A Charter School Teacher Takes on the Boston Globe

By Nancy L. Bloom
Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh is right about one thing. His ideas about education really do make me uncomfortable—and it’s not just because I’m a staunch supporter of teacher unions. His recent assertion that Massachusetts should lift the cap on charter schools in order to save the children who live in poor, urban (that means black) neighborhoods by providing longer school days and years is simply faulty.

Here’s a question for Mr. Lehigh: have you ever spent an afternoon at an urban charter school? I have. In fact, I was a teacher at one of New England’s biggest for the past five years. Here’s what I would like Mr. Lehigh to know. Those extra 45 minutes are incredibly stressful for students, staff and teachers. Our school day routinely ends in a battle for all-out survival—Team Silence vs. Team Chaos—with only small bits of learning thrown in.

Admittedly, Team Silence won out in some of the classrooms at my old school—but chaos was always pushing in at the edges. For me, the constant, explosive anger was the most disturbing thing about working in a school like this. Students can barely handle a movie at the end of the day. They are in the classrooms sleeping, playing computer games, interrupting, shouting and fighting. It’s hard for me to blame them; if I were strong-armed into silence for hours, I’d be angry too.

Then there is the longer school year. I have heard the principal and superintendent tell assemblies of children that the reason they go to school is to take the Massachusetts high stakes exam, the MCAS. MCAS preparation begins in September. In March, kids cheer, wear matching t-shirts and perform raps at MCAS pep rallies like the one pictured above. When the MCAS season ends in mid-May, the reason for going to school is over. And so is the learning. Truancy skyrockets. According to the state, this school had a 35 percent truancy rate last year. After the last bubble is filled in on the standardized test, Team Chaos wins every time.

The crux of Mr. Lehigh’s argument has to do with what he and his fellow reformers call “educational performance.” Extend the school day and the school year and presto: watch test scores rise. But this school has descended to Level 3 status and is now in the bottom 20th percent of the state’s schools. Clearly the longer school day and year are not working for these kids.

Mr. Lehigh is loose and flippant with his use of money words to talk about serious education issues. When he talks about buying longer school days and getting more bang for your buck it sounds like he is shopping at Walmart. The teachers at my charter work 10 and 12 hours a day and often on the weekend to keep up with the incredible demands placed on them by the administration. Every year dozens of them quit or get fired. Very few of us last long enough to become expert veteran teachers. Teachers are afraid and paranoid. No one feels safe. Just like Walmart workers, they need the security that unions provide. Maybe that would raise the school’s low test scores.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Mr. Lehigh’s argument is his implication that we need one standard for teaching urban children and another for teaching kids like his—and mine. When my kids were little they played outside after school in the safe yards and neighborhoods of our suburban town. They learned how to resolve conflicts, how to create their own rules for made-up games and how to develop life-long friendships. No doubt if Mr. Lehigh has children they are as fortunate as mine were. Urban children deserve these same opportunities.

Nancy L. Bloom spent the last five years teaching at an urban charter school in Boston. She is a volunteer tutor at the Mattapan Public Library, where she works with dyslexic children. Nancy recently joined the faculty at EduShyster Academy as a specialist in charter studies. Send your comments to nancylbloom@yahoo.com.

21 Comments

  1. I am a college professor. I’m finding that students who came from schools that emphasized test prep are NOT prepared for college. It is sad to see students who were told they were “successful” (based on their test scores) get to college and find that they don’t know how to read a long text, analyze ideas, synthesize different sources, apply what they’ve learned, write a paper that makes an argument, give a presentation that engages an audience, search for information beyond Google or Wikipedia, or properly use and cite sources.

    Test prep skills are NOT the same as academic skills. It is sad that so many privileged people seem to want the former for “other people’s children” (Delpit) but insist upon the latter for their own progeny.

    1. I couldn’t agree more! I too am a college professor and I teach students who plan to be teachers. Oftentimes, they lack not only the ability to read and analyze complex text, but they also lack the ability to think for themselves, solve problems and engage creatively. The fault lies entirely at the feet of Pearson and the corporate educational complex. What will become of my students’ students? Where is the outrage over our children, and ‘other people’s children’, being coerced into consumer captivity by these corporate overlords?

      1. Our children are being used to prove to corporations and to earn bonuses for administrators of charter schools. Educating children takes more than drill, kill, bubble fill! Extending the days and year, plus piling on homework is not considering the needs of children. We have years of research and we are totally ignoring how children learn and how they process information and reach mastery of concepts. The curriculum exists of miles and miles of disconnected facts, an inch of depth and endless bubble tests. As an educator of 40 years, it feels hopeless. Decency is lost, and children, other people’s children (Delpit) are being used for corporate gain.

    2. When I retired I was so lonesome for kids I went to junior college with my younger daughter. Even in a packed class students behaved much as high school students : texting, talking on the phone and to one another, eating, laughing. The professor soldiered on speaking though a microphone so those that were actualIy there to learn could hear. Is that was testing has wrought?

      Have you read ERWC now implemented California? As the plan was presented to senior English teachers a year ago, the word “Shakespeare” was used to emphasize that the knowledge of canonical literature is not important in a well-rounded education.
      My goal was to prepare students for junior college English writing because that was attainable. Of the four adminstrators at my high school, only one read. The others”did not have time”.

  2. To add to my previous comment, I have also taught at a high school where most of us DID teach academic skills. We also had some of the best test scores in the state. Some of this was probably socioeconomics, but I don’t think the rest is just coincidence.

    1. Thank you, Drs. Calirodan and Bloom~

      I do not teach at a charter, magnet, or “choice” school, but at a public high school with a 49.8% free-and-reduced lunch population. We are not in Massachusetts, but Florida, and we are not “urban” but not “suburban”, either. My kids are from all strata of society. Well, MY kids aren’t, usually, but our school does have a thriving AP program. I rarely see those students due to their semi-segregation, as you might expect.

      However, my colleagues and I DO teach academics and it is, as you state, disheartening. My sophomores routinely lament “It’s too long!” when presented with a piece of writing containing more than two or three paragraphs, and seem unable to keep their focus for reading, much less analyzing, even short texts, yet can play video games and text for long hours at a time. Most of my kids DO read books–YA, biographies, manga, autobiographies, etc, so there may be a saving grace in that. (Of course, I provide most of the books and insist they at least have a book with them, in class.)

      Burdened with the RTTT structures, and our District’s insistence of being in the pool of SSNP, we, faculty and students, feel constant pressure, implicit and/or explicit to forego relevant academic education for mere test-taking skills. As an ELA educator, my classes lose at least fourteen class days to testing BEFORE the FCAT and EOC cycle even begins!

      With all that being said, the vast majority of us still teach. We still attempt to equip our kids to think, and imagine, and analyze, and at least acknowledge more than one side/opinion/set of beliefs about issues, both local, national, and worldwide. My kids have “voted” in every presidential election since I began teaching in 1995, and not just the Channel One vote which has students vote, online, with little or no preparation. With us, it is a four-to-six week unit of study.

      The point is, we are trying our little hearts out to help our kids. We provide school supplies, food, clothing, shoes, attaboys, and what-the-heck-were-you-thinkings. We provide social services, extra tutoring, rides (sometimes), funds (often), and, most of all, we provide our kids with a safe place, emotionally and physically.

      Like you both, I am proud to educate. I am also nearly beaten-to-a-pulp with the current national temperature of blame and professional brutality coming from legislators and “reformers.” Do more and do it better does not work when we, the teachers, are the only ones, seemingly, doing more and better with less.

      This is just a rant from another highly-motivated (and successful, I might add) but emotionally distressed teacher.

      1. Ms. Elton,

        Oh gosh, I hope I didn’t come off as criticizing people like you. That was not my intent, and I apologize if it was taken that way.

        I know that teachers like you are doing everything you can to help students learn — despite decreasing funding and increasing pressures and constraints. And I have a world of respect for people who teach high school. I taught 8th, then 9th & 10th for five years and then went back for my PhD.

        What I want to say to ALL teachers is that all the work you do to teach academic skills really does matter. Your students will thank you, even if they never do so in person. Now that I teach Teacher Education classes, I can often tell which students had teachers who lugged home papers every weekend and actually commented on them and worked with students individually to help them improve and revise their work. I can tell which students had teachers who made them find their own information and cite it instead of just parroting information back from an article or lecture. And I can tell which students had teachers who actually made them read difficult texts, made the texts relevant, and helped them discuss the texts from different perspectives and make arguments about them. All of those activities take A LOT of work on the part of the teacher, and they’re too often thankless and unacknowledged by others in their schools.

        I don’t know where the rest of the “education reform” movement got off track, but to me the above is what REALLY teaching literacy means. And I ‘m finding that students who do not have good reading and writing skills really flounder in college, particularly when they are also lower-income students working two jobs, taking 18 units, and without the time or ability to catch up on their own or go to a tutoring center to get help.

  3. Liberals have joined conservatives in promoting charter schools FOR “THEM.” How many use charter schools themselves?

    The MCAS score as the holy grail has dumbed down our education and made teachers and public schools targets for privatization and replacement by cheap-labor test-score factories. What you never see in the charter-idolizing stories is the attrition rate: those schools can throw out kids who don’t serve to burnish their stats. Public schools could show much better stats too, if they could pick and choose their students. Instead, they have to take all comers, including those ejected from the charters. We need a massive public-information campaign to break the myth of charter superiority — before our system is entirely dismantled and replaced by a chain of corporate profiteering factories using children (mostly city children) as commodities from which to spin gold.

  4. Thank you for sharing your story. We need more teachers, young and veteran to start speaking the truth about what is touted as education reform are really schools devoid of creativity and play. Of course we want students to do well on tests, but we also want students who are creative and can think seriously about how to improve our communities and society as a whole. While some charters do a good job, many others, just like many other more traditional public schools, have decided that a test prep curriculum is the way to go. Count how many urban high schools and middle schools actually offer any kind of arts classes? Not to mention have a library one could be proud of or physical education facilities that would excite kids! We cannot have schools be just double English, double Math and lots of lining up and silence! Our kids deserve more!

    1. People whose daily lives revolve around school – students, parents, teachers and administrators – are the victims of test-loving, charter school profiteers. We want them out! We need to stand together. I ask you, how can we take back our schools? The urban charter where I worked eliminated the physical education department. Three extremely talented teachers and city kids who need PE way more than test prep!

  5. Ms. Bloom write about her experience at one particular charter school; there are many others that are not chaotic, that do not struggle to maintain order, that do not have high truancy rates, and that outperform suburban schools. In fact, those schools are make up a vast majority of the charter schools in Boston.

    1. One need only look at the suspension rates of the highest-performing charters in Boston to get a sense that what Bloom describes as the battle between chaos and silence is the norm, not the exception. At Roxbury Preparatory Charter, 56.1% of the students were suspended for at least a day last year. At City on a Hill Charter it was 43.6%, Up Academy Charter Boston 38%, Boston Preparatory Charter, 35.1% and at Edward Brooke Charter, 24.9%. These numbers, by the way, do not include the in-house suspensions that are even more pervasive as they are an essential part of the “no excuses” culture that is the rule at the vast majority of the charter schools in Boston. If you can indeed find me a charter in Boston that really is outperforming suburban schools without instituting a near penal culture and losing most of its students along the way, please let me know. I will happily write about it…

      1. It sounds to me as if you want a school that has high academic performance, no achievement gap between upper income and lower income students, is calm and orderly without a strict discipline system and is a utopia of student joy.

        Guess what? We all want the same thing. If you can show me an example of that in BPS (or anywhere else in the world), I would love hear about it. Until then, feel free to visit my school, which, while not perfect, is working hard every day to get there.

        1. As I’m learning from so many of my readers, the discipline issue is huge. Charters err on the side of too much discipline and end up pushing out kids (one teacher wrote to me that she had a student who’d left a prominent Boston charter after being suspended 35 times). But in the public schools discipline is inconsistent or nonexistent which means major disruptions in learning. The point is that the problem is complicated–yet the official charter message in Massachusetts is that the code has been cracked, the problem solved and all we need is more charters. Would that it was so simple…
          Btw: there are a number of public schools that fit your description (great leadership is key), including some right in Boston.

          1. I would love to hear which ones. I’m a charter school teacher and I plan to send my kid to a public school (charter or BPS). The odds for a charter are so slim that it’s not worth really getting my hopes up.

          2. Discipline is a complicated issue. Many of the students we teach in the public schools have very little regard for rules and standards. Can you blame them? It’s not as if society has any standards for the dilapidated housing they live in, the low pay jobs their parents have, the underfunded schools in which they must learn, or anything else in their lives. And then on top of it we lie to them and say just do the right thing and you will live a better life. But they see people in their neighborhoods who have tried to do the right thing and they are still beaten down. So they ain’t buyin’ it.

            Charters take the easy route. Our way or the highway. But too many public school educators who do not understand race and class and oppression also buy into the myth that it is just about being consistent. That somehow THAT will teach the students the difference between right and wrong. But in reality it just teaches them the difference between “white” and wrong.

            Don’t get me wrong. I insist on a disciplined class and my students often get tired of me “lecturing” them about how they behave. But I refuse to fill out discipline reports in my school because I know that for too many of them these reports will be used to build a case so that eventually the school can push the problem off onto a different school.

            So what do we need? We probably need a 10 fold increase on the social worker/counselor/psychological services that are available for the many students we have who are the children of the dispossessed. We need a curriculum that is not simply geared to college. It is a crime in Boston that we have about 4,500 seats available at the college bound exam schools and less than 2,000 seats for vocational ed. Many of the discipline problems we have in schools are students who see no future for themselves. A skill that will translate into a job after high school could change how they view school. But most of all we need schools that are a liberated zone in this dog eat dog world that is consuming people. Schools that question society rather than schools that demand you fit into the oppressive society that exists.

            There are no easy answers to the problems we face in schools. And the corporate backed charters will never create liberated spaces. For to do that…might put their funding in jeopardy.

          3. Many people seem to think that students act out because they are ignorant. More often, I think, they act out because they are not ignorant enough. A student who knows full well what will happen to him if he acts out in class, and is not at all impressed by the tepid “consequence”, will be more likely to act out than one who is ignorant of the system and fearful of what MIGHT happen if he dared. Students at my school are not ignorant at all, as evidenced by the “hellions” who suddenly and miraculously learn and exhibit social norms of behavior once they leave the school and take on jobs in the service sector.

  6. As I stated in my last post on high stakes testing:

    “Taking multiple-choice questions does not prepare a student for college where the emphasis is on critical thinking, creative thought, questioning, research and expressing one’s idea clearly through writing, debate and discussion.”

    This post was very insightful as usual EduShyster.

  7. As a teacher who has just been told that we must “come up with something” to motivate our students for the test in January, I feel your pain.Standarized testing has to stop! I know I am part of the minority of teachers who refuse to “teach to the test.” But there are only a few of us left!:(

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