20 October 2010

Shifting Education's Roots

 Mr. Canada and his charter schools have struggled with the same difficulties faced by other urban schools, even as they outspend them. After a rocky start several years ago typical of many new schools, Mr. Canada’s two charter schools, featured as unqualified successes in “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” the new documentary, again hit choppy waters this summer, when New York State made its exams harder to pass.

This is where Sharon Otterman starts her piece in Wednesday’s New York Times.  She proceeds to paint a more hazy picture of Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone.  With the change of testing standards, the HCZ has come back to earth with scores that are not as stellar as the money trail and program worship would lead one to think.

At a cost of just over $16,000 a year per student (compared to $14,452 for other city schools), the HCZ affords the opportunity for smaller classes, trips around the world and long lines to get in the door.  However, only 15% of 7th graders passed the English section of the 2010 NY state exam.
Over all, 38 percent of Promise Academy I’s students in third through sixth grade passed the 2010 English test under the state’s new guidelines, placing it in the lower half of charter schools citywide, and below the city’s overall passing rate of 42 percent. In Harlem as a whole, just 29 percent of children passed.
So, on the upside, the rate of passing is significantly higher than the rest of Harlem.  If students did not go to HCZ they would have a lower chance of passing the English section.  While nice, the rate of 38% is far too low and Canada recognizes it.
The elementary school tells a different story:
Promise Academy II, an elementary school that occupies part of a public school building, did better, with 62 percent passing in English, among the top 10 percent of charters.  Both schools continued to outperform the city in math, with 60 percent passing in one school and 81 percent in the other.
Math is a strength of the HCZ, but English is still a bit behind.  The elementary school does significantly better and that gives reason to hold some level of judgment for the present third graders to move through the middle school.
What else has the HCZ the done well?
Its after-school college advice office has helped place 650 students in college, and it supports them until they graduate. Its asthma initiative has drastically reduced emergency room visits and missed school days among its 1,000 participants. Preschool students have made bounds in kindergarten readiness. Parent satisfaction in the charter schools, as measured by city surveys, is high.
So, at the moment, it is fair to say that the jury is still out on the HCZ.  There are things that they do well, but it is not a resounding success as media, such as “Waiting for Superman,” will lead us to believe.  The concern is the fact that Canada is gaining more financial support and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is talking about scaling successful programs.
If the HCZ continues to find success, then there can be tools learned from the model which can be applied to cities.  However, it is wrong to assume that a program that works in Harlem will be successful in Los Angeles, let alone the Bronx.
It is also concerning that the leading reform ideas are trapped within the current educational structures.  This RSA talk by Sir Ken Robinson offers some evidence that shows what is wrong at the root.  He picks out the problems and offers some solutions that do not simply work within the current educational structures.
Photo Credit: Harlem Bespoke