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Reconsidering Education "Miracles"

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"No excuses schools" implement the worst aspects of racism and classism, notably that the problems we face are inherently in the children themselves. If we persist in conforming all children to the system, we are ignoring the possible (and likely) flaws in society, standardized testing, and bureaucratic schooling.

We, then, are left with some lessons hidden by distorting what HCZ charter schools reveal.

First, we must distinguish media and political advocacy from evidence, especially when we are faced with claims of "miracles." Brooks claims the Promise Academy alone closed the achievement gap, but Dobbie and Fryer admit, "We cannot, however, disentangle whether communities coupled with high-quality schools drive our results, or whether the high-quality schools alone are enough to do the trick."

Next, we should seek the full picture, even when faced with the complexity of data and statistical claims of relevance. Brooks' conclusions drawn from Dobbie and Fryer's paper are misleading because they are incomplete and thus distorted.

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As well, we must make accurate comparisons with public schools when considering educational experiments. HCZ schools have conditions and populations unlike high-poverty public schools -- a fact of most charter schools. What has worked for individual HCZ students may not work in public school reform. And many of the successful elements in charter experiments have been supported by research for decades (thus aren't unique to charter schools or created because of them), but rarely implemented in public schools.

Finally, if the HCZ experiment is important to the children being served now and for the lessons we can learn -- and it is -- then we must acknowledge its successes and its problems honestly. But to manipulate evidence to declare ideological winners and losers fails the children and society we seek to serve.

Yet, the Obama administration's education agenda, led by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, has continued to pursue directly and indirectly the claimed power of charter schools -- ignoring the new paternalism of "no excuses" ideologies, ignoring the whole picture of those charter schools, and ignoring the essential problems facing education.

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Instead of idealistic and misleading claims of "miracles" and silver-bullet solutions to complex problems, educational reform needs to be guided by two clear principles.

First, we should confront directly the social failures of our culture and with that a recognition that educational failures are a reflection of those social failures. Posting on a blog at EdWeek, Stephen Krashen states this shift well...

"Improving education is not the path to eliminating poverty. Eliminating poverty is the path to better school achievement. All the money going to new standards, new tests, and of course new textbooks, should be spent on protecting children from the effects of poverty: Proper nutrition (no child left unfed), health care, and access to books."

This is not an easy reality to accept, but with the U.S. having one of the highest child poverty percentages of affluent countries, that we are failing children as a society is the initial problem that must be confronted if we expect educational reform to succeed.

After this focus on the inequities in our society, we must reconsider our commitment to educational experimentation broadly and charter schools more narrowly.

Educational experimentation is at the heart of progressive views of education. In fact, Dewey and others would argue that education within a democracy, that education honoring the empowerment of everyone is perpetual experimentation.

Thus, we should stop seeing charter schools, or any alternatives to traditional schools, as a path to a singular solution to all our schools.

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Writing about a study by Gary Miron addressing Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools, charter schools receiving similar support to HCZ schools, Kevin Welner, of Education and the Public Interest Center (EPIC), frames how best to view the complexity of education experiments:

"Importantly, Miron is also not saying that the KIPP schools do poorly. Those schools provide about 50% more instructional time and place rigorous demands on students and their families. 'We have every reason to believe that KIPP likely does a great job with the low-income students of color who wish to attend and who have relatively supportive parents who can do things like drive them to Saturday school,' Miron says. But he does question whether this is a viable model for larger numbers of students, and he also wonders whether the different departure and receiving policies may make matters worse for students who are left behind or who later leave KIPP schools. How would the KIPP model work if students who cannot handle the rigorous KIPP demands could not move to conventional public schools?"

Does public education need reform? Yes, but not in the ways often claimed by politicians or assumed by the general public. But that reform will remain impotent under the weight of poverty until we can acknowledge the social failures that lead to the educational failures and stop scapegoating schools and teachers in order to mask those larger inequities at the root of our culture.

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An Associate Professor of Education at Furman University since 2002, Dr. P. L. Thomas taught high school English for 18 years at Woodruff High along with teaching as an adjunct at a number of Upstate colleges. He holds an undergraduate degree in (more...)

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