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Mr. President: Be the bad guy, start closing schools.

Many fine people, including President Obama, are trying to make public schools better, but I don't see much progress. Cities like New York, reporting impressive achievement gains, seem to have trouble with their data. The results from great charter schools are neutralized by the results from bad ones. New ideas are everywhere, but most are bloodless, hard to understand, difficult to visualize.
Here is one idea that is starkly different: Mr. President, you have to be the Grim Reaper, the Terminator. Get out there and start closing schools that don't work. I know a way you can do it that will win applause from everybody.

The trick here is that I do NOT want you to close regular public schools. There are plenty of them that are doing a terrible job -- too many, actually, for even a president to tackle. As a constitutional scholar, you know you don't have the power to shut them down anyway. That's the job of the states and cities.

But there is now this peculiar kind of public school called a charter school. It uses tax dollars, but is independent of school district rules. There are only 5,000 of them in the country, compared to more than 90,000 regular public schools.

The beautiful part of my plan is that you have been a huge charter school supporter. In your signature speech on school reform, delivered March 10 in Washington, you celebrated charters that gave creative educators "broad leeway to innovate." But you also said "any expansion of charter schools must not result in the spread of mediocrity, but in the advancement of excellence." To do that, you said, we should "close charter schools that aren't working."

There hasn't been much talk about that recommendation since, which is odd because it is perfect for you. Start closing bad charter schools. The teachers union officials, who think of charters -- most of them non-union -- as the enemy, will applaud your squashing those vermin. The pro-charter people will support you too, because they have long argued that the great advantage of charters is that unsuccessful ones can be closed quickly and easily, since they are usually small and the few children attending them can switch to another, better charter, or another regular school.

How are you going to close them? You can't actually walk up and padlock their doors. That federalism thing operates with charters, too. They are supervised by local school boards, universities or special charter boards. But you can make them wish they were never born. Just unleash the creative energies of the U.S. education department. I'm not kidding. They may look like mild-mannered bureaucrats, but some of them have a killer instinct.

You've been to the Ed Department on Maryland Avenue. You know what your friend the education secretary, Arne Duncan, is doing. He is filling the building with bright people full of energy and ideas, to augment the many bright people with energy and ideas who have been working there for some time. Unfortunately, as in many large organizations, even here at The Washington Post, they often get in each other's way. They need something to get them out of the office and into schools. Put some inspection groups together -- you can call them Termination Teams -- and send them on the road to identify the charters that have to go.

Consider it sort of a dark-side version of the department's long standing Blue Ribbon Schools program. Instead of finding the best schools in America, let's single out the worst. Your teams can collect the data, and interview the teachers, parents and students. As outsiders, they can ignore the political deals that sometimes keep bad charters afloat. In the information gathering process, your experts can do everyone a favor by telling us the precise indications of a bad school. Is it the number of boring workbooks in science class? The droning non-stop lectures in history? The reading classes that do the same basic books again and again and again?

Give us the score, Mr. President. The definition of dysfunction your people provide will prove useful, even inspiring, to states and cities that eventually decide to close some regular schools. We will applaud your toughness, your willingness to show that you are not all sweetness and light and wry humor. Once you have identified the schools that need to be terminated, use some of that $4.35 billion you have allocated for the Race to the Top school reforms. Tell the states if they and their authorizers don't start closing bad charters, they won't get as much money. You can call it the Race to the Top while Burying the Dead.

We journalists can help. The detailed stories of dysfunction your teams give us will make great stories. We will editorialize against bad charters. We will blog their worst features. With the money saved from closing those schools, states can fund new charters that work, maybe in the very same buildings, but with different people with different ideas making the decisions.

It's all about taking action, Mr. President. No more commissions. No more legislative agendas. Let's get rid of scholastic cesspools. In the process, the new charters that are born will be fortified by stark memories of what will happen to them -- as what happens to politicians -- if they don't keep their promises.

By Jay Mathews  | December 1, 2009; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Arne Duncan, Blue Ribbon Schools, Obama the Terminator, Race to the Top, bad schools, charter schools  
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Comments

Jay,

Wow. Surprised and encouraged that you are willing to call out bad charters. Thank you.

That said, you have been inside the Beltway too long. The Feds should not be swooping into communities and closing schools. What they can, and should do, is pass legislation requiring charter school authorizers to do their job (close bad charters) or face some penalties (possible loss of chartering authority). Or, better, tie lifting the charter cap (a key Duncan message) to evidence of the willingness to close x% of the worst performing charters in the state/city.

In any event, if charters don't start regulating themselves, the movement is dead in the water. Your post is a clarion call for this.

Thanks.

FOMBY1

Posted by: fomby1 | December 1, 2009 9:10 AM | Report abuse

I cannot possibly fathom disliking NCLB and suggesting that the president should close schools. I am a big proponent of closing schools that are failing and dealing with recalcitrant teachers, but I cannot see any good in this coming down as a white house edict. There is no good in that at all.

Posted by: bbcrock | December 1, 2009 9:42 AM | Report abuse

The problem is that the public school system is antiquated and lacks the creative innovation that should be an integral part of educational development--not just crazy overbearing standardized testing at the expense of well rounded educational endeavors.

Charge states a federal penalty for diverting funds collected specifically for eduaction to settle other parts of their budget and force them to use the money for waht it is intended for. Set a federal minimum wage standard for educators. And have increased project managment oversight in the rehabilitation of school facilities. Kids can't learn if they don't have books, and floors.

Posted by: lidiworks1 | December 1, 2009 10:32 AM | Report abuse

I agree that all low performing charter schools should close, but many schools with the lowest "proficiency" have large numbers of student who are special needs, such as adjudicated youth, and came in as the neediest academically. Some schools that serve these students help them grow two or three grade levels every year, but that information is not captured by the current school report cards. The report cards only look at meeting the current grade testing standards. Does Obama and/or the Department of Education really have the ability to get the information on who is really serving students when D.C. has failed to do so despite millions of dollars and years of attempts?

I agree with the previous poster that charter authorizers should be held accountable for gathering information on student growth from schools and making it public. Low quality authorizers should be replaced until all jurisdictions have authorizers that support high performing charters, close low quality charters, and have the ability to tell the difference.

Posted by: Lee213 | December 1, 2009 10:35 AM | Report abuse

Jay,

These so-called "termination teams" or school inspectors are being implemented with some success in other countries, like Scotland, where Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education (HMIE) "inspects and reports on the quality of education in pre-school centres, primary schools, secondary schools, special schools, community learning and development services, colleges, and residential educational provision."

Of the myriad goals, or outcomes, of the Scottish inspectorate system, one with direct relevance to the point raised by one reader above (Lee213) is the ability of such an inspection to provide metrics other than student proficiency scores to determine a school's overall quality. By gathering first-hand evidence, interviewing school staff, and observing teaching practices, inspectors can report on a wider range of outcomes; reports can illustrate and contextualize "hard" data like test scores.

I'm not certain whether a "bad" inspection would result in a sanction such as school closure, or whether Scotland has a charter school system similar to that in the US that would even allow for such punitive action, but it may make for interesting research and a possible follow-up story.

Posted by: Educhic | December 1, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

instead of doing anything else, how about the WH and Congress, along with all the moles they have placed in the government, take a long vacation to France where they can all experience what it will be like to live in their vision of future America.

About a 3 year vacation should just about mitigate any further damage this administration will do to our nation.

In the mean time, there are tens of millions of people keeping lists of every single thing this Administration (and the prior Bush Administration) is doing against the wishes of our founding fathers, and will be systematically reversing everything they are doing as soon as they are ousted from office.

They have awoken a sleeping giant called Mainstream America... And we are not going to take it anymore. PERIOD.

Posted by: ProveMeWrong | December 1, 2009 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Jay - Interesting that in defining the “precise indications of a bad school,” it’s all about dull teachers or materials and never about the students, their parents and the community. Any serious federal attempt to improve education will fail if it refuses to consider all factors contributing to educational outcomes.

Also, calling the feds “termination teams” couldn’t help much in their mission. You were kidding, right? Just trying to get a rise out of us? Of course, if that’s all they really are, then there’s something to just being straight about it. Maybe that’s what Rhee should have called her master educators.

Posted by: efavorite | December 1, 2009 11:55 AM | Report abuse

For efavorite: I was trying to provoke a reaction, which is one of the things bloggers are supposed to do, I am told. In this case, termination is what I am talking about, so why not use that word?
For Fomby1, you are right. I have been inside the Beltway a long time, but I have tried to insulate myself from its bad influence by writing very little about federal or state education policy, and instead focusing most of my attention on teachers and schools, particularly those far from the beltway, and the reality of the classroom. That is why I think inspection teams (thanks Educhic, on the Scottish system. You may notice I wrote recently on Richard Rothstein's analysis of the school inspectors in England)are likely to be MUCH more effective than passing a law telling the authorizers what to do. The authorizers are pretty insulated from most political influences, and I think are much less likely to move unless a lot of local people are yelling at them for not closing schools that the teams have shown to be not worth the time and money spent on them.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 1, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

Terrific idea. It's sure to catch on...unless seemingly enlightened charter school advocates are just paying lip service to closing down bad ones because they're more interested in acquiring power -- or winning some political battle -- than helping students. Of course, it could also fail to catch on if those who actually care about kids and support charters allow themselves to be co-opted by the privatizers who support charters for ideological reasons. Or if the media continue to exaggerate the virtues of high-performing charters, some of which force out students likely to fail the big test. Or if demagogues who don't care about school quality calculate that supporting the rapid expansion of charter schools gains more votes than it loses. Or if closing down bad charters is futile because their operators will simply find another authorizer and a new name for the school.

Yeah, as long as those things aren't true, we'll be closing down bad charters...right and left.

Posted by: EdAlvarez | December 1, 2009 2:15 PM | Report abuse

Jay, here's a suggestion for you as a blogger and for newspapers in general:

Have a little box on your blog that tells readers what blogs are supposed to do (like provoke reactions) so your readers are in on it too. Why not? It's a two-way street. Both reader/commenter and writer have roles, so let's be clear about them.

For more traditional newspaper articles, there could be a little box explaining the different kinds of articles (e.g., investigative, opinion, etc.) and what kind of writing to expect from each one. I know I learned this in school somewhere - probably in junior high civics, but it seems like a lot of people have forgotten this and have inaccurate expectations from the different kinds of articles.

Maybe journalists don't mind this kind of reader ignorance or even like it, or arrogantly disdain the need to remind readers of the basic rules of their trade. Still, during this time when journalism is in such upheaval, it might be worth an experiment that tries to guide readers a bit and involve them more in the interactive process that journalism is becoming.

Posted by: efavorite | December 1, 2009 2:53 PM | Report abuse

Jay,

I'm with you as usual. But I'm not sure about the legal mechanism that would allow the President, or any federal agency, to close a charter school. I believe that only states could do that. And, most would probably need new law -- modification to existing charter law -- to do it. For 40 states to modify their charter legislation would take a long, long time, I think. So maybe there's no time like the present, I guess.

Posted by: StevePeha | December 1, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse

Jay,

Your willingness to provoke a discussion like this is so important--and the idea of closing bad schools has to be brought up. We may as well start with bad charter schools. For the most part bad private schools, or even good ones that have outlived their use because of geography or other reasons, do close. As you have argued many times about the Advanced Placement exams, it may take outsiders to truly evaluate something and act on it. Someone does have to be the person to say that things close (military bases, various programs) and that takes more will than most people have. In addition, very few people are willing to act for the common good. I like the call to thought and action though.

Posted by: dmcmahon1 | December 1, 2009 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Jay, you recommend two policies, one good and one bad:
- Good Policy. Tell us which are the bad schools, and why;
- Bad Policy. Give states more money if they close bad schools.

Let's see how these policies play out in
- States with Good Charter Laws, or
- States with Bad Charter Laws.

In States with Good Charter Laws, the Good Policy puts bad schools out of business because there are lots of good charter schools, and parents prefer good schools to bad ones. Moreover, when bad charter schools close, that helps new charter schools get started, because they inherit the students and the facilities of the bad schools that close. So the Bad Policy isn't needed.

Moreover, it's better to rely on parents to close down bad charter schools, for this reason. Many charter schools start bad and get better – and it's hard to distinguish the bad ones that will get better from those that won't. States with Really Good Charter Laws like the District of Columbia avoid this problem by providing lots of support for start-up charter schools, and putting them through an application process that forces them to think through lots and lots of the factors that help schools become academically and financially sound. But very few states do that.

In States with Bad Charter Laws, the Good Policy has a muted, but still positive effect – i.e., bad schools close only if there are better schools available. However, in this setting, the Bad Policy creates a high risk that the states will close down schools that look bad now, but are getting better. And good charter schools will not quickly replace them, because it's so hard to get started.

John Hoven

Posted by: jhoven | December 1, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

Jay, you recommend two policies, one good and one bad:
- Good Policy. Tell us which are the bad schools, and why;
- Bad Policy. Give states more money if they close bad schools.

Let's see how these policies play out in
- States with Good Charter Laws, or
- States with Bad Charter Laws.

In States with Good Charter Laws, the Good Policy puts bad schools out of business because there are lots of good charter schools, and parents prefer good schools to bad ones. Moreover, when bad charter schools close, that helps new charter schools get started, because they inherit the students and the facilities of the bad schools that close. So the Bad Policy isn't needed.

Moreover, it's better to rely on parents to close down bad charter schools, for this reason. Many charter schools start bad and get better – and it's hard to distinguish the bad ones that will get better from those that won't. States with Really Good Charter Laws like the District of Columbia avoid this problem by providing lots of support for start-up charter schools, and putting them through an application process that forces them to think through lots and lots of the factors that help schools become academically and financially sound. But very few states do that.

In States with Bad Charter Laws, the Good Policy has a muted, but still positive effect – i.e., bad schools close only if there are better schools available. However, in this setting, the Bad Policy creates a high risk that the states will close down schools that look bad now, but are getting better. And good charter schools will not quickly replace them, because it's so hard to get started.

John Hoven

Posted by: jhoven | December 1, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

Jay-

Good idea to close bad/underperforming schools as soon as possible. You can correlate the time it takes from identifying those schools to closing them with the degree of entrenchment they have already achieved.

efavorite right on the money about the lack accountability of parents in particular. Many parents are overwhelmed and single but when school personnel call the house for a conversation and there is no one there the student is almost certainly not going to self correct. That frequently comes in their early 20's when our system is busy putting them in jail

Posted by: jaysue | December 1, 2009 6:11 PM | Report abuse

great posts. thank you. here is one more from Caroline Grannan, who could not get in but whose case we are working on. Please accept my universal view, when you have trouble posting here, that the most likely explanation for trouble is incompetence, not conspiracy. Email me at mathewsj@washpost.com and i will do something about it.

From Caroline:

Happy holidays and grandchild-visiting!

An obvious cautionary tale of what happens when a school district tries to exercise its right to close a problem charter school is what went on with Edison Charter Academy in the San Francisco Unified School District in 2001. I'll try and sum it up in a brief paragraph.

Now-struggling for-profit Edison Schools Inc. was then being hailed internationally as the wonder miracle salvation of education, especially by the press. SFUSD moved to investigate problems that the school board had with Edison Charter Academy. Edison, which at the time was making a big push to take over schools in New York and had hopes of taking over the entire Philadelphia school district, managed to mobilize the national and even international press on its behalf, and there was mass bashing of SFUSD's volunteer part-time Board of Education members. The bashing included many false statements on Edison's behalf, and the lack of corrections of the flat-out falsehoods was also striking -- as a veteran daily-newspaper editor, the scales fell permanently from my eyes about my own colleagues' integrity, to my huge dismay.

Eventually, the issue was resolved in a compromise -- SFUSD severed its contract with Edison Schools and the California state Board of Ed took over Edison Charter Academy, which is now just a rent-paying tenant in an SFUSD property. (Interestingly, there is a new wave of empowered young parents coming into our public schools -- families who 10 and 20 years ago would have been going private or moving to the 'burbs -- and they are talking about wanting to kick Edison out and take that property back for a public SFUSD school.) Another amusing note is that Edison, which fought back against SFUSD's effort to sever the contract both in the media and the courts, now tells the story in its inimitably dishonest fashion, claiming that IT moved to sever the contract with SFUSD.

And I have to also mention the Urban Pioneer Charter High School. SFUSD did manage to close that school, due to these little nitpicky problems:

-- 2 students died -- that's DIED -- on an unsupervised wilderness outing in early 2003 due to clear negligence by Urban Pioneer.
-- Urban Pioneer's finances were a shambles; teachers' paychecks were bouncing.
-- Urban Pioneer was openly committing academic fraud, graduating students with far, far fewer than the required credits.
-- Urban Pioneer's test scores were rock bottom, the lowest level on the California Academic Performance Index.
-- The president of UP's board of directors, a local lawyer, was reportedly intimidating and threatening would-be whistleblowers on the UP staff with lawsuits if they spoke up.

Here's what happened after the students died and the SFSUD BOE moved to investigate. Urban Pioneer (despite its financial probs) hired a high-powered PR specialist, David Hyams of Solem and Assoc., who had previously been a longtime top editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. Hyams called the BOE investigation a "witch hunt" and likened the BOE to the Taliban, both of which quotes got into Page 1 Chronicle stories that initially appeared to be heavily influenced by Hyams'/Urban Pioneer's point of view (no surprise as everyone involved in the Chron coverage had worked with Hyams for years). Iniitially, the BOE voted NOT to close UP despite the deaths.

The Chronicle's then-education reporter was a then-newbie, Heather Knight, who gradually started to get it and exercise more of her own judgment rather than parroting Hyams. So she began reporting on the other issues -- the finances, the academic fraud etc. (the UP board president's intimidation of UP staff is my own personal info, not from her). Eventually the BOE did close UP. But there was explosive controversy in the community over this. To this day, less-informed people will huff that Arlene Ackerman (she generally gets the "blame") closed down a good charter school. I've had the conversation often explaining about the deaths (one charter advocate stoutly insisted it was only ONE student death and refused to agree that it was two -- apparently she figured one was OK), the finances, the academic fraud, the achievement. Usually the UP defender winds up sheepishly giving up.

This all happened when our district was already licking its wounds from the Edison fiasco.

Oh, and a very important point: When Urban Pioneer was vigorously resisting SFUSD's effort to shut it down, it was supported and assisted by California's charter school lobbying and support organization, then called the California Network of Educational Charters (CANEC), now the California Charter Schools Association.

So, tell me again how easy it is to close down a problem charter school?

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 1, 2009 7:36 PM | Report abuse

Interesting ideas but good luck closing anything in the name of improving education. Even the evil NCLB hasn't closed enough schools that headlines are appearing; it only carries a big stick. Better to try to figure out what's wrong with the schools from the bottom up. Who isn't doing his or her job? Who's side are the Administrators on? What is the union's role?
After spending all evening pouring over a curriculum guide, I have to wonder who could have possibly written it and why anyone would write it in the first place. It's no wonder school children are failing. Let's try to figure out exactly why schools are failing, and not just charter schools. They don't get the full funding of public schools and often do better. Less money---better results---let's see how they compare. Where are the statistics? Public schools that aren't charters get approximately 1/3 more than charters and they aren't doing so well even with more money. The Terminators need to expand their horizon! We can also look at why kids have to spend so much money to be successful on the SAT/ACT/AP tests when the schools should be teaching them well enough in the first place.
Enough said--there are as many opinions as snowflakes but like snowflakes, they melt away quickly.

Posted by: goodjuli20031 | December 1, 2009 9:16 PM | Report abuse

Jay,

Great post. We agree that bad charters need to be closed, but we have a few opinions about how it can and should be done. Read about them on The Charter Blog (http://www.publiccharters.org/node/1296) to learn more.

-National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (www.publiccharters.org)

Posted by: sarah40 | December 2, 2009 10:52 AM | Report abuse

Jay-
Four schools in NYC announce as closing this AM with more on the way. Watch where the principals go, to another job and/or into an administration position at another public school. What happened to the wisdom of the fish always stinks from the head down??

Posted by: jaysue | December 3, 2009 8:26 AM | Report abuse

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