Sunday, May 27, 2012

Charters, vouchers work by offering way for good students to get away from the bad ones

    Mitt Romney came out swinging recently in support of school vouchers for children in the Washington, D.C. school district and for more school choice for all schoolchildren. President Obama wants to end the Washington voucher program and force all of the city's poor children to attend the district's lousy schools. It's a shame our state legislators in Mississippi couldn't come to some sort of agreement to give us more choice in this year's session, thus siding with Barack Obama.
    I support charter schools because I support choice and because I think most schools are unwilling to make the politically difficult decisions necessary to improve. I’d like to see virtual charter schools, too, but only with one or more of our state’s universities in charge.
    One issue we keep hearing is whether charter schools should be allowed to open anywhere, or only in those school districts which are defined as “failing” by the state. To me, the best school in the world is "failing" if it fails to meet a individual family's needs. I think a school district that doesn't offer foreign language instruction in the elementary grades is "failing" and in need of a charter. Of course, when most people say “failing” they almost always are referring to schools with poor test scores. These are the schools that come in for finger-pointing as we blame the “bad” teachers for failing schools.
    I suppose there are some bad teachers and poor administrators out there, but in most cases schools are failing because they are full of unmotivated students with little native ability from families with few financial resources. In short, the students don’t care, so naturally the test scores are going to be low.
    The problem isn’t the teachers. It’s not the administrators. The school isn’t to blame. The blame, if it is to be called such, lies with the fact that the school is full of students who can’t or won’t do the work. In Mississippi, teacher testing weeded out most of the completely incompetent teachers years ago. Despite a few bad apples, most do a good job given what they have to work with. The schools aren’t failing, the students are.
    The only way to ensure everyone a quality education is aggressive achievement grouping. Even so-called failing school districts have in their area students who are able and willing to do outstanding work. These students should be grouped with other students of like achievement level and encouraged to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible, while being isolated and protected from the disrupters and the dullards. Differentiated instruction should be banned, with students grouped so that teachers will be able to teach their lessons only once instead of trying to teach five to 10 different grade levels in one classroom, as many teachers are forced to do now, always poorly.
    All students are not equal. All students have differing ability levels. If a school is full of students with a low ability level, what might be considered a low test score to some of us might in fact be an outstanding test score, reflecting outstanding work on the part of teachers and administrators. We need to quit measuring schools with the same measuring stick, because the schools don't have the same students!
    The New York Times recently ran a story on New York’s ultra-selective Stuveysant High School, a public school where entry is competitive exam – with no affirmative action. I’m guessing the minimum IQ for admission is between 120 and 130, although the test is weighted towards those who blow the top out of one of the subtests. The Times article dealt with increasing Asian and declining black enrollment, but it caused me to do some additional research (as usual, all attention in the article was paid to decreasing black enrollment, even though white gentile enrollment has also been dropping dramatically). In doing so, I found students who described their time at Stuveysant said that many of their teachers were mediocre. What caused them to learn was the highly dynamic and competitive environment that was created when they were placed in a group of other high-IQ teens. In other words, it wasn’t their great teachers that caused them to learn, it was that they were in a setting where they were equally yoked.
    Now, based on what these students had to say, what do you think would happen if you were to replace them with the students from three or four of Mississippi’s “worst” high schools? Do you think the wonderful teachers at Stuveysant would turn these students around? Or do you think it wouldn’t be long until Stuveysant was listed as a “failing” school?
    The solution to our education problem is simple, even if it requires us to face certain truths we would rather avoid. Students learn best when grouped by achievement and ability. And when we group by achievement, each school or classroom isn’t going to “look like America.” Stuveysant, which used to be overwhelmingly Jewish, is now 72 percent Asian. Hispanics and blacks make up 2.4 percent and 1.2 percent. Whites, the article says, make up 24 percent, but we aren’t told what share of that number is Jewish. My guess is that white Anglos make up eight percent or less of Stuveysant students.
    In Mississippi we don't have many Jews or Asians, so really its an issue of the ratio of blacks to whites. It doesn't bother anyone in society if Jews and Asians are dramatically over-represented in relation to whites. Will whites be treated the same way if a selective achievement grouping system causes them to be over-represented in relation to blacks? Or will we see yet another case of whites suffering double discrimination?
    Charter and voucher schools will by their nature tend to be rigorous. And with a rigorous program is in place, they will throw a life-ring to students needing a group of motivated, high-ability peers to work with.
    Of course, the public schools that we have now could start aggressively achievement grouping, a practice that has been proven highly effective but nevertheless tends to be out of favor with the California-educator-types. If they did so you would find a lot less noise about charter schools, because every community in Mississippi would have the same dynamic that works at Stuveysant working for our own students, admittedly on a more limited basis.
    To repeat myself in one paragraph: First, when you see a so-called failing school, don’t rush to blame the teachers, because the problem is likely that the school is filled with unmotivated, low-ability students. Second, much of the push for charter schools is really an effort to allow better students to isolate themselves from bad ones, which is necessary for learning. If the public schools would just group kids by achievement and ability from kindergarten up everyone would learn more and we would hear a lot less about the need for charter schools and vouchers
    Since I don’t think our public schools want to improve, bring on the charters, the vouchers, the virtual schools. Anything but the failing formula we have now.

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