Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"Counseling out"

(This post also appears at Education and Statistics.)

Paul Tough writing in Slate recounts the following:

In Whatever It Takes, in one of the chapters on the Promise Academy middle school, I describe the impact of the KIPP schools in the Bronx and Harlem on the Promise Academy’s leaders and staff. This was during the first few years of the Harlem Children Zone’s middle school, which were a struggle, and those KIPP schools, which had very good test results, were for the Promise Academy administrators both a standard to be aspired to and a frustrating reminder that their own students weren’t performing at the same high level as KIPP’s students.

Terri Grey, the Promise Academy principal at the time, believed the attrition issue was part of what was holding her school back. As she put it to me in one conversation, “At most charter schools, if the school is not a good fit for their child, the school finds a way to counsel parents out”—to firmly suggest, in other words, that their child might be happier elsewhere. “Whereas Promise Academy is taking the most disengaged families and students and saying, ‘No, we want you, and we’re trying to keep you here, and we don’t want to counsel you out.” That policy made it impossible, she believed, for the Promise Academy to achieve KIPP-like results.

I’m not entirely convinced that that was the real problem at Promise Academy—or that the KIPP schools in New York were actually “counseling out” a significant number of students. But I do think it’s true that Geoffrey Canada’s guiding ethic has always been to go out of his way to attract and retain the most troubled parents and students. And that makes running a school, or any program, more difficult, even if it makes the mission purer and, in the end, more important.

For reasons I'll get to later, I suspect that the number of students you have to "counsel out" to have a significant effect on a school's test scores is lower than Mr. Tough realizes, but there are a couple of more important points.

The first is that selective attrition is recognized as a serious issue not just by critics of the reform movement but by responsible people within the charter school community.

The second is that all charter schools and charter school administrators are not interchangeable. There are some gifted educators with great ideas in that system. We've spent almost two decades overlooking the flaws in charter schools. It would be a serious mistake to try to compensate by overlooking the strengths.

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