Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Charter Schools: Polishing a Data Turd

A few years ago Bill Gates and a few other members of Billionaires for Annihilating Public Schools funded a very expensive study on Charter Management Organizations (CMOs). (Yes, they call them CMOs--I didn't make up that part).

CMOs are private businesses that manage charter schools. They are the new "middle men" of the charter school industry in the USA. They will grow into one of the largest businesses in the USA if charter schools continued to be allowed to (partially) displace our system of public education. They the where the rubber meets the road in the trillion dollar opportunity that mega-rich investors--sorry, philanthropists--see in charter schools.

Why haven't you heard about this study? Strange, isn't it? Seems like the Charter folks would be shouting about it from the rooftops.

Suffice it to say that the results of the study were mixed, and anybody taking a serious look at this data would have to conclude that charters are not a solution to anything significant and certainly aren't worth the money and massive diversion they are causing in taking energy away from reform and programs that would actually help.

They found the usual array of "mixed" results from charter schools in general: some improve over the local school district, many don't. (I continue to be amazed how many charter schools cannot improve upon their local schools considering they are "shooting fish in a barrel" by engaging in creaming and only taking the relatively best students and throwing out the lower performing ones).

The study also focused on success factors. What makes a successful charter school? Here are the key factors the study found:

  1. Charter schools implement school-wide behavioral policies. Translation? They get to kick out the harder-to-educate kids and send them back to public schools. This is the other half of the equation I talked about in my article on creaming: find the easiest-to-educate kids first, and throw out the expensive ones, repeat.
  2. Charter school teachers receive more "coaching". Translation? Charter schools have more money (the report admits the study's numbers are highly skewed by schools with "philanthropy" e.g. they get a lot more money than just public funding) and thus have more time to spend on management overhead. (I have also discussed the role the parents play in simulating this management overhead, and it's likely that charters benefit from both paid and parental management far more than public schools).
  3. Charter schools have more instructional time. Translation? Unless you believe in magic, this means quite simply that many of today's charters simply have more money to educate their relatively uniform, relatively non-special needs kids.
So in reading this study's rather extensive data, you must conclude:
  • That charter schools aren't a silver bullet and have not solved any real educational problems.
  • That more money means better outcomes in aggregate (although not always). Who would have guessed that?
  • That creaming continues to be charter school's sole advantage over public schools.
So there you have it. Bill Gates and the Walton (Walmart) family just spent a small fortune proving their model has no merit. Clearly this research company won't be getting their contracts renewed.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Closing the Parenting Gap

Update 7/20/2012: I was made aware of a great PBS Frontline story about a middle school implementing a program with parallels to the concept I talk about below. (Imagine how much more powerful their counselors would be if they could follow a child all the way through their education from K to 12).

Closing the Parenting Gap: Closing the Achievement Gap With A Focus on Its Single-most Important Factor -- Parents

Summary: Diligent, Active Parents = High Test Scores

Here in Los Altos our school district is the top-ranked in California. When educators, politicians and philanthropists talk about the "achievement gap", most would agree that our District and others like it are the other side of it. We could be considered, in a sense, the goal of education reform: to lift up lower-ranking schools to the level of our top-scoring schools.

So what makes our schools here tick? Why does the Los Altos School District perform so much better than Districts only a few miles away?

I submit that the one factor that is greater than any other is parents.

Many education experts agree and the data proves this out as well. You might even surmise that if one of the schools in a District like ours were magically "flipped" with a low-performing school then the high test scores would follow the kids and the parents of the high-performing school and not the school programs, the teachers, the facilities, and all of the other things overtly purchased by our tax dollars.

My conclusion, then, is that our tax dollars should affect the things which produce better outcomes--but this means we need to figure out how we can foster (and/or simulate) the great parenting found in top-ranking schools and bring those benefits to less advantaged areas.

The Affluent Parent Index

We've all heard of "API scores", and this article on API scores says it all: the richer the area, the higher the schools score in standardized tests. Hence the quip, "the Affluent Parent Index" when describing API scores.

Mere "affluence" is probably not the end of it: we also enjoy a deep commitment to education here in Los Altos and I suspect that is true for other high-scoring areas. Our area is very fortunate, yes, but for the most part our citizens didn't gain their relative affluence by having a great singing voice or looking suave in front of the camera: we're high-tech people and we owe it all to education. So yes, we even outperform other wealthy areas handily.

In broad terms, however, affluence is a pretty good indicator of educational outcomes including standardized test scores. So the bad news, it seems, is that better educational outcomes seem to be a matter money.

This conclusion certainly flies in the face of the "snake oil" remedies offered by the many "education reform" advocates and politicians: just blame everything on "bad teachers" and pay them a lot less money, less benefits, and offer less job security. Doing this, say these reformers, conveniently kills two birds with one stone: we drastically reduce spending on education (lower taxes!) and we increase positive educational outcomes. It sounds too good to be true and it is: the results of Charter schools across the country are mixed at best.

What are the financial results? As for saving money, while it's still too early to tell, firing lots of experienced teachers and replacing them with less experience teachers is inevitably going to save money (in the short run anyhow). The question is, for who?

As privatization is a key part of this "reform", the money we save by hiring less experienced teachers will simply flow directly to corporate profits, not the taxpayers in the form of lower taxes. Private companies are very crafty at lobbying the government for more money--often far more so than public employee unions.

As for educational outcomes, that's a mixed bag as well, and it's tainted by the creaming problem. Today so much of the "education reform" discussion is taken up by the Charter School approach, and charters naturally gravitate toward parents with higher "API" scores--so teasing apart the actual benefits of the Charter model is nearly impossible.

Real education reform that is not snake-oil is going to require investment--an unpopular assessment of the situation because nobody likes government spending when it means taxes either being raised (or not being lowered). Nobody wants to hear this, but most see the downside of our country falling behind in education--so in come the snake-oil salesmen to allow people to think they can have their cake and eat it too.

Since they are newer enterprises, Charter Schools will gather younger teachers who tend to be less expensive, and Charters do not have the overhead any organization that's been around for a long would have e.g. pensions and older employees. So the shift to charters can create a temporary financial windfall for the system. The keyword is temporary. Longer-term Charter schools have no structural advantage over public schools yet spend taxpayer dollars without public oversight. This will only lead to a "crony capitalism" system of corruption and will not lower costs.

Blaming teachers, unions, and school programs is pointless compared to the enormous difference parental affluence makes. Simulating the benefits of affluence--making parents better and/or investing in state-provided surrogates--will operate on the largest factor in the equation and thus will have the most leverage.

The Details: What Are "Affluent" Parents Actually Doing?

The first order of business of improving education, then, is to observe what parents at high-ranking schools actually do. What exactly then is it about richer, more diligent, more involved parents that makes educational outcomes better and those of less advantaged parents? I bet if we get very specific about this, we might learn a thing or two about really closing the achievement gap. 

So our central question is: what do higher API parents do that lower API parents don't do? I've personally observed three major factors, which I'll talk about here, but I'd love to hear more suggestions:
  • Management -- Parents can provide a "layer of management" for teachers that brings them to parity with other professions in terms of oversight.
  • Judgement -- Parents can provide the human judgement necessary to make decisions that tests, rules and guidelines cannot make--or often make very badly.
  • Encouragement -- Parents can provide the encouragement (in various forms) to children to help them succeed.


Here I'm indebted to a commenter to an article written by Bill Gates in the New York Times on high-stakes testing. In this article Mr. Gates was talking about firing teachers based on high-stakes testing. In the article Mr. Gates implied that you don't treat people this way if you want excellence--and you don't.

One commenter for that article said (and I paraphrase from memory since I cannot find the exact link) that Mr. Gates could not compare the level of people management at a company like Microsoft to that of a typical public school teacher who is mostly isolated in a classroom all day with only children (not adults) to judge his or her performance. It is not, the commenter said, like a typical engineer or manager or other professional at Microsoft or any other corporate environment. In just about any sort of profession you are constantly interacting with (and thus being implicitly or explicitly evaluated by) adults in the form of co-workers, customers, partners, and so on.

Yes, teachers are evaluated in many ways, even to some extent by students themselves as they get older. Yes, they are occasionally "visited" by the school principle (who has, on average dozens of teachers under their purview, as opposed to a typical professional team in a corporate environment maxing out at ten or so), but that interaction is sporadic at best.

Many private schools--having vastly more resources--have two teachers per classroom, which certainly goes a long to close the "management gap" between teachers and other professions. Clearly this is not realistic for resource-constrained public schools (or is it?).

How do top-ranked school districts solve the problem? One way is parental involvement in the classroom. At any given time, our schools in our District have dozens of parents on campus and interacting with teachers.

Beyond classroom hours, parents in our area are very apt to take a very active role in a teacher's activities for a given day. Parents ask questions and actively "meddle" in what is going on in the classroom even if they are not there themselves. They put pressure on teachers to be accountable for what they did, and parents are better informed as well, making them better equipped to judge.

Management, as any good manager knows, is about knowing what's going on. Not only does it allow the manager to make the right decisions, it instills an implied accountability on the managed one. A "feeling of being watched" if you will. Teachers in schools with heavy parental participation know that parents are "present" and are ready and able to make informed decisions on their performance. The great thing is that this input only needs to be voluntary to work. Parents don't need actual "hire/fire power" over teachers, they just need to have an informed presence to be effective.


Any teacher or experienced parent will tell you that the whenever a "situation" crops up with a child, the assessment and the subsequent required action is "contextual". The proper response depends on the situation.

If a child is not doing his homework, is it because he is lazy? Is the subject material too easy or boring? Does he not have time? Are there other problems at home? Does he not understand the material, and if so which of the several possibilities is causing that?

Take also conflicts between students: whose fault is it? Again, a context--which can only be gleaned from a consistent and detailed interaction of the student--is necessary to make a valid judgement and thus select the proper course of action.

In short, there's simply no substitute for time, and time means labor--labor from not just from one parent, but the aggregate of the time given by a number of parents (which brings up an interesting aside to research: I suspect that just one advantaged parent in a sea of disadvantaged ones will not achieve the sorts of gains you see when high-API parents are put in one place--here again you can see the compound effects of creaming).

Deep parental involvement helps judgement, which drastically increases the quality of education by keeping the inevitable number of small issues, small.


This is the most "obvious" difference between high-scoring and lower-scoring parents, but it's nonetheless critical. I won't spend a lot of time on this subject other than to say that the exact nature of this encouragement could certainly be the subject of a lengthy study unto itself.

There are many forms of encouragement, including and especially about a value system that shows kids that education--being "smart" or "educated"--is more important that being strong, or being able to play sports well, or being beautiful, being "tough", and so on.

The Surrogate School Parent

Many kids in the USA are lucky enough to have great parents who take an active role in their education. Many of these great parents aren't even necessarily wealthy and are often far from it--but it's a lot easier to be "supermom" (or dad) when you have more money, time and education.

With that I'd like to add the following to the conversation about school reform: the Surrogate School Parent. This would be a taxpayer-funded individual who would simulate the effects of the great parents we see in high-ranking school districts. I'd submit that such a program would actually be best served out of the Federal government as it should necessarily be independent from local and state policy--just like a real parent. I suggest we assign an SSP to children identified as low-performing for whatever reason, and assign SSPs to low-performing schools in order to turn them around.

I'd suggest we drop expensive Federal programs like NCLB and RTTT and use that money to fund an army of SSPs.

Now, clearly the exact definition of an SSP should be carefully researched based on a much deeper examination of the factors I've talked about here and others, as well as research to sort out all of the practical details with this sort of role. Clearly this is not something that should be done hastily and without thinking it through, as many of our current "reforms" no doubt have.

A Call For Papers -- and Solutions, and Policy

As you can see, I'm only scratching the surface here. This idea can represent an entire line of research, the end of which would answers questions like:
  1. What exactly are the most predictive factors for positive student outcomes in parenting?
  2. What are the network effects between parents? How do they compound the benefits?
  3. Which if the highly predictive factors can be replicated by "artificial" means (viz. state-provided "surrogate education parents" if you will)?
  4. What metrics can be apply to parents (or their artificial counterparts)?
  5. How can you make the SSP idea work (because there are a lot of details to work out)?
The policy implications here involve a shift away from the focus on teachers and programs and towards that of measuring and improving and augmenting parenting.

In other words, we need to stop blaming teachers and programs for bad outcomes and start focusing on parents and the role they play. We're going to find out that the solution to closing the education achievement gap in the USA is hard work and investment, not cutbacks and snake oil.

Monday, April 23, 2012

There's Nothing Manufactured About Bullis Charter School Rage‏

Letter Sent to the SCCBOE

As all citizens and parents in LASD should do, I have sent a letter to the Santa Clara County Board of Education regarding Bullis Charter School.

Here is a copy of that letter.

Note that this letter is responding to the
baseless and insulting allegation that the unprecedented community response to Bullis Charter School here is completely "manufactured" and that we are all presumably puppets of our own District school board.

I urge
every parent in Los Altos / Hills to send a letter to the SCCBOE and let them know how you feel, and show them you are not the mindless puppet they have assumed you are.


To: Julia Hover-Smoot <>; Joseph Di Salvo <>; Michael Chang <>; Anna Song <>; Grace Mah <>; LeonBeauchman <>; Craig Mann <>; Charles Weis <>;
Sent:  Monday, April 23, 2012 at 11:22 AM
Subject: There's Nothing Manufactured About BCS Rage‏

To the Superintendent and Members of the Santa Clara County Board of Education,

I would like to talk to you about your chartered school, Bullis Charter School. You obviously know nothing about our community here or it's parents. It's time you learned.

I am "just a parent" in the Los Altos School District [1]. I am not PTA, I have no friends or relatives in the education business. I am not paid to write this.

I am deeply concerned about the state of public education in my area. Six months ago I was a typical professional with only a tacit understanding of the issues of public schools. The imminent threat of my child's school being closed--for the very worst reasons imaginable--spurred me into action. Never before would I have imagined I'd become an "expert" on public education, but the last six months have been an amazing education for me.

I now write a blog under my pseudonym, Joan J. Strong, at: . Why a pseudonym? Because I wish to avoid the sort of verbal abuse by BCS supporters that have befallen other members of our community in local parks, grocery stores, and so on. Some members of our community have even removed their Facebook pictures to avoid detection by BCS supporters. I have taken further steps by remaining completely anonymous. Please forgive me, therefore, for remaining so with you.

Through my own research I have come to the same conclusions that Dr. Wies has recently come to: that Charter schools do not exist to solve any "actual" problems despite their original intent to help close the achievement gap. (Please see my blog post on "Creaming"--how Charter schools take the easiest-to-educate kids and leave public schools with the hardest). Your Board, so it seems, is simply responding to voter demand when they approve charter schools.

In the past six months of deeply immersing myself in public education issues and I've concluded that Bullis Charter School widens the achievement gap by bringing together the children of millionaires and billionaires and placing them in a single school, and combining public funds with enormous private donations to create a school with lavish programs worthy of the fanciest private school.

I am certainly not against being a millionaire or billionaire. I am certainly not against private schools. I am, however against what BCS and its founders are doing to our schools and our community. Any honest person can see what that is: they have created a tax-deductible, taxpayer-subsidized private school, and they are using their lawyers to take resources away from the less fortunate.

BCS is, in short, threatening every diligent Los Altos parent who spends their time and money to help their local school. They are threatening the education of every child in our District by opening the possibility of their local school community being destroyed (please see my blog posting on the on the deep and irreplaceable value of your local public school and the resultant crucially important "social networks" titled, "The Neighborhood Public School: Worth Fighting For").

And yes, BCS is absolutely threatening to shut down neighborhood public schools. Ken Moore, Chairman of BCS, recently went on record in the Los Altos Town Crier as naming four LASD schools which he deemed acceptable for shutdown and appropriation by BCS [2]. This means parents at all of these schools must now become activists like myself lest they find their children's education and their own connection to the community completely disrupted, all of their friends scattered throughout the District, and the schools they worked so hard over the years to make great, annihilated.

I am very angry about this situation, and I am not alone. I would invite you to make use of a locally-invented technology known as Google, and enter "bullis charter school" into it (don't forget to view "videos" and "images" as well). The first page or two of results speak for themselves: Bullis Charter School has elicited extreme responses from virtually any parent here who has taken more than a few minutes to understand the situation. Many like myself have written volumes. It's a deep injustice we're all responding to--that some rich people, angry at the local school district for shutting down a school (temporarily) now want to take this out on our children by closing local neighborhood public schools.

My family once considered Bullis Charter School as well. I know their marketing materials can be very enticing. I did not know then about the background of BCS but we still did not choose the school based on our "sixth sense" about the what we saw at their information night. Unlike most of the BCS's applicants, we personally were "okay" with the $5000 per child "tuition" of this school. (You should note that BCS's applicants include mostly tire-kickers as very few can afford a tuition like this).

We know that some parents weren't so lucky as we were. Many chose this school not knowing the background and have either left the school or are stuck, not wanting to disrupt their children's education (which I personally can relate to, as I know what it is to be afraid your children will need to switch schools and be torn from the community they have grown to love). Why don't more BCS parents speak out? Look no further than my own pseudonym and the reasons behind it. BCS supporters tend to play "hardball" with anybody who criticizes their school and BCS parents know it.

As for myself and others like me, my goal is to educate prospective parents and let them know what BCS is all about before they apply. After seeing the truth, I cannot imagine any honest person choosing this school. I look forward to seeing the numbers from next year's applications: if we've done our job they will have fallen drastically. We will work to educate every single would-be applicant in our towns through every means possible (again google "bullis charter school" to get an idea). The situation with the laws in our State and the decisions of your board have forced a vigilante response from parents. Insofar as it threatens our public schools, we must stop this school. Through good old-fashioned open-market competition, we will do exactly that.

I would therefore urge the Board to please think a few moves ahead here. Imagine what will happen if the current momentum against Bullis Charter School continues (and I personally will ensure, with my time and money, that it will, as will many, many others). Imagine finding yourself trying to defend a group of millionaires and billionaires who run a defacto private school as a hobby at the expense of less advantaged kids. Imagine how that's going to look.

I urge the Board, therefore, to put the proper language into the MOU in order to prevent this school from doing any further harm to our community.

Thank you,

"Joan J. Strong", pseudonym


1. I am a parent in the Los Altos School District. I have no other affiliation with any school or PTA in any leadership capacity. I have never worked for any government entity, never worked in any capacity for anything related to education outside of volunteering for some of my own school's tasks, nor am I now or ever have been appointed to any public board related to education. I am truly "just a parent", and a private citizen. Please stop with your conspiracy theories as they are deeply insulting to any parent who cares about their child's school.

2. Ken Moore's exact quote: "Moore said the charter school instead seeks “exclusive use” of Covington, Gardner Bullis, Santa Rita or Almond, or a newly constructed campus." -- 

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Neighborhood Public School: Worth Fighting For


Is a local neighborhood public school a "big deal"? Do people really pay much attention to that elementary school down the road? Try to close one and you'll see.

Yes, it's an incredibly emotional event, but why? Is there reason behind the emotion? Or is it just irrational fears and superstitions?

We'll explore that today.

The "9/11" of Los Altos/Hills...

About nine years ago, the normally quiet towns of Los Altos and Los Altos Hills, California were rocked by an event which divides the community to this day. The aftermath of this event included:
  • Normally quiet and staid residents showing deep anger at the turn of events, which included nasty personal attacks on public officials and heated, confrontational debates between residents. 
  • Normally non-participatory citizens suddenly taking a keen interest in local politics including the support of local politicians through campaign donations, pointed letters to local papers, and so on. 
  • Some of our richest citizens spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a local "cause" in order to "right a wrong". 
  • Many of our citizens making themselves "experts" (if not of the armchair variety) in arcane areas of the law and spending enormous amounts of their spare time to understand such minutia as soil analysis. 
  • Never-ending lawsuits, costing both sides hundreds of thousands of dollars, have become the norm for the community. 
  • Our community, immensely fortunate in so many ways and almost universally harmonious, becoming deeply divided into two "factions". 
What sort of event could do this to a normally quiet community?

They closed a local neighborhood public school.

Yes, the closure was temporary as it turned out, but that didn't matter: the community around the school was disrupted and partially lost, which is why there was enormous damage and enormous reaction to it.

Why All The Fuss?

"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves." 
John Adams, U.S. President, 1785 [32]
Most people today understand the value of public education in the USA. The "social contract" we have with public education is that, if our society is generally educated, we will all be better off.

The Founding Fathers even understood that this went beyond mere prosperity and saw education as a key pillar of our Republic: our Constitution isn't going to survive if a large part of the population cannot read it.

However valuable people find the public school system, there is a different value felt by your neighborhood public school.

In the example here in Los Altos Hills, the "school system" and its value arguably didn't change much when a school was closed (on paper at least): kids were moved to other, arguably outstanding, nearby public schools. But parents knew, at least intuitively, that something enormously valuable was lost, and were outraged.

Personal and Specific--and Extremely Valuable

It is said that a local neighborhood public school is the heart of every community: insofar as people value their community, they value their community's school. More specifically however, these values include:

  • A safe and effective place for their children to learn (to get the most obvious one out of the way).
  • It's where their children's social life is generally based. Children who are fortunate enough to stay in one place while growing up (which is to say, most children) build up long-lasting relationships among their school mates, and these relationships bleed into subsequent levels of schooling when moving up to Junior and High School.
  • It's often the source of a great deal of the parent's social life, wherein your children's friend's parents become your friends, and so on. This social circle pays off dividends for education as well.
  • It's the source of a tightly woven community in which parents know other parent's children, kids know other kid's parents, and they all know each other's teachers and school staff.
  • It's a source of community sharing and volunteering where parents can leverage each other's time and money to make their school better.
  • The familiarity bred from constant interaction and resulting relationships promotes safety and security. Parents will look out for other's children since they know them well. The presence of multitudes of authority figures (i.e. parents who know other parent's children by name) creates an environment where kids are much more likely to be supervised, thus creating a safer environment.
  • Whereas a teacher's job is performed in relative isolation, parents play the role of "manager" (or "peer") and in this context the greater the degree of familiarity, the greater the effectiveness of this vital feedback and control mechanism. Parents and teachers who know each other well (from siblings, from other parents, etc,) will work together more effectively--which translates to more effective teachers.
  • Insofar as teachers and staff are part of the school ecosystem, they too gain all of the advantages of the social fabric of knowledge.

To put it negatively, taking all of this away can be absolutely devastating to both parents, children, teachers and staff (and the damage it does to children can again be devastating to parents).

Closing a local neighborhood public school specifically means:

  • Parents losing any sort of standing they might have earned in the school's decision-making structure (either formal or informal, and within overall school operations [viz. PTA] or within self-selected areas of focus [i.e. being known as "a reliable organizer"]).
  • Children's social lives--the complex relationships they have with their schoolmates--being torn apart, ended. Moving schools is very similar to moving out to another community, which has been shown to have bad outcomes (i.e. this is something you want to minimize).
  • Parents social lives similarly being cleared and reset.
  • Volunteer parents being demoralized and given a strong disincentive to volunteer in any way that involves building a strong school community (it's worth noting here that they threat of a school closure also can cause this to some extent as well). Why work for something which will just be taken away?
  • Parent and student relationships with teachers and school staff (and vice-versa) being similarly damaged or annihilated.

The real value of a local neighborhood public school is not the buildings or the programs or even the location per se: it's the set of complex relationships that are built up over a number of years and are impossible to reproduce.

Closing a local neighborhood public school, in a single stroke, wipes out incredible value to hundreds of children and parents. That's why closing (or threatening to close) a neighborhood public school is so incredibly emotional: it's emotion rooted in reason and facts.
Closing a school feels bad because it is bad--for children, parents, teachers, staff and the community in general.

Natural and Man-Made Disasters

At this point we should take a moment for a philosophical aside, and talk about "natural versus man-made" disasters. In other words, "what makes people sad, and what makes people angry when something goes wrong?".

A tornado killing a family makes people sad. Robbers raiding a home and killing that same family would make people angry.

The difference in emotion is between the "natural" and the "mad-made".

It's also worth noting here that some factors may be "actually" man-made but are otherwise out of our control and have the same effect as the cause being "natural". Somebody robbing your car will make you angry whereas your car being taken away because you could no longer make the payments will make you sad (insofar as you blame events out of your control, etc.).

There are many reasons why a local neighborhood public school might be closed. Some of those things are "natural" in this context, and some are "man-made".

A school closing down because there is no money left to keep it open, or it needs to be closed for repairs, etc. could be considered "natural" if there was nobody in particular to blame for the unfortunate event. An external entity causing an otherwise thriving, well-funded school to be closed would obviously be considered man-made and would result in anger rather than sadness.

The Rift Here and It's Origins

In the case of the disaster here in Los Altos Hills nearly a decade ago, many saw this as a natural disaster and were sad. Many, however, saw this as man-made and were very, very angry (to the point that they were compelled to act, to write, to vote, and to spend).

At issue was the reasoning behind the closing of the school.

Whereas some saw it as a confluence of unfortunate and unavoidable factors (such as the aging campus that was in need of repairs, unexpected budget overruns, etc.), others saw it as a willful attack on their community caused by "man-made" factors such as carelessness and incompetence.

This division--this difference in perspective between the Natural and the Man-Made--is the psychological basis of the original rift in our community.

That the emotions are still felt after nine years--emotions which are still often cited by its victims--shows just how painful this issue can be.

As the years have worn on, however, the original argument has long since fallen by the wayside as all of the original practical details have changed dramatically.

The school which was closed has since re-opened (as Gardner Bullis School) and has a tight-knit community of around 300 children, their parents and the school's teachers and staff. This school is now a thriving neighborhood public school just like the original one which was closed, and has a very, very strong network of children, parents, teachers and staff--just like the rest of the schools in our District.

Another event occurring in the aftermath of the original school closing was the formation of Bullis Charter School with many of the original closed school's children and parents. With the creation of this school, the lost value from the closing was (partially at least) restored--parents and children were moved over and the school became successful as it was operated by a very emotional, dedicated (and rich, it must be said) group of parents.

The End?

This story would have a "happy ending", but somewhere along the way the thesis in today's post (that a local neighborhood public school community is incredibly valuable and it should be held together at all costs) has been lost by a certain group of parents and school administrators: the leadership of Bullis Charter School.

In what is an almost unbelievable irony, Bullis Charter School seeks to close a neighborhood school* in order to be given, for free, what it feels is a more convenient campus facility than has currently been given (*see the quote in the story from the BCS Chairman indicating the schools which they would find "acceptable" to close).

Needless to say, with at least four local neighborhood public schools in our community now being threatened with shutdown, parents are up in arms--and even scared--and almost universally angry at the entity threatening their schools (Bullis Charter School).

How has this anger been manifested? In the last four months alone there have been several blogs (including this one) either newly created or focused to be mainly on Bullis Charter School created by parents and community members. There is even a complete Bullis Charter School critical review site as well.

Besides the web materials and writing, there have been numerous letters to the editors, stories in the local papers, and thousands of exchanges in online forums involving hundreds of community members making their voices heard on this intensely emotional issue.

In an unprecedented show of community solidarity, the PTAs of all of the schools in the Los Altos School District along with the District's charitable foundation have coordinated their message to make it clear that shutting down a local neighborhood public school should never be an option.

(Note that exact origin of this "war" in our community was the subject of another posting on Bullis Charter School in this blog. The thesis of that post is that in order for the "war" to end, the leadership at Bullis Charter School will need to dramatically change it's thinking and its operational strategy).

One of the first requirements for real change in our local school community will be for the current leadership of Bullis Charter School to remember how they got here in the in the first place, and to remember from their own direct experience that the local neighborhood public school is worth fighting for--and that diligent, intelligent, energetic and (it must be said for this area) well-financed people will do whatever it takes.

Community members in Los Altos and Hills are trying to save their local neighborhood public schools because know what is at stake--and they are fighting with all their heart.

But their heart is in the right place: from a purely reasonable, rational standpoint, the local neighborhood public school is an incredibly valuable thing, and fighting for it--even with a certain degree of emotional abandon--is a good thing.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Public Education Dictionary: Creaming

If you are like me and didn't grow up on a farm you may be only vaguely familiar with the concept of creaming.You see, cream is made from milk, whereby the non-homogenized milk that comes out of the cow will naturally separate if left to sit, and the thicker part of the milk--the cream--rises to the top.

The act of "creaming" is when you remove the very top of the milk and set it aside to be used for making ice cream or baking or what-have-you (for you scientists, the
technical definition).

To describe how this term is used in public education, I offer the following parable.

I recently challenged a friend of mine who runs a service business which has about 1000 customers. I bet him a dollar (and pride) that I could run his business better than he could. To prove this I would take half of his customers and after a year's time we'd see who would have happier customers and higher profits. 
On the face of it, I made an offer to my friend he couldn't refuse: obviously he knows that I know nothing about his business, so he can't lose, right? 
He took the bet and we got down to the details on how we'd actually arrange things (which he agreed I would dictate). 
My arrangement was this: that I take his 500 best customers who have the most money and the fewest customer support issues. Also, if I find that over the course of time any of his customers become problematic or unprofitable, he will be obligated to take them back.
Needless to say, I won the bet. How could I lose?
You see, I engaged in the "creaming" of my friend's customers.

So when you hear critics of Charter Schools accuse them of "creaming" the best students, this is what they mean.

Charter schools engage in "creaming" in several ways:

  1. There is natural selection at work with Charters (which admittedly is not as big a factor in our area as others). Charter schools advertise a "better" product than the surrounding schools, and as a tendency, only the most education-oriented parents will apply--which are exactly the kids who tend to do a lot better in school.
  2. Second, there's selective marketing. Charter schools get to market their product any way they want, and they can target whomever they want. Needless to say they tend to target students who will maximize their test scores, profits, and so on. Bullis Charter School, in our case, is generally marketed in the richest part of our community, Los Altos Hills (where they also have a lottery preference).
  3. Third, in the case of our Charter experiment here in Los Altos, there's the issue of "suggested donations". At the information night, the pitch you here is along the lines of the following: "We need $5000 per student per year to maintain our school. If you don't pay this, one of your fellow parents will need to pay to make up the difference--or else our school will cease to exist". Obviously this will, as a tendency, heavily discourage parents who cannot afford $5000/year per child.
  4. Rejection of kids who are not "cream". Charter schools are free to expel any child they want, whenever they want--just like any private school could.  
One poster on a comments section in Seattle had this to say about Charter Schools (and creaming):
"If charter schools are so incredible, you should be able to name one that performs better than public schools without additional money, being selective about admissions, or expelling kids who do not perform academically.
I have never heard of one and have repeatedly asked proponents to tell me one so that I can read up on it. However, nobody seems able to do so. Can you please help me out? You are so certain of their success, you must have heard of one, yes?"
So far, no takers.

is an important concept to understand as it underscores how Charter Schools do not solve any real-world problems, they simply move them around. They take the easiest, cheapest-to-educate, highest-performing children and concentrate them in a single school, 
leaving public schools with the rest, making the Charter school look great, the public school look terrible, and reducing diversity for everybody.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Bullis Charter School: a "Post War" Vision

Post-war Bullis Charter School: The Value and Cost of Educational Choice and Experimentation in Our Community


I have said in the past that there are only two ways out of the Bullis Charter School mess:
  • BCS would have to be shut down (in an orderly fashion e.g. not taking in any new students and the school being slowly eliminated over the course of many years). 
  • BCS would have to be taken completely private
Today I will discuss a third way.

An Opening?

Recently I was struck by reports from a recent LASD community meeting: the tone was different than the past, and Ken Moore (the Chairman of BCS) afterwards went on record as saying exactly that. Maybe this community, I thought, could really heal after years of deep division--Ken's statements about the meeting are heartening and cannot (and should not) be ignored. Maybe this is an opening.

Below I’ll present a vision of “Post War Bullis Charter School”. It shows the way forward by crafting a vision of what “peace” could look like. We cannot know how we should get somewhere unless we know where we are going.

With that, for the first time I am putting forth an idea that actually includes having a “charter school” in our midst (although in a very different form than what we have today).

A Customer's Viewpoint

My own introduction to BCS was the same as many LASD parents: the BCS parent information night. At that event I learned a couple of things:
  • That BCS had interesting programs which might be appropriate for my child (great). 
  • That BCS would cost us at least $5000/year per child (for my family: okay, we can afford that). 
  • That they were on a campus that, while perfectly adequate, was somewhat more shabby looking than other campuses and was part of another school campus (for us: an advantage). 
  • That BCS really, really, really wanted us to like them (weird oversell). 
  • That teacher's unions and LASD were actually evil and bad and the cause of all the ills in our society (huh? what this got to do with anything?). 
  • That the Charter model was better and blablablablabla (huh? what this got to do with anything?). 
For us, the last thee factors outweighed the first three: the presentation left us with a very negative feeling for this school. For this and a few other factors we chose our neighborhood school, which has worked very well for us.

If I were to give BCS some "marketing advice", I'd tell them to not "oversell" and to drop the "cause" baloney from their pitch. Pretty straight-forward.

While this seems like an obvious and rational move, it turns out they can't change their anti-public school rhetoric. Not while they are at "war". Their “pitch” to us parents, however flawed and self-defeating, was exactly as it must be given the circumstances.

The Lies of War

Over 2500 years ago the Greek tragic dramatist Aeschylus told us, “In war, truth is the first casualty”.

Our own little "war" in this community has been no exception—it has thrown the Truth out the window and created an alternative reality that we all have to live in.

But let’s imagine for a minute there was no war. It was over. It was a distant memory and nobody cared about it anymore than they harbor animosity toward England over the Revolutionary war.

In this new world we would all “just know” the following simple truths: 
  • That BCS was started under specious circumstances and was driven by anti-District and anti-public schools sentiment, and should have never been started in the first place--but that doesn't matter now because it’s become something completely different
  • That it really costs parents $5000/child per year and it always will--but that’s fine since some parents can afford that and it provides an interesting new product. 
  • That its campus is not as lovely as other local public campuses (until we built the new one with the bond we passed for a 10th campus) and it’s farther away from its students than neighborhood schools (by definition)--but that's okay since it’s perfectly adequate and it’s actually an advantage since it weeds out parents who care about such things. (I know a lot of BCS parents think this but aren’t “allowed” to say it because of the War!). 
  • That the school really costs the District a little money even without sharing the parcel taxes--but that’s okay since it offers the "value of choice and experimentation" to our community. It’s an expensive indulgence but our community is wealthy and places a high value on education and we’re willing to take risks as long as they are paid for and don't detract from those in need. 
  • That its appeal will always be limited based on the cost ($5000), on its experimental and different programs, the fact that it is not inclusive for special-needs, and the fact that it’s not a neighborhood school—and that our normal public schools here offer excellent programs. But that's is okay: it’s a choice, not a “cause”. The Charter is part of the public school system, not a replacement for it. 
  • That the Charter model is not appropriate for our community in the way it purports to be for their original intent, which is low-scoring schools and disadvantaged kids. But that’s okay: with eyes wide open we can use the Charter laws “as a legal structure” and nothing more—and even being "anti-Charter" in the bigger picture could be compatible with supporting this school. (For instance we have no homeless shelters here in LA/LAH which is appropriate for us but we all agree that such things are appropriate elsewhere). 

A Clean Slate: No More Lies

With all of the “lies of war” put aside we can envision a new Charter School that actually fits into our community: 
  • One that does not sue our District ever again. One that is chartered by our District and in cooperation with it. 
  • One that understands its “place” in the community as being a luxurious indulgence in experimental education, not a “sanctified right”--and that our "default" free education here must come first in priority. 
  • One that is heavily funded by private donations for programs and facilities. A school that taps into the enormous pool of private wealth here to enhance our District’s offerings. 
  • One that has been given a mandate by the community in the form of a school facilities bond, funded partially out of private donations, specifically for the purpose of a Charter school. 
  • One that does not engender a massive "response" from the community in the form of heated online discussions, critical websites about Bullis Charter School, blogs, and so forth. All of this would be a distant memory--and even lamented as an artifact of war
  • One that could, perhaps, innovate and experiment in areas involving the more challenging areas of education such as special-needs; one that could formally include outreach (and combined integrated financial assistance) to less advantaged kids. (Imagine a “free-slot lottery pool” that includes a number of “free forever” slots for qualified families). 
  • One whose name is not a remnant of a war (“Bullis”) but perhaps is instead reflective of the great positives locked within our community (“the Gordon Moore Academy” ?). 

The Way Forward: Peace

So how will we achieve peace? I have said many times that this is the year that large numbers of parents are getting involved in deep and serious ways for the first time ever. In just three months, LASD volunteer parents have created a massive online presence and have drastically changed the conversation online. Offline efforts are just beginning.

Parents are the only thing that can really stop this war, and since only BCS can stop the war, it is up to BCS parents to act.

The current BCS leadership is characterized by long-hardened "warriors"--many of whom are professional attorneys and litigators. They have been "grinding an axe" over the District and public schools for the better part of a decade. Most BCS parents, on the other hand, want what we wanted when we looked at BCS: a great education for our children.

BCS parents must take up the cause to change the course of the leadership at BCS, or circumvent it, if necessary. Nothing less than a complete change in mentality is needed.

The war needs to stop--and so do the lies.

In peace we could create something truly amazing and worthy of our amazing community. We are world changers here--but only in peace can we so operate.

Bullis Charter School: Choice Costs Money

Recently the famous actor Wesley Snipes, reported to a Federal penitentiary to start serving his three year sentence for tax evasion. Mr. Snipes bought into the rhetoric that his shady lawyers fed him: that there was a “loophole” in the law that would allow him to get out of paying his income taxes.

As a society we condemn Mr. Snipes because what he is doing is not fair. He is in effect, sticking the rest of us with a bigger tax bill. We condemn him even though many of us don’t agree with all of the things our Federal Government spends money on--but we all know that we benefit from living in a civilized society where things are decided by popular vote. We know that all of us are saddled with the national debt (for instance) and simply disagreeing with the existence of that debt does not excuse you from paying your fair share.

We have a very similar situation playing out here in our community.

Our local school district—LASD—is a democratically-controlled institution which along with State and Federal governments has saddled us with certain obligations that our District must pay for.

Many agree with these obligations, such as a strong degree of help to special needs kids (LASD spends almost 20% of its budget [pdf] on this) and many benefited from another very large expense that our District must pay: teacher retirements (about 9% of LASD’s budget [ibid]). Those teachers taught many of our citizens who went on to become very successful and wealthy grown-ups.

But like Wesley Snipes, you don’t get to decide whether you agree or don’t agree with these expenses. The fact is that we are saddled with them, and somebody has to pay for it.

Bullis Charter School’s financial model is based on the idea that their students should be exempted from the expenses that the rest of us must share.

Bullis Charter School effectively discourages expensive-to-educate special needs kids (they offer to “ship them off to County” which no parent would ever accept in our District). Most, in our generous community, agree (and have voted accordingly) that special-needs kids should be given an excellent education. But BCS does not help pay for this expense that the rest our children, in the form of curtailed programs, do pay for.
Bullis Charter School does not share in the payments to our retired teachers and their health benefits. And of course our District has a typical burden imposed by facilities overhead (about 9%).

As such, the more kids there are at BCS, the more the rest of us must pay for these fixed expenses in the form of curtailed programs and higher student/teacher ratios.

Like Wesley Snipes, Bullis Charter School is vehement that it should not pay for the things the rest of us must pay. They call these obligations, “wasteful spending” and accuse our District and its Board of Trustees of being irresponsible with taxpayer dollars.

Unlike Wesley Snipes, however, BCS has found some loopholes that legally work--at least for now.

Add it all up, and BCS excuses itself from about $15m in annual expenses that “the rest of us” must pay—about $3,400 per student.

So just who are “the rest of us”?

Anybody who has ever attended a BCS “information night” knows that the school must raise at least $5,000 per child per year in order to maintain its programs. This is no mere “suggestion” like the suggested $1000 LAEF donation (which averages about $500 per child): without these donations, BCS would cease to exist. If one parent fails to pay, other parents need to make up the difference—and they certainly don’t hesitate to let you know that.
As such, while we don’t have the exact numbers (BCS is private) it’s logical to assume that the lion’s share of BCS parents pay at least the $5000/child per year minimum—about 460 of them.

For comparison, only about 40 parents out of 4500 in our District (about one percent) donate $5,000 or more to LAEF.

So in short, “the rest of us” is, for the most part, “the 99%”.

Fortunately there is some good news here: our District benefits from a parcel tax, which partially makes up for BCS’s lack of contribution of their fair share of the overhead burden. Per the BCS website itself, the “funding gap” is $2,874 (although some dispute that number and using other records it can be shown that the actual difference in funding is about $1,090).

Another way to look at it is that a “typical” LASD student will effectively receive about $6,120 ($9,520 total, minus $3,400 in these obligations) to spend on their own education. Per county records [pdf], on the other hand, BCS spends about $13,430 per student.

Often BCS supporters brag about their “efficiency” that allows them to offer enhanced programs and and lower student/teacher ratios—the implication being that our District is incompetent and wasteful.

But there is no magic: BCS can do more, because they get more and ignore the obligations that the rest of us legally cannot and morally should not.