Charter school reflux

5:00 pm

The latest charter school to rear its head in north or northeast Portland represents a clear challenge to Portland Public Schools, a challenge they have so far refused to meet.

Nothing proposed by the Emerald Charter’s organizers is anything we shouldn’t get in our neighborhood public schools: community building, respect, excellence, and diversity. (In fact, the charter schools movement by its very nature goes against community building and diversity and will likely never come close to neighborhood schools in those areas.)

But you don’t have to read very far into Emerald’s Web page to see a perfectly reasonable rationale to break away from PPS. “Are we teaching students how to learn,” ask the organizers, “or are we giving them a series of rote exercises to get them through the next series of tests?”

This is exactly the question that many activists have asked, and some have pointed out that the PPS obsession with assessment predates No Child Left Behind. The more recent obsession with the “achievement gap” has ensured that Portland schools, especially in neighborhoods that are not predominately white and middle class, have increasingly focused on preparation for assessment to the detriment of “enrichment” (art, music, P.E., world languages, recess etc.).

Whether or not this focus does anything to help bridge the “achievement gap” (some schools that have done away with test prep entirely have actually shown better progress), it is clearly driving white, middle class families away from their inner north and northeast neighborhood schools. The resulting self-segregation reflects the contemporary sociological phenomenon of people tending to associate almost entirely with people who think, act, and look like them.

I cannot criticize anybody for doing what they think is best for their children — that’s their job as a parent. I want nothing to do with name calling and angry debates about personal choices, but people who believe their charter somehow won’t be part of a regressive social movement — with race as a significant aspect — are sorely misguided and misinformed.

Charter schools are, in fact, a regressive social movement; their promise is illusory. I wrote about this in a Portland Tribune op-ed last winter. Nothing has changed since then.

There is a notion that since PPS has historically failed poor and minority students, these communities should be allowed to take their state education money and take care of themselves. It’s hard to argue with the success of the Self Enhancement Academy’s work with its almost entirely African-American student body (five of 137 students were non-black last year).

But the fact that more black students are enrolled in Self Enhancement than in the other six PPS charter schools combined tells the story of “diversity” in charter schools. Every recent charter school application has promised diversity; none have delivered. Portland’s charter schools represent another form of the self-segregation encouraged by the district’s student transfer policy.

Postmodern identity politics is no way to run a public school system, and it is certainly not what we should be teaching our children.

The PPS board of education must be made to understand this latest charter school as a shot across the bow of the district’s assessment obsession. At least three of the current board (Adkins, Williams and Wynde) appear opposed to new charter schools on principle. But Carole Smith’s administration seems entirely sold on the current edu-speak lingo that says we need to focus on “closing the achievement gap” and “equity of outcomes,” goals that have put us into the vicious cycle of stripping “enrichment” as we chase “achievement” as measured by standardized tests.

If school board members want to head off this kind of challenge to the common schools model, they need to create policy that pulls the district away from assessment mania and creates neighborhood schools that consciously focus on the simple things the Emerald Charter’s organizers talk about.

There is nothing revolutionary in turning away from educational trends that have been disastrous for poor and minority children, not to mention the middle class children who would be their classmates. The PPS board needs to quit waffling on this. They should proclaim NCLB a bad law, and declare assessment obsession a detriment to whole-child learning and a significant contributor to inequity and segregation. It makes no sense to continue creating fertile ground for more charter schools that will drain more families from neighborhood schools.

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Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

filed under: Charter Schools, Equity, School Board, Segregation

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20 Responses

  1. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Steve – I agree with you that “(c)harter schools are . . . a regressive social movement; their promise is illusory.” But only if we rely exclusively on charter schools to somehow save public education in this country.
    We have to think of long-term and short-term strategies. In my view, locally-run, student-centered charters like Trilium are a solution to the immediate needs of students who are being turned off school by test-centric curricula that exclude non-tested subjects. In short, there have to be some schools that provide alternative approaches to the status quo. But these schools must be opened up to serve the needs of low-income minority students. I called for the board to adopt an affirmative action plan at the charters so they can serve a greater number of low-income and minority kids. The reason that none of the charters have delivered on diversity is the random lottery process. It’s absurd to “market” to low-income kids and minority kids and then say, “OK, take a number, cross your fingers, and hope you get lucky!” Since the vast majority of applicants are white, and since the process of selection is random, of course the student body will turn out to be white. It’s a statistical impossibility for it to be otherwise.
    I agree that the board should proclaim NCLB a bad law — hell, that’s my post! But the board can’t lighten the AYP requirements for any school without sacrificing federal Title 1 funds. They can, however, exercise bold leadership and lead the conversation on how we as a community want to end test obsession and end the cycle of — as you say it so well — stripping “enrichment” as we chase “achievement” as measured by standardized tests.

  2. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Rather than trying to force charter schools into being something (inclusive and diverse) that is fundamentally at odds with their nature (exclusive and self-segregated), it makes more sense to work towards making our already inclusive and diverse neighborhood schools more student-centric.

    The former is arguably quixotic, while the latter is easily imaginable. To chuck it all based on a single issue seems like an overreaction.

    We’re not going to make AYP anyway, especially at the absurd levels that we’ll soon be looking at, so who cares. You’ve said as much yourself. Low income students will probably end up doing better on tests if we give them a well-rounded, student-centric education anyway.

    By the way, my kids are doing pretty well at their regular old PPS school. They’re taught music and PE by certified, union represented teachers at regularly scheduled times. They have daily recess (twice daily in first grade), and they haven’t been irreparably harmed by tests as far as I can tell. They like their teachers, their classmates and their principal. I’d say they’re thriving, actually. And, best of all… no sugar-free vegan cookies! 😉

  3. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    There is nothing fundamental to the nature of PPS charters that makes them exclusive and self-segregated. What makes them exclusive and self-segregated are two factors:

    1) the ridiculous random lottery process – this needs to be replaced with an affirmative action plan; as I said, since the vast majority of applicants are white, and since the process of selection is random, of course the student body will turn out to be white. It’s a statistical impossibility for it to be otherwise.

    2) the charter schools do not reach out effectively to low-income minority students and their parents, so the applicant pool is small

    It would be much easier to implement an affirmative action plan and to improve outreach to low-income minorities than it would be to have PPS mainstream schools adopt well-rounded, student-centric curricula, esp. for low-income and minority students. If anything, there will be more and more pressure to cut the “extras” in favor of more test prep (cf. Oregon City) so that low-income minorities will make AYP.
    I say bring more kids into schools that promote more freedom, fun, and creativity and less test prep and lock-step uniformity.

  4. Comment from ohme:

    I agree Peter…but if that model is good for some kids, it is good for all. Time for ALL parents to demand a holistic, well rounded education for ALL children in Portland Public…they deserve it!

  5. Comment from fred:


    Was happy to find this site after following you from OlsonOnline…Don’t worry, won’t overload this one like the other with my blathering.

    It’s not *just* a hard choice–it’s an impossible choice in the current climate. And because I agree wholly with the issues *both* with PPS AND with the charter schools, but it’s “easier” to attempt to create a charter school that attempts addressing solutions to those problems while *hopefully* creating a dialog, an alternative that PPS can grasp, see, get an understanding of.

    I would much rather have PPS turn over a neighborhood school (in N/NE, but anywhere, really) to this approach than going down the difficult (and philosophically distasteful, for all the connotations that it sends) path of charter school.

    But the hope is to have the cake and share it with everyone else, while still working within a system that is…less than optimal.

  6. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Steve Buel proposed (perhaps with tongue in cheek?) that PPS create two schools in each neighborhood, one that focuses on assessment (as many currently do) and one that focuses on whole-child learning.

    Here’s the thing: the assessment obsession is a passing fad. I’m serious. Nobody in their right mind, no matter how much they parrot the lingo (“achievement gap,” etc.) truly believes it is logically possible for all children to be above average.

    This isn’t Lake Woebegone. Who the hell knows what the next fad will be, but hopefully the free market proponents who brought us the “achievement gap,” NCLB, assessment obsession and other tools to set common schools up for failure in order open the door to privatization through charters and vouchers will be on the outside looking in.

  7. Comment from fred:

    ” but hopefully the free market proponents who brought us the “achievement gap,” NCLB, assessment obsession and other tools to set common schools up for failure…will be on the outside looking in.”

    One hopes…although i think it will be hard to overcome this inertia of “competitive achievement” that says in order to get “more” out of life you have to have a 4-year degree, in something, and yet not actually value “knowledge for knowledge’s sake.” (or, “know everything” without knowing how to learn).

    How do you say to someone “you know, you might not be able to be a rocket scientist, but you might make an excellent tree-trimmer” without knowing, with a straight face, that we’ve given that person every option and opportunity that we could and that they took that opportunity and made of it what they wanted?

  8. Comment from Wacky Mommy:

    achievement gap

    inertia of “competitive achievement”

    rocket scientist

    free market proponents

    etc. Yadda yadda blip, to the moon with the rocket scientists and back. Tell it like it are, okay? What are we teaching our children? Is it this: You don’t have to look out for anyone else — you need the biggest, prettiest slice of cake with the biggest rose on top because You Are Special. (A secret, revealed: Most of us are special, in one way or another.)

    That is not the legacy I want to leave my children.

    Go, Demos.

  9. Comment from Steve Buel:

    I watched my old school, Lane, get applause yesterday at the school board meeting for making AYP. They did double math and double reading periods for those kids evidently who seemed to need it. The principal, who seemed like a pretty good guy, said the staff stated they did not want to be just a testing school. They listed all sorts of programs from the community which they felt helped them out a great deal. They were all about building relationships with kids and following through. So, why was I a little uneasy watching all this? Everyone else was celebrating.

    I think it was because they had to go outside the district to get help. PSU and Reed College — where was PPS? No one asked them about their activities or athletics, their electives, their counseling, their library, their science and social studies programs.

    I bring this up to show how entrenched the testing really is. Now the trend is to fill the gaps kids have in their learning by doing regular assessments. A pretty good idea in math. And to some degree in reading, depending on what is being assessed. And workable in writing — though for some strange reason no one seems to be that interested in improving writing scores all that much. But what about the glaring gaps in a kid’s understanding of history, geography, science, how the world works, etc.etc. Why don’t we ever talk about that?

    So, my suggestion that we have schools which are childhood oriented instead of testing oriented actually makes some sense as a first step in moving away from the testing culture.

  10. Comment from Terry:

    And leading the applause was new board member Martin Gonzales.

    So much for Steve R.’s suggestion to Martin that he introduce a resolution to overhaul NCLB.

  11. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    I missed the meeting; will have to watch next time it’s on.

    If what Beth Slovic wrote about it is true, maybe Adkins, Regan and Wynde will lead and González and the others will follow on NCLB.

    It’s truly heartening to see Bobbie getting out in front of an issue like this.

  12. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Steve R. – I also hope you’re right about this all being fad. But I seriously doubt it. “Accountability” and AYP are now a permanent part of the fabric of public schools, for better or for worse. It’s for the better because it behooves schools to ensure that all kids are learning and that no child is left behind. But it’s for the worse because we have a system that creates the illusion that kids are not being left behind. As Steve B. notes, the things that are not being tested are being left behind. We need to rethink what “accountability” means. To whom are schools accountable, and why? And we need to rethink how we assess the learning of each child so we can be sure that children are reaching their full potential, not marching lock-step along in relation to some arbitrary set of norm-based data points, but growing and expanding according to their interests and their own developmental timeline. Remember: Einstein was a “slow learner.” In today’s insanity of AYP, he would have been labeled as “developmentally delayed” and sentenced to a life of drudgery.

  13. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    One more point on Einstein: his being labeled “developmentally delayed” in today’s parlance would be for his own good. This is what is so damaging about all this quantitative, “data-driven” nonsense. It leads extremely well-intentioned people to make extremely bad decisions about kids.

  14. Comment from Steve Buel:

    I think it is a little early to think Gonzalez will step out or up or whatever on anything. He needs to toe the party line in order to assure himself the endorsements of Stand for Children, the Foundation, SEIU, The Oregonian, and the PAT. This is how you get elected to the school board. Essentially he is running for office right now. He should have started to raise money and make contacts. If he hasn’t he is already behind.

    That doesn’t, mean, Terry, that I think you are wrong. I told him I would love to sit down with him and talk PPS politics and all I got was a noncommittal shrug. He seems focussed pretty much solely on the Latino community and the powers that be will be glad to let him have his way there since anything affecting Portland’s Latino community has nothing to do with Wilson, Grant, Cleveland, and Lincoln clusters. It is a great tradeoff. He works on a problem in which he is interested and supports their schools at the same time. Now, I am just surmising since I haven’t talked to Gonzalez. But there is a great line in Butch Cassidy where Butch says that if the owner of the railroad would just give him the money he was spending on stopping him from robbing the trains, that Butch would quit robbing the trains. This is how I feel somewhat. We need to work on improving education for Latino kids in Portland, but we also (note I said also — not the oft quoted argument in the school board that says we can’t do this because we need to also do this and this) need to work on so many other things where we are getting almost no leadership from the board. NCLB, lack of offerings in poor schools, student and teacher transfer policies, the mess at Jefferson, discipline policies, hiring, lack of a definition of good education, lack of PE and health, libraries, technology, civics, geography, history, and on and on.

    So I plan to run for the board hoping to deal with all these problems and I guarantee if elected I will be more than happy to sit down with Martin Gonzalez and help him work on the Latino educational problems, but then, I will sit down with anyone who wants to talk.

  15. Comment from Steve Buel:

    David Wynde made some really good comments at the recent board meeting. He said Portland needed to be assessing their students in a more sensible way, i.e. showing growth of individual students not measuring against a benchmark. Then he repeated “Portland” needed to be assessing their students in a more sensible way. Meaning that the district should be doing it themselves not waiting for the state or the federal govt. to do it or mandate it. Good comments.

    In fact, he said he wanted to see it done. This was interesting since as we all know, and the board members always remind us, that individual board members have no power. So how does this work? Does David Wynde have enough clout that Carole Smith says o.k. Or was he being emphatic for another reason? Will his suggestion just fall by the wayside since that would be a huge effort?

    Here’s my opinion: David, make a motion, a resolution. “PPS will assess their students in this way also.” Takes 4 votes to pass. That is how the school board is supposed to work. If it is such a good idea then stand behind it. Get it done or forget about it.

    Anyway. Nice going, David, you said the right thing.

  16. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    I’d strongly suggest that David meet with Rick Stiggins from Portland-based Assessment Training Institute. (See my latest post on this.) I attended a 3-day ATI conference a few years ago and was really impressed. Read Stiggins’ Assessment Manifesto, a white paper detailing the need for balanced assessment systems.

  17. Comment from Lakeitha:

    My jaw dropped hearing Bobbies Drill baby drill comment at last weeks board meeting. Like how long has she been on the board? Its about time she admitted that Drill baby Drill has become the NCLB and PPS theme song.
    I had a Charter School Principal say that she wanted to talk to me about how to recruit more families of color and while that was a conversation that I did not want to have, it was interesting that she wanted to be intentional about recruitment.

  18. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    But what good is a recruitment strategy for families of color if you can’t guarantee a spot for them?

  19. Comment from Zarwen:

    Strange that the charters in inner N/NE can’t seem to attract “families of color.” A few days ago I talked to a dad from Arthur Academy Charter in SE. He told me their student population is 50% minority.

  20. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    As of last October, 32.5% of Arthur Academy-Portland students checked a non-white option on their enrollment form. 52.99% checked white, and 14.53% didn’t specify, a pattern similar to Trillium, where 64.97% checked white and 17.52% didn’t specify. (Just 1.21% of students district-wide are listed as “unspecified”.)

    So Arthur is not 50% minority, even if all those “unspecified” kids are non-white.