News of the World: rocketships, suburban charters, parent triggers, cheating, merit pay — and even Winerip does good

Okay, it’s not exactly what Rupert might condone, but since he and his crew are preoccupied and because our News Nuggets shop has plenty to do, I offer some education highlights from my weekend reading:

Charter Fights Move to the Suburbs Winnie Hu had a front-page story in the Sunday New York Times documenting a small trend in the charter movement to open more of the independent public schools in suburbs: about one in five of the nation’s 5,000 charters are now in the ‘burbs.  Not surprisingly, the story raises some existential questions about public education.  Mike calls attention to the article in his Myth of the “good” school post this morning, pointing out that “One person’s `good school’ is another person’s `bad fit.’”  But there is also a  financial question here, which is whether we can afford a good school, or even a good fit, for everyone. Is the computer the answer? Just as we citizens and taxpayers pool our resources to build common roads and “provide for the common defense,” our “public school system” has traditionally supposed that we get better education by having common schools. Traditionally, that has meant a central location. But if we don’t need bricks and mortar to educate, do we still need a there there?

Rocketship Takes Off One of the newest charter success stories, Palo-Alto-based Rocketship Education may provide some answers.  According to Vauhini Vara of the Wall Street Journal, the the four-year old organization, which operates four schools in Santa Clara County and whose donors include Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, “is known for a  hybrid approach. While students spend most of an eight-hour school day in traditional classrooms, they also bone up daily on their shakiest skills by playing educational computer games and getting tutored in small groups. Rocketship has a waiting list of about 500 students for its schools.”  With impressive academic achievement data for its mostly low-income students, Rocketship is looking to add  20 more charters in the Santa Clara school district.

Performance Pay – NOT in NYC.  Though Gotham’s merit pay program was suspended in January, today, according to Sharon Otterman of the Times, we understand that more than a bad economy killed the $56-million program: a RAND Corporation study concludes that the it didn’t improve student performance.  One of the interesting hypotheses by the researchers about why it didn’t work, writes Otterman, was that “all city schools are already under heavy pressure to raise student test scores, or else face sanctions, including closing.”  Carrot or stick?  Apparently, you don’t need both.

The Times op-ed on Atlanta It is good see that the Times editorial page still supports education excellence and accountability.  The paper of record opined on Sunday:

Test haters will inevitably blame the standardized testing mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind act for inducing this kind of misconduct. The tests remain a crucial gauge of student performance and an indicator of how much academic progress schools are making. It’s the cheats who need to go, not the tests. To restore integrity to the Atlanta system, which serves mainly impoverished children, state and city officials need to improve test security and make sure that those involved in cheating lose their teaching certifications and never work in classrooms again.

And Even Michael Winerip Gets it Right.  I must say, before reading Winerip’s story on the Atlanta scandal, I asked myself, “How far into it before we get comments from the `experts’ who blame NCLB and the tests for the cheating?”  Mercifully, Winerip uses his reportorial talents to good effect this time, and simply tells a great story about how the Georgia governor’s team of investigators “cracked the egg” and got people to talk.  Winerip without ideology is a wonderful thing.

Schools Matter – Even for Geoffrey Canada This could be a real shocker, especially for Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone: two economists studying the HCZ’s unique approach to teaching poor children, which combines full-service social services and good charter schools, are finding that good schools are enough.  According to Matthew Yglesias, a Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, Will Dobbie and Roland G. Fryer,  in a new paper in the American Economic Journal, conclude:

Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), an ambitious social experiment, combines community programs with charter schools. We provide the first empirical test of the causal impact of HCZ charters on educational outcomes. Both lottery and instrumental variable identification strategies suggest that the effects of attending an HCZ middle school are enough to close the black-white achievement gap in mathematics. The effects in elementary school are large enough to close the racial achievement gap in both mathematics and ELA. We conclude with evidence that suggests high-quality schools are enough to significantly increase academic achievement among the poor. Community programs appear neither necessary nor sufficient.

Don’t Shoot the Parents In a major victory for proponents of the “parent trigger” law, California’s Board of Education last week, “after months of controversy,” according to the Los Angeles Times, “set out a clear road map…to allow parents unparalleled rights to force major changes at low-performing schools.”  The radical law – “the first in the nation to give parents the right to petition for new staff, management and programs at their children’s schools,” says the LAT – allows a school to be turned into a charter school if more than 50 percent of parents sign a petition requesting the change. But see also RiShawn Biddle, who cautions that  the NEA’s California affiliate, which has worked hard “to curb the expansion of charter schools and tie the hands of cash-strapped school districts,” will now try to  force trigger parents “to go through approval by half of [the union’s] rank-and-file members, which would effectively keep the schools under failed district management (and under NEA and AFT influence).”

Saving 4,100 NYC Teaching Jobs Finally, another dramatic tale, this one told by Javier Hernandez in the NY Times. It features tough contract negotiations between New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his administrators and teacher union bosses — “described as some of the most chaotic of Mr. Bloomberg’s tenure, agreements imploded abruptly, meetings erupted into shouting matches…”  It had a happy ending, if you consider the job-saving felicitous, but it’s worth reading and wondering, Does any of this really improve the education opportunities of our children?

–Peter Meyer

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College