Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Setting the Record Straight: My Experience at an Urban Charter School

I recently attended an education forum in Newark, NJ where two mayoral candidates spoke to several educational issues. Beneath the exterior of good old-fashioned debate, though, some well-worn myths about high-performing urban charters reared their ugly heads. We’ve all had that experience: the family dinner where you’re asked - no, told - for the umpteenth time that “students have to take a test to get into your school, don’t they?”, or the casual conversation where an acquaintance finds out that you teach in Newark and immediately responds in a sympathetic tone with some vacuous comment like, “It must be so difficult when the kids have so many other issues to deal with.” Education is a funny thing, because everyone feels like they’re a little bit of an expert. (Heck, we’ve all been to school!)

I’m all for discussion - but let’s get some facts straight.

First, a little about me: I am a math and computer science teacher at North Star Academy College Preparatory High School in Newark, NJ. I began my teaching career at High Tech High in San Diego, California - a project-based charter school that I loved and that continues to shape many of my classroom activities and goals for students. I am a product of a large, suburban public high school. I have my Bachelors’ and Masters’ Degrees in Mathematics, and took an “alternate route” to my teaching certification. I have been teaching in public charter schools for 5 years - and I am about 5 years overdue in writing a response to the incessant questions on the very existence of charter schools (based in varying degrees of fact), as well as unfounded attacks on methodologies employed by some of the highest-performing urban charter schools, like North Star. I do not speak for my school, for the “education reform” movement, or for anyone other than myself and my students who have turned themselves into into amazing, college-bound young adults with a little help from us. And so, the high-performing urban charter movement as I see it:

The Data Myth

Based on some of the scathing critiques of exit tickets I’ve read (see this rant by a former KIPP teacher), I have to come right out and say it: If you are that critical of the very idea of an exit ticket, then clearly you and I have different ideas for what an exit ticket is.

An exit ticket is just a way for you as a teacher to figure out what your kids learned in a given class period or series of class periods, and what they didn’t learn. It’s a low-stakes, immediate form of assessment that is used to inform your teaching tomorrow and next week, because goodness knows that not everything we teach gets “learned” the first time around. It’s an acknowledgement that, yes, while I might be teaching the same curriculum as I taught last year, I’m teaching it to a different group of students who are going to have different needs. How do I know their strengths and weaknesses unless I gather that data? Not on some standardized test at the end of the year. Not even on a unit test, or a weekly quiz. But sooner. That day. Why wait until a high-stakes assessment to figure out what your kids know?

For this reason, I am sure you can understand my confusion around the attacks on exit tickets. Call it an exit ticket or call it something else, but if you’re not assessing what your kids have learned before moving on, then what kind of teacher are you?

The Robot Myth

My students are not little minority robots, relegated to a classroom where silence, obedience, and multiple choice tests reign supreme. Instead, they are budding intellectuals, realizing the potential and the brilliance that all students of any race or socioeconomic circumstance have within them. On any given day, they are discovering the subtleties of object-oriented programming in Java through inquiry-based labs, debating a mathematical question in a hands-down discussion, or playing a ridiculously fun game to practice their Unit Circle facts because, yes, black or white, sometimes you just need to jump through some hoops to be able to get to the next level in life. In my English, History, and Science colleagues’ classrooms, you will be confronted with a similar level of intellectual engagement that would be astonishing even at a suburban school. Without reservation, I would send my own children to North Star.

Do we have systems that some perceive as “over-the-top” - a relentless uniform policy, daily homework detention, mandatory after-school tutorials? Yes, we do. And I assert, unapologetically, that those systems are the very means by which our students are able to achieve to the levels that they do (see above), and that similar systems would benefit any student, of any race or socioeconomic background. And yet, I understand the realities. If I were a teacher at a suburban school, I might not freak out to the extent that I do now if a student didn’t turn in their homework one day. Of course, systemic poverty is an ugly thing and forces us to be a little more relentless on our mission. Anyone who doesn’t acknowledge that teaching underserved students requires a different set of tricks, has clearly never taught an underserved student. Even Diane Ravitch would agree with that, right?

Bottom line: My students are not robots. I am not an ivory-tower outsider who is inherently disrespecting them and underestimating the unfortunate circumstances they were born into. On the contrary, I am committed to doing whatever it takes to unsurface the scholars - the budding philosophers, engineers, computer scientists - that lie beneath the sometimes-ugly picture that is life for a child in Newark, NJ.

“There’s nothing that charter schools are doing that public schools couldn’t be doing if they wanted to.”

I am paraphrasing a quote from Shavar Jeffries, a brilliant son of Newark who is currently the underdog in the race for mayor of that city. I am beyond sick of hearing complaints that the most successful charters are benefiting from an uneven playing field, from more autonomy that the public schools are allowed. The conclusion that some draw that we should all be subject to the same inefficiency (economic and otherwise), bureaucracy, and paralysis by teachers’ union that has sucked the education out of urban public schools is the true disservice.

Indeed, that conclusion is exactly 180-degrees incorrect. There are immediate, instruction-based changes that any school could be making in its classrooms tomorrow if it wanted to replicate some of the best practices of some of the best charter (or public, or magnet) schools - that’s something we do constantly at North Star, and it almost always results in more student learning. If it doesn’t, we stop doing it. It really is that simple.

Thinking longer term, a strangled public system that has proven a failure for our most vulnerable population should not be stuck in the status quo just because it’s not “fair” for some schools to be better than others. The system needs a slow, careful, and deliberate overhaul.

A “corporate agenda”?

Slow, careful, and deliberate is the name of the game. The best charters have been subject to so much criticism because they don’t immediately serve the highest-need students in the same quantities that public schools do. Factually, this is correct. Rather than a criticism, though, I see this as a necessary part of the reform process. You don’t perfect a long-term successful model by immediately subjecting it to the highest possible amount of stress. Instead, you start with a small test group - 50 kindergartners, say, or 25 fifth-graders - and you slowly expand. Because of the level of control possible especially at those early stages, you are able to experiment with systems and determine which ones work and which ones need to be changed. Six or eight years later, you find yourself serving 2,000 students, many of which are coming to you with significant challenges. Now, though, you are in a position to actually serve them using a model whose components have been refined and might just actually work.

This is how real, sustainable progress happens in any sector - technology, business, or education. And if that’s a little too “corporate” for your tastes, you’ll get no apologies from me.