Charter School Oppositional-Defiant Disorder

We’re sensing an energetic focus in the media on problems endemic to teacher tenure. From today’s New York Times:
[I]n the two years since the [N.Y.C.] Education Department began an intensive effort to root out such teachers from the more than 55,000 who have tenure, officials have managed to fire only three for incompetence.
From yesterday’s Wall St. Journal:
In 2005, when California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger backed a proposal to extend the probationary period for new teachers to five years, the California Teachers Association spent more than $50 million to defeat it. In New York, a union-supported law that bans the use of student data in making tenure decisions helped disqualify the state for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal Race to the Top grants.
From today's Kausfiles in Slate:
In the past decade, [Los Angeles United School District] officials spent $3.5 million trying to fire just seven of the district's 33,000 teachers for poor classroom performance — and only four were fired, during legal struggles that wore on, on average, for five years each. Two of the three others were paid large settlements, and one was reinstated. The average cost of each battle is $500,000.
This preoccupation is understandable, isn’t it? What other profession waits only three years and then awards life-time job security? For example, in Newark Public Schools during 2001-2005 five teachers out of 3,850 tenured instructors were fired. In other words, .032% of the workforce was deemed incompetent and 99.068 performed acceptably. What other industry boasts such proficiency? Impossible. Even teachers are human.

Yet no education reform initiative incites as much ire as teacher accountability and, in turn, instigates attacks by normally sane people on public charter schools which, coincidentally, often don’t offer life-long tenure. Diane Ravitch, the renowned education historian, practically foams at the mouth describing evil-hearted charter operators conspiring to corrupt the sanctity of traditional public school policy. From her blog, “Bridging Differences:” “the explosive growth of charter schools would lead to financial and political scandals, as greedy entrepreneurs and unprincipled speculators discover the riches ripe for the picking.”

The heart of her fury, excuse the shrinkrap, stems from the belief that any intrusion of fiscal and professional accountability snaps at the heels of that American idol, traditional public education. Teacher union rhetoric echoes her righteous indignation. Here’s our very own NJEA stuffily responding to Gov. Christie’s Transition Team Education Subcommittee recommendations to expand our charter schools, currently mired at a grand total of 68:
NJEA is not opposed to high quality public charter schools as one component of an innovative, progressive system of public education. However, charter schools should be held to the same high standards as other public schools. Also, rushing the application process in order to meet an unrealistically short time line of opening 5-10 new charter schools this year would not allow for adequate review by the Department of Education and planning by the charter school operator. That is not the way to maintain high standards.
(Same high standards, huh? How about the child who was stabbed yesterday in the bathroom at Grace Dunn Middle School in Trenton? How’re those high standards working for you?)

Sorry. We digress. Diane Ravitch and her many admirers are no doubt sincere in their belief that charter schools and, more generally, education reform threaten the bastion of American democracy by demanding lifelong professional competency, not lifelong job security. Charter schools operators (those greedy entrepreneurs like Geoffrey Canada of Harlem Children's Zone and Steve Barr of Green Dot or, closer to home, Steve Abudato of Newark's Robert Treat Academy) also threaten other mainstays of Americana by implementing proven best practices for poor urban children, like extended school days and school years. Here's NJEA's Barbara Keshishian on this proposal: "That could add costs for everything from salaries to student transportation to facility maintenance and beyond."

In other words, logical innovations -- tenure reform, expansion of the school day -- are off the table. It's this sort of reckless recalcitrance that wins no friends. Informal teacher spokespeople like Diane Ravitch and formal ones like Barbara Keshishian do teachers no favors by subscribing to an antiquated industrial model. It's practically un-American.

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