10 Ways to Modify the Druid Hills Charter Cluster in DeKalb County, Georgia

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The Druid Hills Charter Cluster, Inc., is a corporation that has petitioned to the DeKalb County School Board to convert seven public schools into a charter cluster. In 2010, the Georgia Legislature amended the Georgia code to enable a local board to act on a petition for a conversion charter school for a high school cluster if approved by 60 percent of faculty and parents. According to the law, two elections by secret ballot must be held, one for faculty and one for parents. One election was held on August 13, where about eleven hundred people cast ballots. According to the DHCC, Inc., 93% voted in favor of submitting a proposal to the DeKalb County School Board by August 15-16.   The Board has 60 days to act on the petition, which you can read here.

Two articles about the DHCC were published on this weblog, and you can read them here (about the vote) and here (a critique).   Some advocates of the charter cluster commented on these posts, and generally did not agree with the analyses presented.  But, the comments were well-intentioned, and provided an opportunity to study more carefully the Druid Hills Charter Cluster petition.

In this post I am going to discuss and critique the plan to convert seven schools in DeKalb County, Georgia into a cluster of charter schools.  However, my critique will include 10 suggestions that the authors of the petition might consider to truly submit an innovative petition.

The authors of the proposal make the claim that their charter cluster will take an innovative approach which will enable them to raise student achievement.  More specifically

The DHCC supports the legislative intent of O.C.G.A 20-2-2061 to raise student achievement through academic and organizational innovation as described herein.

The Druid Hills Charter Cluster will develop college and career ready students by providing continuous learning pathways for students from K-12.  These pathways will provide a choice of learning models with rewarding instruction, an authentic assessment process, and environments that value parent, teacher, and community contributions to the education of all children. (DHCC. (August 2013). Druid Hills Charter Cluster. In Petition. Retrieved August 22, 2013, from https://docs.google.com)

As I will show, raising student achievement is focus of the petition, and in my estimation, the fundamental problem with the proposal.

The DHCC Petition

The DHCC petition is 75 pages plus appendices.  The DHCC petition is based on the Charter School Checklist, which is required for a charter school petition by State Law (O.C.G.A. 20-2-2063 (2010) and the State Board of Education (Rule 160-4-9-.04).  The petition contains the DHCC response to 76 item checklist of queries.

There are some good aspects to the proposal, but they  are subordinate to the uncritical infatuation with an accountability system based on standards and high-stakes testing, which means the cluster of schools will be focused on accountability measures to meet the bottom-line and that is how well the students do on high-stakes tests.

Professor P.L. Thomas, who has written extensively on school reform outlines what we know about educational reform based on the present accountability system.  In one of his recent articles, Dr. Thomas refers to a research study by Virginia Tech sociologist David L. Brunsma.  According to research by Dr. Brunsma, what we know about charter schools doesn’t work out well for the DHCC petition.  Thomas writes,

What we know now about charter schools: Despite the increased support and funding for charter schools,“charterness” has not been shown to be a determining factor in school quality (when compared to traditional public schools [TPS]), charter schools have produced a range of outcomes essentially indistinguishable from TPS, but charter schools have increased segregation (by class and race) as well as underserved English language learners and special needs students (see annotated research here).

There is a great deal of evidence that the accountability system that has dominated K-12 education over the past two decades has not worked. Yet, in spite of what we know, the Druid Hills Charter Cluster bases its decision-making on the very tools that have been shown not to work.

For example, according the petition, the “DHCC will demonstrate measurable improvement in student achievement over the same school performance levels for the prior year; and measurable improvement in student achievement in the aggregate over the same school groups and subgroups in the County at large.”  Although the cluster organizers have identified a list of innovations that they will carry out, this will be done in the context of raising achievement.

For example, this is how the authors of the petition put it when they talk about goals.  Goals should be:

  • specifically tied to raising achievement and ensuring efficiency and fiscal stewardship
  • can be measured using public data
  • tied to trend data
  • time bound and established for each
  • based on quantitative data over three years

There are other positive aspects of the proposal including the DHCC’s emphasis on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math), Montessori, and the International Baccalaureate Program, which was established at Druid Hills High in 2004).  There was also a suggestion to partner with the Healthier Generation/Healthy Schools Program.  But again, these “innovations” will be subjected to a standards and high-stakes testing drag.

A word analysis of the document reveals key words related to the failed accountability system that appear repeatedly throughout the petition,  These include achievement (30 instances), measure (50), school choice (21), standards (25), tests and testing (57), Measures of Academic Program (26), Autonomy (20), board (of directors-150), teachers (42).  I find it telling the board of directors is mentioned three times more than teachers.  These words infer that the authors of the petition are steeped in the rhetoric of accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing.

If the DHCC petition was based on research about the effects of charter schools on student learning, the document would include such references and note that charters have not been as effective as regular public schools.  But they don’t.  So, how will this proposal be any different?

Learning should be an exploration into the unknown, and a search for understanding, not something that is done to prepare for another test.

Figure 1. Learning should be an exploration into the unknown, and a search for understanding, not something that is done to prepare for another test.  (Parkes Observatory, Australia).

If they read the literature or even the newspapers, they should acknowledge that there is a trend in the country questioning the use of high-stakes testing.  In Texas, more than 1,000 districts signed on to a letter suggesting that high stakes testing should be greatly reduced.  The Common Core State Standards have created even more controversy, from both the left and the right.  Who would have thought.  And in New York, proficiency rates in English/language arts fell from 55.1 percent to 31.1 percent, and in mathematics they fell from 64.8 percent to 31 percent.  The Georgia Department of Education has adopted the Common Core for all Georgia schools.  What’s going to be the result of this?

The DHCC, if it wanted to make a real difference in the lives of the children and youth and their families that feed into Druid Hills High School, might want to consider some of the following recommendations.  They might seem radical.  But, actually, they are not.  We have to move away from the accountability era.  Here are some ideas that I have modified based on research by Dr. Thomas.

10 Ideas to Modify Charter Schools (or any School)

1. End accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing

All the good in the DHCC petition, such as emphasis on the arts as well as science and math, the implementation of new curricula, the International Baccalaureate program, and the emphasis on community based programing, will be held up to inspection by a failed system of uniform standards and the outrageous dependence on high-stakes testing.  The unfortunate aspect of the accountability era is the focus placed on outcomes, which boil down to performance of students on standardized tests.  It’s as simple as that.

There are six academic goals listed on pages 24 – 26 of the petition, and each one of them will be evaluated by using quantitative measures, e.g. scores on tests, percentage meeting this or that target.  The quantitative tests that are used include Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT), End of Course Test (EOCT), Measures of Academic Performance (MAP was rejected by hundreds of teachers in Washington because it did not relate to what they were teaching and they felt it was a waste of time), ACT, Grade Five, Eight & High School Writing Test, ITBS (Iowa Assessments).

And furthermore, the academic goals are not stated in terms of local curricula, but instead are statements of performance on specific tests, which may or may not be based on the curriculum at the seven schools.

And as Paul Thomas puts it,

A growing body of research has shown that the accountability era has failed: “the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself” (Mathis, 2012). A first and essential step to a new vision of education reform is to end the accountability era by shifting away from focusing on outcomes and toward attending to the conditions of teaching and learning—with an emphasis on equity of opportunity.  (Thomas, P., August 19, 2013, What we know now (and How it doesn’t matter), the becoming radical, August 23, 2013, http://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/what-we-know-now-and-how-it-doesnt-matter/)

2. Implement a small (low-stakes) and robust measurement system

Instead of the tables of assessments that the DHCC organizers will insist that teachers administer to their students, a better approach would be not to use the assessments listed in the charts shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2.  The Formative and Summative Assessment and Accountability Measures in Place for DHCC Students by Grade Level.

Figure 2. The Formative and Summative Assessment and Accountability Measures in Place for DHCC Students by Grade Level.

Instead, researchers have argued that the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessment system that exists today, and has since 1969 would be a much more powerful way to gather data about the effectiveness of schools.  If you were to study NAEP data over the past four decades, you would discover that there has been a slow, but steady improvement, and a decreasing gap between ethnic groups.  Instead of making every student in the DHCC take an unbearable number of tests each year, the NAEP is administered using a random methodology meaning that not every kid has to suffer through endless testing cycles.

3. Scale back and eventually end tracking

4. Focus on equitable teacher assignments

The focus on teacher quality within the accountability movement has tended to mislead the public about the importance of teacher quality connected to measurable outcomes while ignoring that impoverished, minority, and special needs students along with English language learners disproportionately are assigned to inexperienced and under-certified teachers. Education reform committed to equity must monitor teacher assignments so that no students experience inequitable access to high-quality, experienced teachers.

5. Honor school and teacher autonomy

The DHCC petition states clearly that it wants autonomy, but as I read the document, it seems to be autonomy for a board of directors that might be made up eventually of cronies who self appoint themselves.  There is too much power vested in this board, and it one of the first things that must change.

Teachers and school staff are the ones that need autonomy.  If the accountability system based on standards and high-stakes testing was abandoned, then the autonomy would naturally rest with the faculty of Druid Hills High School, and the other six feeder school faculties.  There has to be a disruption such that the board that wishes to assume power is restricted, and given an advisory position.  The board should not have the power that it has written into this proposal.  All that is being done here is replacing one layer of bureaucracy that already exists with another one, that appears to value power and control.

As Paul Thomas has well stated:

Individual schools and classrooms vary dramatically across the U.S. School autonomy and teacher professionalism are the greatest sources of understanding what populations of students need. The current move toward national standards and tests is inherently a flawed concept since student needs in Orangeburg, SC, are dramatically different from student needs in Seattle, WA.

By removing the failed accountability system from the Druid Hill Charter Cluster proposal, the authors would actually re-invent the original purpose of charter schools–to beacons of excellence.  In this re-invented form, professional teachers would make decisions about curriculum, instruction, and student assessment.  In this system, teachers would carry out a qualitative system of assessment (which would still include quantitative measures), but would rely of their professional decision making to make decisions.

6. Replace accountability with transparency

Individual school faculties would give its students’ parents and citizens in the county a transparent approach in which the public is seamlessly informed about the needs of the students, and how the school is providing evidence that the best pedagogical strategies are being implemented to help students succeed.

7. Address wide range of issues impacting equity—funding, class size, technology, facilities

The authors of the petition are quite aware of the diversity of their community.  If the authors are courageous enough to move away from accountability measures and toward equity, then there is a greater possibility of equity for all students.

8. Abandon ranking

We have a fetish with ranking.  CRCT results each year are published in the newspaper, and it seems that the goal here is to name the schools and districts that are awardws gold medals or gold stars using questionable data.

I’ve written at great length on much of misunderstanding associated with international rankings based on PISA and TIMSS assessments which are given to students in countries around the world.  It may surprise you, but the rankings that we see each time these two organization release their results are based on a national test score average.  Recent research at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark reveals that only 10% of all students that were tested in reading were tested on all 28 questions on the test.  As the lead researcher, Dr. Svend Kreiner say, “This in itself is ridiculous.”  He goes on to say that PISA comparisons are meaningless.  We can say the same about the TIMSS rankings based on national averages.

I’ve reported on this blog, that when these international tests are investigated more carefully, and comparisons are based on important socio-economic factors, the rankings change considerably.

As Paul Thomas writes:

Education in the U.S. has suffered the negative consequences of ranking for over a century. Ranking nearly always distorts data and typically fails goals of equity. Instead of ranking, education should honor how conditions of learning match clearly identified learning goals.

9. Rethink testing and grades:

By re-thinking testing and grades, we have the opportunity to change the interpersonal dynamic between ourselves and our students, and their families.  The idea that a student’s worth in science, or history should be based on high-stakes test scores diminishes the student’s quest for knowledge and self-understanding.  By removing the emphasis on tests and grades, students and teachers can work on goals and evidence of progress.  Student interests can surface as important markers for curriculum and for projects.  But more importantly, by doing this, we create environments of trust between students and teachers, quite unlike the system that we have in place today.

10. One More Thing

In my view, reform needs reform, and I hope that the authors of the Druid Hills Charter Cluster can review their plan, and reconsider the plan.  I would hope that they would abandon the accountability system that relies on standards-based curriculum and high-stakes testing.  And I also would ask the faculties of these schools to look at how the board will be formed, and the power that the board has invested in itself.

Finally, here is link to a collection of articles many of the reform ideas presented here.

This is a personal view, and I invite your responses and ideas on this charter school proposal.



About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.