fund, and this is their promo video.

On Monday, See Forever (which currently runs the Maya Angelou School) signed an agreement with the District government to run the school at Oak Hill, the detention facility for kids in the District. We will open this summer. Though our letter agreement still requires full approval by DC Council, our plans for the school at Oak Hill are in place, and we have begun work on it.

I am excited about this because, during the entire time I was a public defender, Oak Hill was widely acknowledged to be a failure.

When we started See Forever and Maya Angelou we did it because we felt that many who worked in the juvenile justice community did not have high enough expectations for kids in that system. At the same time, we saw that many educators–including many in the educational reform community–did not want to work with kids who can often be especially challenging. So we wanted to bridge those 2 systems–to take the best of the education world and make it available to kids that most people ignore.

As Nelson Smith of the National Alliance for Public Charters points out, the District’s interest in partnering with us is a good example of a charter school working as it should–by incubating good ideas and bringing them into the system to serve additional kids.

I am finally optimistic about how this city plans to treat its most vulnerable children. This city now has visionary leadership, people like Vinnie Schiraldi, the head of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, who believe that every child can have a future, no matter his past.

We now have Mayor Adrian Fenty, who has argued for years that the best way to reduce youth crime is to invest in the children most likely to engage in such behavior.

We are looking for people who share our passion and our commitment. If you know of anybody who fits the bill, please have them check out our website, which has job descriptions and information on how to apply.

We are also soliciting volunteers–people who might to coach, mentor, or tutor. Volunteering is a great way to support young men who have made mistakes and done wrong, but who want a chance to show that they are more than their worst act.

To get a sense of where we stand, and to see if our approach resonates with your beliefs, here’s what we said in the beginning of our proposal to run the school:

Students attending schools in secure juvenile justice facilities historically have been terribly served. The list of failures is now well-documented: low academic expectations, curricula that are neither relevant nor rigorous, insufficient focus on literacy, inattention to social-emotional wellness, poor special education services, little or no emphasis on career preparation, and a deficit approach that views young people and their families and communities solely as problems to be fixed. All too often these schools lack necessary programs. When the programs do exist, they are typically of low quality, and staffed by underpaid, overworked, and inadequately trained staff.

What makes the state of affairs especially tragic is that these schools are serving young people who need the best we have to offer. They need the best teachers, best counselors, best curricula, best job training, and best literacy programs. But instead we give them the worst.

The young men at Oak Hill are, in many ways, typical of a committed population in an urban setting. They are overwhelmingly African-American, from low-income families. They face significant academic and socio-emotional wellness challenges. Many have disabilities that have been diagnosed but never properly addressed, while others have never even received the diagnosis that is a pre-condition to receiving the services they need.

Yet each of these young men also has tremendous assets. Even as they sit incarcerated, miles from their homes, they have hopes, dreams, and potential. They crave relationships with supportive, caring adults who believe in them and demand the best. And they each have someone in their lives who wants them back home, and who prays that when they return from Oak Hill, they will begin a journey toward responsible adulthood. It is our job to help make this happen.

At See Forever, we have the knowledge, capacity, and commitment to meet this challenge. We are able to provide an educational setting that will be truly transformative in the lives of these young men, and that will allow the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services to serve as a national model for the education of committed youth.

Whitney: Your latest on Newark schools wasting so much money has got me thinking. I share your outrage at the wasted lives, and your belief that if this were happening to anybody other than low-income and minority students, society would not stand for it. I also agree that rules making it impossible to fire incompetent people have to go, as do the insane contractual rules you point out.

But I think your emphasis on us spending too much money is, in the long-term, a losing approach for charter school advocates, and public education generally. Sure, you can cherry-pick Newark, or Abbot districts in New Jersey, or Kansas City, and say it is an outrage that they spend so much for such limited results. But as the Education Trust points out in report after report, low-income kids on average still attend schools in districts that spend less.

According to Ed Trust, this works in 3 ways:
–rich states get more federal money than poor states,
–within states, most states shortchange their high-poverty and high-minority school districts,
–within school districts themselves, districts spend less money in schools serving the most disadvantaged students.

I know you know all of this, because you write about it. But I would suggest that in light of this research, as an empirical matter, singling out Newark, or the Abbott districts is not a fair use of the facts. It would be as if an anti-charter group found a network of failing charter schools and argued that this proves charters don’t measure up.

But even more than that, in the long-term, charters are going to end up asking that more money be spent on education. I guarantee this will happen. In ten years, if not sooner, every successful charter advocate with vision will be saying that they can run a better school if there is more public funding for education.

This will happen because over time costs are going to go up, as successful charter schools try to retain their good teachers, principals, and other leaders, and salaries (which are the biggest driver of any school’s costs) have to rise. As I’ve said before, a few charter operators with great brands may be able to consistently recruit superb young teachers and have them turn over every 3-4 years, but the overall talent pool is such that many charter schools will have to do with decent to pretty good (but not great) teachers, and work to develop and retain them. This will cost money, because like every other human being, as teachers get older they need and want raises.

Taking this one step further, I predict that smart charter school operators will also soon begin arguing for greater public investments in early childhood education and health care (among other things). This will not be about making excuses for poor performance. This will be the simple fact that no matter how great KIPP’s outcomes (I’m choosing KIPP here simply because of their excellent reputation and name-recognition), they would be yet better if the kids arrived knowing more words, with fewer vision problems, less missed classes because of undiagnosed tooth-aches, etc. And once KIPP, and Achievement First, and Green Dot, and all the rest start saying this, it will be clear that it is not being offered up as an excuse, given the source.

I think you basically agree with all of the above. Perhaps then it is a question of emphasis. I would suggest that we should use the success of individual charter schools, as well as successful district schools, to argue that all schools should do what these schools do. And here’s the key: if that means more money needs to be spent, so be it. And here’s where we may disagree, I’m not sure. You, like much of the charter school movement, tend to conclude with the claim that “more money without reform will do nothing.” That’s true, but it is the wrong emphasis. I think we are better off with a positive message which says, “more money plus reform is the answer.” That claim is both more honest, and more strategic in the long term.


Whitney Tilson has recently been publicizing his reactions to a recent conference in DC, called “Charter Schools: Keeping the Promise or Dismantling Communities.” The opening comments by Ted Sizer, George Wood, and Linda Darling-Hammond were all balanced; the rest of the papers and presentations however, were aggressively anti-charter. I don’t have a problem criticizing charter schools, and I certainly do not think they are the single, or even principal, answer to our nation’s school woes. But so much of the conversation in this area is pure (and often harsh) rhetoric–on both sides of the issue.

You can find the papers themselves here. Since the conference, I met with 2 of the paper authors, and I found out that the papers are still in draft form. So if you have comments or suggestions I would consider contacting the various paper authors themselves. I do not know how willing they would be to consider changes, but it is worth a try. Caution: starting your letter by yelling about how charters are the best thing ever and public schools stink is not likely to get you far in persuading the paper writers, unless your only main is to vent.

I sent a note to the authors of one of the papers, a portion of which I included in (slightly) edited form here. By way of background, my letter was directed to an issue that loomed large at the conference, which is charter schools relying on private funding for support. I think this is an important issue for charter schools–not least because it goes to the question of sustainability. This private money is not going to flow to charter schools forever, which means that charter operators need to work on increasing public funding for all schools, including charter schools.

But that is not the concern that was expressed at the panel. At the panel, the idea seemed to be that there was something unfair or corrupt (or otherwise wrong) about raising private money to support charters. In response, I wrote the following:

You have a chart at the end of your paper that shows a network of foundations that support charter schools, and Maya Angelou School is specifically mentioned. The tone of the paper and the presentation of the chart seem to suggest that there is something nefarious about this private funding. I’m not sure what your intent was, but that’s how I read it.

So please hear me out on this. Do I like having to spend time raising money privately? No. It is time consuming, and draining, and really really hard and I would rather spend my time teaching a street law class at Maya, or tutoring a student at Burroughs elementary school down the block from me, or, for that matter, taking a walk with my wife or reading a good book. Do I wish we funded public education at sufficient levels so that the public schools and charter schools would have allotments that would allow us to run schools with small classes, extended day, literacy and numeracy coaches, mental health counselors, etc. all on public dollars? Yes, absolutely.

So why do we rely on private funding at all? Because we believe that the kids who come to our school, especially in light of the population we serve, need and deserve all of these things–they need and deserve the xtra hours, the small classes, the literacy and numeracy, the job training, the counseling and emotional services. In light of our public funding levels in this society, if you choose to run a school that serves kids like those we recruit, you have a choice. What do I do when I have a parent who says, “my daughter was abused and needs counseling services at the school,” or “my son has had special needs that were never diagnosed so he needs small classes,” or “my child needs help even after graduating your school, they need help surviving their first year of college because they are the first in their family to go to college and it will be an alien and difficult experience for them.”

I can do one of 2 things. I can say, sorry, the public dollars aren’t enough to pay for that, so your child will have to go without. (And we do say that, by the way, all the time: there are so many things we would like to do at Maya and cannot–we’d like to serve kids three healthy hot meals a day, that are really tasty and prepared with locally grown foods from an organic garden that our kids maintain–and thereby learn about science and agriculture. But we cannot afford it.)

But sometimes, I can say to the parent, yes we can provide that, because such and such foundation has given us money for precisely that thing. So what should I do in that situation? Should we say no because we believe it is bad to take money from foundations or private donors? I don’t think so.

One more point about the private funding that is really important to me. You might be thinking that the problem is that the private money is going to only one school, or just a few, not all schools. I understand that point, I truly do, and I expect it might be why some might suggest there is something wrong with us getting money from the Gates foundation but not something wrong when DCPS gets a big grant from Gates (which DCPS got just a few weeks ago, and nobody complained, at least that I know of).

I want to be clear about my view on that: I believe that every single student who needs it should be able to go to a school with an extended day program, with counseling support, and with the other things that I have discussed. This is why I consistently lobby for increased public education funding, including, as we discussed, for the school modernization money. But I also believe that individual programs like ours can take this money, and if we do the right thing with it, we can be part of the public policy argument that suggests that these additional services are worth providing to every student. For example, one of the reasons that public education (and the same is true about alternatives to incarceration in the juvenile justice system) is under-funded in my view, is that people believe the money won’t make a difference. If Maya Angelou develops a model of comprehensive schooling, with extra services, and it works, then advocates like you can use our success as an example of why this is a good investment, and every kid in the city and country should get this.

I really hope we can continue this conversation. Even though we might disagree about some things, I think we might in the end agree about some too. I value your opinions, even when we don’t agree. I hope you take this in the constructive spirit in which it is intended.


Last week I posted this comment after attending a Center for American Progress panel on teacher compensation practices. One of the panelists, Nancy Van Meter of the American Federation of Teachers, had this to say in response:

Before we even get to the question of your question “whether merit pay offers the biggest bang for the buck” — I think we need to ask how much bang for the buck it gets period. Unfortunately, I was very disappointed that the paper we discussed provided no evidence on whether the plans succeeded in attracting and retaining teachers, nor did it provide evidence that it resulted in improved student achievement.

Frankly, I was surprised by the paper’s implicit assumption that public schools can and should draw lessons from the compensation systems of privates and charters…that privates and charters are more successful than publics in raising student achievement and recruiting and retaining more effective, qualified teachers. In fact, as I explained, the evidence from the most recent research shows just the opposite — on average. I don’t dispute that there are high performers in every sector — public, private and charters. I strongly believe we can learn a lot from successful charters and privates — but based on the evidence presented in this paper, not in this area.

As I said at the event, there are scores of public schools where performance pay and skills-and-knowledge-based pay are being developed and implemented — some poorly (see Houston) and some well (see Denver, Cincinnati, Douglas County, CO). Public school districts are more likely to look at what other similar districts are doing successfully than to look at the private Salem Academy or High Tech High charter school because districts have to grapple with issues of scale and replicability in ways that don’t confront private schools or small chains of charter schools.

I think Center for American Progress would do a service for all if in a future paper it explores the best models of redesigned compensation systems regardless of what sector they come from– private, charter, public. As you point out, James, it’s not clear that any of the mechanisms are in place to evaluate the effect of the examples presented in the CAP paper. It will be unfortunate (though not unsurprising) if the push for performance pay/merit pay/etc continues with no evidence from any plans showing improved teacher recruitment and retention; improved instruction or gains in student achievement to back up claims.