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Building Public Schools That Work

By Matthew Yglesias on May 14, 2009 at 2:26 pm

"Building Public Schools That Work"

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It’s been out already for a while, but I highly recommend Doug McGray’s recent New Yorker profile of Steve Barr. Barr runs Green Dot, a public charter school consortium that’s a bit different from most charters in that it’s teachers are unionized and it has somewhat more of a militant, community-organizer spirit. But from a strict policy point of view, the most important issue that McGray discusses is probably the fact that Barr’s latest undertaking is a very large high school:

Old-timers and union loyalists who left Locke after the takeover insisted that Green Dot would find a way to weed out problem kids. Others, such as Cubias, worried that uniforms and the promise of tougher discipline would simply keep bad kids away. But teachers and administrators went out into the neighborhood to visit hundreds of parents and students and encourage them to reënroll. Eighty-five per cent of Locke students returned. (In a normal year, only seventy per cent would come back from summer break.) That meant hundreds more than either Green Dot or the city had projected. [...]

And, for the first time at a Green Dot school, there is no lottery process for admission. There is no waiting list. Locke is serving every kid in the neighborhood, including ones whose parents, in another neighborhood, would never research alternatives to the big traditional school. “Every child who is in his other schools is there because they have an advocate,” Cortines said. “Not so at Locke. They took the whole population.”

This is the accusation that tends to dog successful charter school experiments—that they’re skimming kids with the most education-oriented parents and this skews their results upward. Charter proponents have a range of replies to that accusation, noting that most of the major charters held up as models do in fact make extremely active recruitment efforts and also that successful charters show year-to-year improvements in student performance. But still, this air of suspicion isn’t going to be really cleared until there are examples of charters working as comprehensive providers. And that’s what the new, Green Dot-ified Locke High School will be—the high school that kids in a broad swathe of Watts attend. So if Barr can show even modest improvements, that will be an important signal to other large LA high schools.

On the merits the fact that different cities get substantially different results with demographically similar students ought to do enough to convince people that what happens in the classroom matters. But realistically, an example from the next neighborhood over is going to have more impact on LAUSD than will examples from Boston.

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