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Posted at 05:02 AM ET, 06/15/2012

To Morning Joe: About that charter school segment

This is just a quick note to Morning Joe and his crew to tell them something they may not have realized when talking this week to Deborah Kenny, the founder of the charter schools called the Harlem Village Academies.

Kenny, the chief executive of the three academies, certainly has a moving story to tell, which she has done in the new book she is publicizing, “Born to Rise.” She relates how, as a young mother of three whose husband died, she decided to open charter schools to help disadvantaged children. It’s compelling stuff.

But there are things she didn’t say on Thursday that are worthwhile knowing.

On the 990 tax formsubmitted each year to the Internal Revenue Service, there is a prompt that says,“Briefly describe the organization’s mission or most significant activities.” The answer is:“To improve public education by developing a model public school that can be replicated.”

Replicated?

Kenny earns nearly half a million dollars as chief executive (not the principal) of the three schools, which are slated to grow to five this coming fall. That’s what it said on the 2009-10 tax form on the Guidestar webpage, the latest available. (Her reportable compensation was $447,394; estimated amount of other compensation from the organization and related organizations was $31,044.) That’s more than the president of the United States, who earns $400,000 a year.

The three operating academies have an erollment of 782, according to the website, though total enrollment will grow, when all five schools are full, to 1,984 students. There are in the United States about 100,000 public elementary and secondary schools with more than 49 million students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The school has a board of directors, according to the website, which includes luminaries such as Katie Couric, John Legend, Hugh Jackman and Rupert Murdoch. (Jackman hosted the school’s first gala, in 2010, where a $500,000 gift from Murdoch was announced; Legend has been a guest on numerous shows talking up the school.)

If every public school had to depend on the largesse of celebrities, or pay their leaders even close to what she makes, there wouldn’t be many open.

Kenny says her students have had great academic success, and they have. In fact, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the school “the poster child” for reform in the country in 2009. But there are almost always stories behind the miracle school stories, if you get my meaning.

Education historian Diane Ravitch has debunked miracle schools repeatedly, here and here. Sometimes, for example, the student cohort at charter schools isn’t the same as at nearby traditional public schools, so comparisons are unfair. Charter schools, for example, by and large don’t educate the same number of students with serious disabilities. And they are known to “counsel” out students who give them trouble .

At Kenny’s schools, student attrition has occurred year after year, according to this New York State school report. Teacher attrition has been reported as well.

It is popular for school reformers to talk about competition and private sector involvement in public education. But in fact, it’s not been shown to make things much better for many students. The public education, while tragically far from perfect at any point in its history, has helped educate the country as a civic institution, not a business, and turning to business as a solution for the persistent problems is no silver bullet.

On the Thursday show, Donny Deutsch asked Kenny about how the effects of living in poverty affect students. Actually Deutsch said

I’ve head from so many people, if ... home is so screwed up and there’s no family family structure and there’s all these abuses and craziness, it doesn’t matter what you do during those six hours in the school day. Obviously you’ve proved that wrong. Why is that such conventional wisdom?

Kenny said in response:

“You are there to help the children as a teacher, so you do whatever it takes. In some cases the children say our teachers are also our parents, in some cases. So the teachers just take on that extra dedication. You don’t use it as excuse.”

First of all, Mr. Deutsch, the people who raise the issue of how poverty affects school achievement don’t actually say “it doesn’t matter what you do” during the school days. Of course it matters. What they are saying is that the lowest-performing schools in the country are just about always in low socio-economic areas. This is for several reasons, including the fact that public schools are funded by property taxes.) Unless outside circumstances are changed, including ensuring that kids aren’t hungry, exhausted and have glasses if they can’t see, it will be the rare teacher who can reach the rare student, especially in classess of 30 and 40 and 50.

As for Kenny’s response, the no-excuses mantra is getting old.

It isn’t a teacher’s job to become a child’s parent (and in fact, in some places, parents would sue teachers who try to get too involved in a child’s life). Most public school teachers don’t have the resources to help a needy child; in fact, surveys show that most teachers voluntarily pay from their own not-huge paychecks for basic supplies, such as paper and books.

Experiments with community schools — with wraparound services available at the facility for students and their families — have been successful in improving school attendance and student performance. It is of course, no guarantee that giving a child glasses will make sure they will learn to read, but it’s pretty well guaranteed that kids who can’t focus or see the front of the room won’t either.

Charter schools generally rely on a corps of young teachers willing to work very long hours — but they burn out quickly. We won’t transform education with a revolving army of young teachers. It’s no silver bullet. In fact, there is no silver bullet in education. The enterprise of educating a vast, diverse country is too complicated and too big to think that there is, and the constant search for one is dangerous.

You can think charter schools are a great idea, or you can think they are a bad idea. But it doesn’t make sense to view the corporate-based charter school as a model for the rest of the country.

Anyway, if you’ve gotten this far, I should apologize for saying this would be quick, and I will say that I really enjoy your show — even after the Kenny episode.

Actually, she has enjoyed the kind of positive publicity that a politican would practically kill for. She was, just to name a few items, named to Oprah’s Power List; been the subject of a New York Times Bob Herbert column; profiled in Esquire magazine in the “best and brightest” series. George W. Bush visited when he was president. And as you know, she has appeared on your show a number of times over the years.

I expect you to have her again. I’ll watch anyway.

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By  |  05:02 AM ET, 06/15/2012

 
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