Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Milwaukee's children deserve to learn to read.

I was interested in the post by my fellow Purple Wisconsin blogger Barbara Miner regarding a PBS segment on Rocketship schools. I agree with Barbara that you ought to watch the segment. (This link may work.)

But there are a few things about the story on Rocketship that I might add.

I might point out, for example, that, notwithstanding the concerns expressed by Rocketship itself as to whether its learning labs are as effective as they ought to be, these schools have a fairly impressive record of improving achievement among low income students - as the PBS segment itself reports. By at least some measures, they are the leading schools for low income kids in California. Here's one description:

Rocketship Elementary charter school students devote 100 minutes per day to the Learning Lab. This period combines computer-based, individualized lessons on basic math and literacy skills, independent reading and enrichment programs to focus on areas where students struggle the most. Students are assessed every two months to update their individual learning plan. The results are shocking, given the population they serve. Rocketship Mateo Sheedy serves low-income students in San Jose, nearly 73 percent of who are English Language Learners and 78 percent of who qualify for the Free and Reduced Lunch program. Their 2009 API was 926 out of 1,000, making Rocketship the highest performing low-income elementary school in San Jose and Santa Clara county, and third in California. Rocketship’s operating costs are met entirely by traditional government funding yet the hybrid charter school manages to pay its teachers 20% more than teachers in surrounding districts. Thanks to the daily Learning Lab period, Rocketship saves one teacher and one classroom per grade level, amounting to savings of around $500,000 per school per year. They currently have three schools in San Jose, with plans to grow to 30 schools over the next five years.
As is always the case in the Tower of Babel that house the social sciences, I imagine that people will debate these numbers or try to explain them away.  I don't know that the Rocketship model is a silver bullet. Maybe it's not as strong as it seems to be. But I can understand why it is attracting support.

I appreciate that the standard line in the education establishment is that there are no fundamental problems that money won't cure. This strikes me as highly implausible. We have not starved our elementary and secondary schools. We spend more on them than any other developed nation. We have dramatically increased that spending over the past 40-50 years.

We have not enjoyed improved performance. This suggests that a new approach is required. It tells me that "diverting" resources from traditional public schools to new ideas may not be such a bad idea.

The Rocketship model suggests why. One of the things is does is emphasize teacher quality by treating teachers like professionals. Teachers are paid more and, because they are non-unionized, subject to the demands to which other professionals are subject. This is in sharp distinction to the traditional unionized school which, in adopting an industrial union model developed for assembly line workers in the early to mid twentieth century, emphasizes labor relations characterized by uniformity, standardization and job protection.

I might also add that the individual and self directed instruction that takes place in the learning labs (which, incidentally are not "Dilbert-like" cubicles; they look like stations in a college language lab) did not strike me as all that new. It reminded me of the individualized reading program called SRA  that I followed at St. Sebastian School in the '60s.

Finally, the criticism that Rocketship charter schools lack art and music instruction strikes me as awfully precious. The public education establishment, as a general matter, has fought to ensure that choice and charter schools receive less funding than traditional public schools. Attacking them for what they may be unable to offer seems bad form.

Beyond that, while I agree that Milwaukee's children deserve an opportunity (whether in school or not) for art and music, I think that they have a stronger claim to be taught how to read.

Maybe we should start with that.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.

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