The Data is In: White Flight is Real

I like to consider myself a “Reformed Blogger.” For five years, I authored and managed an interesting little slice of the Delaware blogosphere called Down with Absolutes! When I closed up shop in July 2009, my site had attracted more than 1.2 million hits, a fair amount of local media coverage, and a bizarre fascination of my site by the IP addresses located in Legislative Hall.

Not satisfied with how my professional life had been advancing — and realizing the site had been a liability to me for some time — I decided to move on. I got my teaching job and found a new life as a very active member of my union. I cherish both my job working with special needs students as well as my role as president of the Red Clay Education Association.

But sometimes I have the itch. The itch to whip out that old-style pugnacious Mike Matthews filled with a passion and muted rage that has been missing for so long. And today is one of those days.

Data. We bow down to the data gods in this state. Our Department of Education — under the leadership of Gov. Jack Markell — has an almost bizarrely fetishistic preoccupation with data. Data! Data! Data! We are data-driven! Our data drives our instruction! Data coaches! Data Day! Now, let me be the first to say I do love me some data. Teachers love data. They’ve been using it since time immemorial to drive the instruction in their classroom. However, this continued shoving of data talking points down our throats is not changing the fact that our schools are under-resourced and for too many, schools are filling the widening gaps caused by troubled home lives.

But back to the data. Boy…do we have some data today!! The information is a little buried on the state Department of Education’s website, but it’s there if you search hard enough. First…some background. Newark Charter School is a charter school geographically located in the Christina School District. It’s a charter school in a school district with 60% low-income students. However, because of the school’s bizarre “five-mile radius” requirement (a large part of which is actually in Maryland), a good portion of low-income students in Christina are not eligible to attend: namely those poor city kids who’d have to be bussed out to such a far away school! Nevermind that those kids are already bussed to far-away schools Glasgow, Christiana, and Newark High Schools!

Last year, Newark Charter School — which had been a K-8 school — sought and was granted a modification to its charter. The school will now be K-12, with the 9th grade being the first to be phased in this year, the 2013-14 school year. When this was reported, all sorts of activists who are engaged on the issue of public education cried foul. They claimed this would draw students from the Christina School District who were perhaps more affluent. Resources would be taken from the traditional schools and put in Newark Charter. They claimed the high school most impacted — Newark High School — would see a great decline in white students.

Well, folks, we got the data. And it jibes pretty completely with what was said months ago. Last year, the percentage of white students entering Newark High School’s 9th grade class was 44%. This year, that number plummeted to 30%. Meanwhile, over at Newark Charter School, their 9th grade class is a whopping 69% white. Wow. That’s all I can say. A shift that dramatic could never be attributed to some off-year statistical anomaly. This is white flight, plain and simple. Wow. Wow. Wow.

I’m guessing a good portion of those students would have gone to Newark High School. However, as my good friend and blogger Pandora often says, why would you turn down what is, essentially, a free, “exclusive” private school education at a place like Newark Charter School?

This is all very planned. This is all very rehearsed. I’m going to break it to you: We continue to praise some of these high-performing charter schools as if there’s some magic going on inside them. No doubt, they are fine schools. However, they’re rigging the system. As we’re finding out as we delve deeper into the HB 90: Enrollment Preferences Task Force (and, to a lesser degree, the SB 147: District/Charter Collaboration Task Force), the schools have amazingly complex — and legally questionable — applications and enrollment practices that specifically allow them to exclude large portions of mostly minority and low-income students. In particular, at last week’s HB 90 meeting, emotions became flared by some representing charter schools when one state representative brilliantly went down a list of some of the most bizarre charter school application questions in Delaware.

I don’t know about you, but charter schools should be a representation of the school districts in which they’re located. A school like Charter School of Wilmington is located in Red Clay, a district with 50% low income students. However, CSW has a measly 1.6% low-income students. Newark Charter, in a district with 60% low-income, is only 13.5%. These charter schools are not representative of the districts in which they reside.

The data is in: White flight is real. Except this time, people aren’t fleeing the cities and moving to the suburbs. They’re pulling Johnny and Jane from their traditional neighborhood school for a bit of exclusivity. High-performing charter schools: They’re the new country clubs.

Now, whenever I have this discussion with someone who is a fan of charters, I always seem to have to qualify my words with this: I have no problem with charters. Charters can be a good thing when done properly and with the careful consideration of the overall education landscape. Hell, it was brought up in our SB 147 task force yesterday that even the ed-reformy BS’ers at the Gates Foundation say good charter school systems MUST be representative of the population as a whole. Low-income. ELL. Special education. The problem is that for too long, Delaware’s charter school laws have allowed these schools too much flexibility to game the system and advance their discriminatory admissions practices. The highest-performing charter schools are that way because they have exclusive means of accepting students. The mediocre charter schools are no better than the “average” traditional public schools. The really struggling charter schools lack either vision or financial/governance oversight and/or serve the same challenging student base that have left many traditional schools BEGGING for more resources for years.

All I’ve asked in years’ past was for this offensive comparison to stop. It is wrong to compare charters to traditionals when traditionals must take everyone. It is wrong to compare charters to traditionals when the charters can create applications and admissions systems that specifically exclude certain populations of students based on geography or test scores which then, by default, exclude certain socioeconomic groups. It’s just wrong, wrong, wrong.

Build all the charter schools you want. But the playing field needs to be even. Sadly, we had the potential to see some REAL charter school updates this past legislative session, but one Really Bad Bill drove the narrative and we’re simply left with More of the Same.

Message to the members of the Red Clay Education Association

I sent the below email to the members of my teachers’ union. Considering the greater public interest of this issue, I thought it would make for an appropriate post here.


RCEA Members:

We are nearly a quarter of the way through the school year. I’ve had a great opportunity to speak with many of you across grades and schools and classifications. I’ve heard about many of the awesome successes and even some of the daily challenges that face you and your students. One of those challenges is class sizes.

Let me step back a bit and first offer a sincere thanks to a group of teachers who came out to the October School Board meeting at Brandywine Springs last week. I counted a little over a dozen RCEA Members who showed up – one of the largest RCEA presences at a Board meeting in my memory. What made it all the better is that some of the members got up and spoke before the body, engaging in the process to be both seen and heard. Again, a thank you to those members who came out.

I’m hoping you’ll consider coming to the next Board meeting. The next meeting is Wednesday, November 13, 7:00 pm at Brandywine Springs. HOWEVER, there is a SPECIAL PUBLIC HEARING on the topic of the CLASS SIZE WAIVER at 6:30pm. On that waiver issue…

I’ve heard from many of you. More so at the elementary level than the secondary level, although class sizes seem to be a recurring issue across grade levels. First, some background:

· Chapter 17, Title 14, Section 1705 of state code says that ALL K-3 classrooms must have no more than 22 students in their class size. This is state law.
· However, the state law has an interesting mechanism in it. It allows local school boards to issue a waiver to that requirement, in essence making the entire law TOOTHLESS. Why draft and pass a bill stating a class size maximum for K-3 if you can make it so easy for the local school board to issue a waiver?
· Every year, the Red Clay School Board discusses the class size waiver at its November meeting. Every year the class size waiver passes and some of our K-3 classrooms see their sizes creep above 22 students.

So that’s a bit of background. This is, honestly, one of the most challenging discussions our District has every year. On the one hand, as professionals we realize that class sizes must be reduced in all of our schools – even more so at our high-poverty schools whose number of high-needs students far outpace the resources available. On the other hand, all school districts MUST make decisions that are financially sound. If the Red Clay School Board were to not pass the waiver, then by law they’d have to reach into local funds to pay for those positions – 100% from local funds. To do this would send the District on an absolute path to bankruptcy.

This truly is the case of a rock and a hard place. And this is why I need you. I have spoken at the last few Board meetings about the need for a truly grassroots effort to begin to discuss the issue of class sizes, unit counts, and funding formulas at the State level. This cannot be solved at the District level. Here’s what I need from you:

· Come to the November 13, 2013 School Board meeting at 6:30pm at Brandywine Springs. Wear RED if you can. I plan on speaking on behalf of the teachers of RCEA who have aired their concerns with me about class sizes and the need to revise – at the State level – our education funding formulas.
· This is most important: If you live in Delaware, then contact your State Senator and State Representative.Email. Mail. Phone. ANY WAY YOU CAN. Don’t know your legislator? Click here and in 30 seconds you’ll know both. Heck, even if you don’t live in Delaware, click over to that site, look at the map, and pick a legislator that represents Red Clay’s geographic region. Let them know you’re a teacher working in their district and you want the state to start looking into class sizes and funding formulas.
· Be an Advocate: I mentioned this in my speech at District Day. If someone is discussing education and you HEAR something you know isn’t true or needs clarifying, then speak up. Get your family and friends engaged on these issues. We need change. 1200 members of RCEA can do some major PR out there with the general public. We are our profession and we need to OWN it.

I know our lives are beyond busy with the commitments that extend well outside of the school day, but I do hope you’ll consider participating in some of the ACTIONS above. Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions. We are a large body with an assumed amount of power based on our numbers alone. It’s time to start flexing that power.

All the best to you and please stay in touch,


On Bonuses and Reduced Mortgages

I took a phone call today from an NBC 10 Reporter named Tim Furlong. He was calling to inquire about a developing story — a story I’d only heard about 14 hours before. The Delaware State Department of Education, under its Race to the Top-funded Delaware Talent Cooperative (also known as the “teacher bonus program”), would be introducing a program to help reduce the mortgages of the 168 teachers who’ve participated in the program.

Yes. 168 teachers. Out of 8,000 teachers in the entire state.

The reporter did a fine job interviewing me at my school. And my students loved the camera in the classroom. I’m afraid they didn’t show the crux of the argument I was making: So many school districts across the state rebuffed the original teacher bonus program because of its inherent exclusion of so many classes of teachers and the potential divisiveness among schools in districts, particularly those districts that serve students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds.

What the reporter did show was my response to a question about what teachers do talk a lot about: Working conditions. Though it may go against the media narrative, most teachers I’ve met never talk about wanting to make more money. Never. For the most part conversations at negotiation time concentrate on this idea of “working conditions.” Do teachers have the time to do what they need to do? Adequate prep time and resources? Do their students — particularly those with special needs — have the supports in place to ensure their success? Are there systems in place to work with disruptive students so that the environment for the rest of the students isn’t affected?

I suppose that’s what the reporter showed in my comments, but it doesn’t cut to the heart of the argument I was making through the edited-out comments.

Here goes: This whole Delaware Talent Cooperative has been a mess. When an embarrassingly large majority of school districts reject the whole concept (and when one of the larger school districts that DID sign on because their wrists were twisted nearly beyond recognition) and you still have a governor and secretary of education spouting the program’s praises, then you know we have problems.

Gov. Jack Markell — I’m going to say this now. And please take it as you will. I am really beginning to believe it’s as simple as this: You don’t get it.

Teachers across this state go into classrooms with challenges that few can comprehend. I’d always known how challenging education was before I stepped into the classroom as a teacher, but nothing prepared me for everything I’ve faced things. Hunger. Homelessness. Extreme emotional, learning, physical, and behavioral disabilities. Increasing amounts of state and federal bureaucracy that IMPEDE a teacher from doing his or her best work in the classroom.

This, folks, is what we call “working conditions.” Give a teacher a classroom, a workable, flexible curriculum, a working copy machine, and a few other basic needs and then let them go. But provide the necessary supports to them AND their students and they will shine. In short, teachers from across schools and specialties come to me daily with concerns about working conditions. Never once have I received an email or a phone call from a teacher who has demanded a salary increase. 100% never. It is always about working conditions.

The problem with this whole Teacher Bonus/Mortgage Reduction plan is it assumes teachers care only about money. Give a teacher $10,000 and he or she will uproot him or herself from a job in a less-high-needs school and move to a high-needs school that is often fraught with poverty and many student-behavioral issues. Oh, and by the way, once you finish your two years in that high-needs school, you will have NO RIGHT TO RETURN to your old school.

This bonus program is divisive at its core. It leaves out large swaths of teachers: specialists, art teachers, psychologists, educational diagnosticians, career and technical educators. Teachers who show amazing scores on the state standardized tests are the only ones who qualify.

And yet Gov. Markell continues to tout the benefits of this program. He seriously believes those teachers getting great student test scores will be “Attracted” to this program. (It’s called the Talent Attraction and Retention program. High-performing teachers in affluent schools can be “attracted” to high needs schools OR high-performing teachers in low-performing schools can be “retained” in those schools.)

And yet some people really don’t get it. For the most part, I’ve found my district administrators’ views on this bonus program to be simpatico with the teachers in my district. However, Michelle Duke, a principal from Suuth Dover Elementary School, said this:

“The idea of rewarding high-performing teachers makes some educators nervous,” said Michelle Duke, principal at South Dover Elementary. “I don’t understand why, CEOs and bank presidents don’t apologize when they’re rewarded. Neither do professional athletes. Yet you are the ones who have your hands on the future.”

Education is not corporate America. I find this quote troubling. When I worked at ING Direct, I had no problem with the bonuses. There was a level playing field whereby all Associates could set meaningful and challenging goals and work towards achieving them. There was a definite overarching sense of EQUITY in how the performance rewards were handed out every year. Need I remind Ms. Duke of the blueberry story?

These bonuses are bad. I’m proud that the teachers in my District voted last year to recommend to our superintendent that our District not participate in them. They are exclusionary by definition and they do NOTHING to help solve the challenges that so many of our highest-needs schools face on a day-to-day basis. The governor really needs to start listening to the folks in the classrooms on this one and not the education reformers he’s stacked his administration with since day one.

For those interested, here is the NBC10 piece for which I was interviewed today. Please remember it is much shorter than my interview with the reporter. We discussed far more than this and I don’t feel the comments I made were at all complete regarding the topic discussed. I would like to thank him, though. It was a great experience and gave my students a thrill. So definitely worth it!

Post-Town Hall Thoughts

Gov. Jack Markell’s New Castle County Town Hall has just ended. It was nearly two hours, but went by very quickly. I applaud the governor for taking questions from the audience. He needs to do this more often. Many questions went unanswered. Some questions were answered to the audience’s satisfaction. Others, sadly, were not. In this post I will focus on the governor’s response to education questions, which seemed to hold a great amount of the audience’s interest.

First, I asked a question about school funding. I say this as a teacher concerned about growing inequities in our schools. I say “inequity” and not “inequality” because our schools CAN NOT and SHOULD NOT be treated equally. Students that come to certain schools with such deficiencies because of their situations borne out of poverty SHOULD NOT be treated equally. These schools need far more than what our archaic funding formulas provide. Federal Title I funds — which address high-poverty schools — are a too-small slice of the funding pie. It does very little to relieve large class sizes in our highest-needs schools. I implored the Governor and our legislature to begin to have REAL conversations and discussions about how we currently fund our schools and to look into ways we can better provide for our highest-needs schools. MUCH smaller class sizes, MORE support services, GREATER access to resources outside the school. I was not pleased with the response I got from the Governor. There is much work to do here and I’m not confident that his administration or the General Assembly will take up this issue in coming sessions.

A real barnburner of a question was asked by Kilroy. HB 119 was passed three years ago and outlines certain financial reporting requirements for charter schools. Kilroy pointed out that many charter schools still aren’t posting appropriate financial and regulatory documents on their website. Where has our Department of Education been on this? The Governor and Secretary of Education Mark Murphy did not give satisfactory answers to this question and Kilroy shouted out “You didn’t answer the question!” Gov. Markell assured Kilroy that his question was answered. In my opinion, it was not.

Finally, a question was asked by a woman in the audience about suspension rates in Delaware schools. This is a very serious topic. The question was asked from the point of view of “The state needs to step in to stop so many kids from being suspended.” As an educator, I agree. We need fewer suspensions in the system. However, as of today, our schools do not have the support they need — particularly in the high-needs schools — to bring these numbers down. Our teachers do not suspend kids. Our teachers report behaviors through referrals. Administrators then run those behaviors up against the student code of conduct — a document approved by school boards — and assign the punishment based on that document. These decisions to suspend children are not arbitrarily made. They are made according to the code. Many of these infractions involve severe disruptions to the educational process or offensive touching.

This question goes hand-in-hand with my question above: Most of the suspensions are occurring in the highest-needs schools. You want suspensions to go down? Then you need to stop treating schools in Hockessin and schools in inner-city Wilmington as if they’re cut from the same cloth. They. Are. Not. You can’t expect to educate equally a second-grade class of 28 in Hockessin and a second-grade class of 28 in Wilmington.

We already know the answers to all these questions. Our political leaders lack the will to speak the truth. They’d rather look at nebulously beefing up teacher preparation programs (while at the same time granting licensure to alternative forms of teacher prep programs that give only five weeks of training over the summer) or opening more dubiously-themed charter schools. They’d rather bring more data coaches and more PLCs. They’d rather bring in more testing and Common Core Standards. They’d rather threaten our highest-needs schools with closure or staff re-alignment if they don’t meet perverse achievement goals, a move that dramatically threatens the stability of those high-needs schools that so DESPERATELY crave consistency and teacher retention. They’d rather bring in more consultants and paperwork and regulation.

On many issues this evening, the Governor did very well answering the public’s questions. However, on the issue of education, I was severely disappointed, as I have been in much of this administration’s initiatives on education. If the governor wants to close that achievement gap, then he’d better be willing to ante up and supply those high-needs schools with more in an attempt to balance the scales that are weighted so heavily against the most vulnerable of our students.

He has a lot of work to do. We all have a lot of work to do.