Late last week, a reader e-mailed to tell me I was “way off-base” in my criticism of Scott Lake Elementary’s push for charter school status. I had cited the school’s effort as another example of the class war sweeping through Polk’s schools, with charters used as the weapon of choice for wealthy parents who want to gate off their schools from the riff raff, a la the McKeel model.
Here’s the precise way I opened that article, in which I again called for punishing charter schools for their transfers through the test measurement regime.
It seems Scott Lake Elementary has joined the chorus of snooty Lakelanders trying to seize taxpayer-constructed public buildings for their “private” schools.
Our reader, who knows Scott Lake’s situation well, objected to my characterizations and sent an interesting, well-written explanation of why he or she thought I got it wrong. Here it is:
“The thing that hasn’t been taken into account, going by everything that I know, is that this move is basically a defensive tactic to protect what’s left of the student population that hasn’t been sucked away by the McKeels and other choice schools. The teachers are actually very wary of this move, but support it because they see no other alternative offered by an inept district.
“They are also tired of the district constantly telling them which teaching models to use. From what I am told, the district tends to adopt the flavor of the month teaching models instead of going with proven systems…
“…But the real problem, from my perspective, is that the legislature is creating this territorial and funding conflict between the schools. Because of the racial and socioeconomic breakdown you gave, Scott Lake is one of the few schools out there without some sort of special designation that gives it added funding. They just see no other alternative out there and now the added pressure of the pay-for-performance bill that just passed makes it all that more competitive to attract those top performing students back and be attractive enough to keep the current ones there.
Back to McKeel, I think you raise a good point about the [writing] test scores. Going by that alone, they don’t look any more special than any other school out there, despite the additional boat loads of funding they receive…”
There are a couple of points here worth noting.
1) I’ve never considered the funding issue very important in the context of the abuses of measurement. As I understand it, state “merit” funding related to good test scores or school grading is a factor only on the margins–and mostly for show. I do know that federal money comes in for certain demographic characteristics. And Scott Lake’s enrollment may be too wealthy to qualify it for such money.
I also know that there’s been a huge fight over how much operational cost charters can pawn off on the district while keeping the rest of their funding for themselves. But I have never thought that how well you score on tests seriously affects a school’s funding–as opposed to job security for teachers or principals. Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe someone with more knowledge than I have can assess the validity of our reader’s points about funding.
2) I don’t think the portrait that our contributor paints of Scott Lake as a school collapsing under the strains of competition actually finds support in statistical reality. Again, let’s review the demographics:
White: 63 percent
Black: 16 percent
Hispanic: 14 percent
Asian: 3 percent
Multi-racial: 5 percent
Economically Disadvantaged: 43 percent.
The District number of “economically disadvantaged” is 63 percent and the state 53 percent.
Scott Lake’s test scores seem more or less fine, if you obsess over those things. They’re about what one would predict–relative to other schools–for a big traditional school with a wealthier than average enrollment. And it was an A school last year.
3) The most defensible reason for charter pursuit, in my opinion, comes from the paragraph concerning teaching methods. And this is where our innovation–and fights–really ought to occur. For instance, I’m reading more and more suggestions that separating kids by sex through single-sex classes has a real impact on test-defined achievement. That was part of the apparent success of the school in Memphis that President Obama visited last week. And the charter district in Lake Wales seems to have had success with it as well. For myself, I think the most useful school reform would simply extend the school day to correspond with business hours and go all year round. That, of course, would take money. But wouldn’t it be more productive to spend our time talking and evaluating the structure of classes, and the school year, and curriculum materials than all this class war crap we fight over?
4) McKeel really is an enemy of this entire community–wealthy and less wealthy alike. While the director actually just graduated from Leadership Lakeland, the model he’s built isn’t leading this community; it’s preying upon it.
McKeel mines the community’s status anxiety to build a single gleaming castle, all the while tossing the scraps of metal that don’t look as good back over the iron gates. And then it laments how the mine looks when it’s done with the extraction. It’s a great business model for McKeel and for its director; it’s a disaster for the rest of the community.
Listen to this again from our reader:
“They just see no other alternative out there and now the added pressure of the pay-for-performance bill that just passed makes it all that more competitive to attract those top performing students back and be attractive enough to keep the current ones there…”
That’s what we’ve come to. The students exist to serve the school, not the other way around.
Third grade FCAT Reading scores came out yesterday, and McKeel seems to have done fine–well even. If it tries a little harder, it might one day get within 20 points of the hippies at Lakeland Montessori, who don’t believe in homework and yet trounce McKeel year-after-year on testing. And I don’t want to hear excuses about sample size and resources, little McKeelians. You too can be successful, despite your obvious obstacles. Just work a little more.
Actually, the truth is you can’t trust any testing result McKeel produces because it knows how to rid itself of its potential bad scores. That’s been quite well documented. (And by the way, I actually know a one-time McKeel empire teacher who has described to me sitting in meetings where teachers discussed which kids to drop. So spare me your “voluntary withdrawal” garbage.)
For instance, in the 2009-2010 school year, South McKeel Academy, which runs K-7, saw 7 percent of its enrollment return to traditional schools. Half of those kids were on free and reduced lunch, compared to the 19.5 percent of kids at South McKeel overall.
We know, with statistical certainty, that purging a group of kids with tougher economic circumstances will improve a school’s test score mean. Assuming that same dumping rate held true this year, or even accelerated, what would be the outcome if all those kids were forced to show up as a 1 on McKeel’s test record? It would probably look a lot like Scott Lake’s numbers.
And in truth, you could do that will all magnet and special schools, Lakeland Montessori included. And then we’d have a much better approximation of what schools are doing and create better incentives for the schools to define themselves by what they do for the kids, not what the kids do for them.
Until that happens, expect me to continue to harp on McKeel’s predatory practices in this space. And when I see them imitated elsewhere, I’ll attack that too. This model has operated with impunity for far too long.
[box type=”shadow”]Editor’s Note: As requested, we’ve not identified the “reader” by name or gender. All quotes are taken from correspondence and edits were shown to the “reader” to ensure accuracy in content and tone.[/box]