Shortly after I retired from a 31-year stint as a public school teacher, I applied for a part-time job in a Detroit charter school. Why? Because they were seeking a twice-weekly middle school jazz band teacher plus someone to lead professional development for a crew of mostly novice teachers. I was, shall we say, highly qualified. Plus--I had spent nearly my entire career in a "safe"--and wonderful--small town district. I wanted the challenge of teaching in the center of Detroit, part of the "reform" zeitgeist.
At the interview, a few days before the school opened, the superintendent--who was not and never had been an educator--asked me about instructions she'd been given by the school's founder. He told her to direct all teachers to assign a heavy load of homework on Day One, due on the second day. Students who didn't complete the work were to be punished swiftly and significantly, demonstrating that there were no excuses. "What do you think?" she said.
I answered honestly. Why would you set a bunch of 12-year olds up to fail, by making the first hurdle one of compliance, rather than intellectual challenge? Nothing wrong with letting the kids know, right out of the gate, that the academic work would be demanding, expectations high, assignments complex. No bias against homework, if it's meaningful and deepens learning. But why throw down a pointless gauntlet?
I didn't get the job--not because of anything said in the interview, but because an expected grant for arts-enriched instruction didn't come through. But I was reminded of this experience--a search for the magic, instant formula to create a high-performance school climate-- after reading a two-part series in the Detroit Free Press about Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a charter school.
The feature articles--headlined "Fab 5 Star's Charter a Beacon of Hope"--lead off in full Superman mode, with a mother and her son desperately hoping to win a single lottery-based slot in Rose's school. And he wins! Yeah! Now (as his mother says) he can be a leader and start his own business. Just like Jalen Rose.
There's a lot of this happy talk and coded language in the series: "grasping urban schools," "local powerhouse" foundations who are supplying lots of auxiliary funding for the Academy, a positive thumbs-up to New Orleans as "leader" of the charter movement and Detroit as a "pure marketplace" for "innovation."
Rose claims that he started the school to get Detroit kids out of the "blue-collar mentality," completely missing the point that if Detroit kids could look forward to middle-class jobs, wages and benefits, a lot of Detroit's economic angst would fade--and that Rose made millions as an NBA and media star, not exactly a reasonable aspiration for 98% of the students at his academy. Rose himself did not complete a bachelors degree until he was 32. His contribution to the school's operation seems to be making monthly photo-op visits, and taking troubled students to McDonald's for a heart to heart.
The list of academic "innovations" offered by the Academy weren't particularly original or necessarily effective: More time in school, two-hour ACT prep classes, and a no-homework policy. There was an on-line curriculum. And lots and lots of...basketball.
Problems the Academy wrestled with in its first year were a classic mix of start-up mistakes and a focus on glitz over substance. They ran out of money because they set a 10-student class size limit. There were costly monthly field trips (including one to Olympic basketball camp in Las Vegas). No science labs (students left fetal pig detritus in restroom sinks), no locker rooms, showers or air-conditioning in summer heat. Fights, expulsions and a security guard who had to be fired. A teacher using his own media equipment for instruction took his technological tools and skills with him when he left mid-year. A heavily promoted on-line curriculum couldn't be accessed, due to broken laptops. Test scores started and remained in the basement.
Here's the most telling fact, however: there was 100% turnover in teaching staff--not a single teacher returned--and as the school's second year opens, they're on their third principal. Changes for fall include sending staff for workshops and training, mandated weekly student assessments, doubling class sizes, and returning to a more traditional curriculum and delivery. So much for new and different.
Here's my question: What would parents think if all the teachers in a traditional public school quit? If their children had no sinks in the science rooms, but flew to Las Vegas to meet a basketball team? Or if students couldn't access necessary instructional materials because their laptops didn't work?
When the Academy (which gets the same per-pupil state funding as all public schools in Detroit) ran out of money in May, they held a private party to make up the shortfall. And in spite of what looks like a poorly managed train wreck of an inaugural year, the article is full of upbeat adults praising Rose's vision for education.
Why does Jalen Rose get glowing headlines, a financial bailout and lots of second chances? Why do we keep believing in magic formulas for success, when all long-lasting improvement comes from incremental gains, trial and error, and hard work?