This morning became a somewhat involved research project and philosophy review, mixed with morality and sprinkled by determining my level of desperation for full time employment.  As with all good thinking and then writing, it is important to make sure you are using the correct vocabulary for what you are explaining/describing.  In addition, it is important to have appropriate verbiage by other learned people who are more adept at explaining difficult concepts you wish to explore. 

 Since this is the age of ‘technology’ and this piece is not being submitted for grade or transcript (more on this specific reference later), I chose to use the lesser, immediately available computer resources.  I am not attempting to diminish the quality of the content supplied via on line sources;  I want people to understand the nature of the selection of sources.

One of three definitions supplied by Merriam-Websters Online Dictionary for the word veneer:

 a superficial or deceptively attractive appearance, display, or effect : facade, gloss <a veneer of tolerance>

The ruling class exploits and oppresses the subject class. As a result there is a basic conflict of interest between the two classes.

When I think of veneer, I tend to immediately use the Ikea example – great, cheap and purposeful but ultimately disposable furniture which tends to have a limited life span.  Typically Ikea uses a nice quality veneer to finish off anything with wood and often times they do use whole wood (not processed ply or particle) and it serves the immediate purpose well – although the amount of ‘free’ Ikea this, that and the other on Craigslist can cause concern around the concept of disposable – not as disposable as a baby diaper but less disposable than Duncan Phyfe.  

Using the analogy above of Ikea, I tend to look at charter schools through this lens.  Charter schools meet the American societial need of instant gratification through a deceptively attractive appearance (most notably the ‘web site’), often at a previously used school site or industrial facility which has been modified to meet the standards of today in relationship to everything from asbestos, lead paint to technology and fire doors.   There is an organized display of student work, print outs and graphs of grades, citizenship and other ephemera, but the school is, well, a school with a veneer.  

I would feel differently about charter schools if, and this is the huge if, they were not a business model.  A not for profit business model is

 A non-profit organization (abbreviated as NPO, also known as a not-for-profit organization) is an organization that does not distribute its surplus funds to owners or shareholders, but instead uses them to help pursue its goals. – Wikipedia

Since charter schools operate as a business venture, they are most tied to standard business practices which can include profitablity or return on investment. Although I don’t believe any charter school has been able to ‘reinvest’ its monies into its own programs (hence the never ending search for funding), the return on investment component is actually an emotive model with no data to support it.  Charter schools operate under the ideology that they make society better by educating more students and put more appropriately educated and trained people into the workforce (via college and/or tradeschool). 

There are exactlyfour measures of success which can be evaluated at any school (regular public, charter public or private): (1) grades and standardized test grades (2) student longevity at a particular school (3) staff longevity (4) ending up with extra funds at end of the school year.  All schools are implicitly expected to prepare students for future success and community membership by obtaining a job via a trade or professional designation.

All other factors vary greatly since charter schools are often not just community schools, but schools of choice and parents figure out how to get their child to a school of their choice in the same manner as a private school.  Charter schools use the same state standards, textbooks, curriculum and off the shelf literacy and math intervention packages.  Currently, most schools of all types now use similar food purveyors.   Although charter schools state the economic and racial facts of their school, these are based both on composition by immediate community members and those parents who get their children to said school so there may not be the same variability of a school in an area which serves a larger, broader community.

Once you get past the previous two paragraphs, a charter school is veneer based on how well their development department can do fund raising and how well the marketing department can attract attention.  Being a not for profit even sounds ‘nice’ although it is a form of a business model in the same vein as a religious organization (Jewish, Muslim, Christian, B’hai, Bhuddist and so on, to give examples) who uses any monetary resources to further their own ideology by putting the money back into their own business venture.

Although charter schools are supposed to be governed by community members and not the school district, these lines are often blurred through political issues, facility sharing, economies of scale and other factors which help businesses function within budget.   Since almost no one knows what a charter school is (including teachers at the school and parents of students attending the school) except an ‘alternative’ it is rare to find oversight of any degree and most of the oversight comes in the form of business as opposed to educational since it is difficult to regulate and make any sense of a determination about a school with less than five years of test scores. 

 In the gray areas of whether a charter school is a school or a business, many, many interesting things happen and it is this lax environment where many charter schools thrive and provide a particularly virulent ideology which actually, due to the veneer, sounds wonderful but belies some moderately distasteful issues.

 This piece caught my attention a week ago and I am inserting it here to help others understand the charter school navigational issues BEFORE I address my experiences

When you read the article mentioned above, you should note the following:

CAVA schools rely on the honor system because, short of fingerprint or facial recognition, there is no way to be sure who is tapping at the keyboard.

K12 reports that its students test “near state averages,” according to documents filed with the S.E.C. Last year, at CAVA’s San Mateo school, 57 percent of students achieved proficiency or above in English; 33 percent were proficient or advanced in math. Nearly 30 percent of the high school students drop out, which is higher than the state average of 24 percent.

Oversight for California public charter schools falls to the authorizing districts. Although the Jefferson Elementary School district reviews CAVA’s curriculum and its budget, it lacks the manpower to verify the records.

“We have to take their word for it (grades),” said Enrique Navas, assistant superintendent of business services at the district. “It’s a paper review.”  *

He added that there was minimal overhead and minimal (financial) accountability.-Luis Huerta **

*  and ** are important for the following: If San Mateo USD can not afford to do the ‘paper review’, I can guarantee, Oakland, SFUSD, etc. lack the manpower and money to do the paper review, which means, trust becomes a big deal………   and if teachers and principals cheat, I can guarantee parents cheat.   And, I might add, the cheating is not just with on line charter schools as I have had experiences with free standing charter schools where teachers and administrators cheat to improve test scores.

Cheating is interesting in that it is not just test scores which are manipulated. Cheating can be grades given (inflated), cheating can be giving credits/units at high school, college and so on.  Cheating, as defined, is  (1)  to deprive of something valuable by the use of deceit or fraud
(2)  to influence or lead by deceit, trick, or artifice  (3)  to elude or thwart by or as if by outwitting.

Charter schools use a very proper and good natured veneer, full of purpose and nice colors to cheat in multiple ways.  I will address the ones I have been privy to so I can get back to the issue of grades and/or transcripts noted in the opening.

(1) In Oakland, a charter school where the principal specifically told the RSP teacher in a staff meeting (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) it was okay to talk to a parent and assure her it was okay that her daughter, who was special needs, not struggle with the standardized testing and could request in writing for her daughter not to take the test.  It was also noted the RSP teacher could speak to parents of other students in similar circumstances.   Said charter school is now working at amping up its special ed program as it somehow found out a school can not have parents dismiss an IEP at a charter school, merely because the school is a ‘school of choice’ and lacks funding for adequate implementation of an IEP.

(2) Perpetual release question review and special test prep just prior to spring testing.

(3) Tubing by teachers and principal. If you do not know what this is, please read NY Times article above. It is common practice in public schools and has been done as long as I have been teaching.

(4) Grade inflation, whereby you( in my case math and science teacher)  are instructed by your principal at end of semester(s) to ‘manipulate’ the data in such a way the numbers show more students ‘passing’ and moving on to next grade, even when they may be in a literacy and/or math intervention program.  There is a program called Grade Pro which will let you configure the grade cuts such that on a scale of 1-10, you could make a cut at 8.95 instead of 9 and that would put at least one more student over the top….., offer a struggling student an alternate assignment to make up within 48 hours of grades being done – an assignment that can, in effect demonstrate a semesters worth of learning but not be too difficult.

(5) Independent study packets which are not graded for quality of answers (as in, does the student get “it”) but a type of crystal ball ‘global’ I feel method is applied because the population is not in one place very long and they need to get their high school diploma credits.  A student can obtain a diploma IF TEACHERS ATTEST to their passing the content and essentially use any type of ‘assessment’ they choose.  Passing the CAHSEE, spring testing, etc. are other items whereby the CAHSEE can be taken over and over until passed to provide the documentation of at least 4-8th Grade level literacy and math (algebra).   Passing the CAHSEE is a new requirement for a high school diploma, however, it can be obtained without ever effectively going to school.  I witnessed this particular foible this past week while looking into a potential new job.  When I realized what the game was about (the independent study school is specifically for parolees), I could not participate as it merely reinforces the victimization of the very same population ( this school did it around the veneer of restorative justice) which has been played by the system forever. Further reinforcing the system is about jumping through hoops, not really being functionally literate or having math skills, is not what I am about, no matter how nice the veneer.

(6) Resetting the baseline of test scores by creating a ‘new’ school, for example a charter school.  It takes one year for each grade to get a baseline. The next year is when growth must begin to be demonstrated. Resetting the baseline is great for school districts which have schools that are on the list of not having adequate AYP growth as it gives a reprieve to the students and staff whether or not the staff is actually reconfigured.

(7) And the best scam of all, the one charter schools are really successful at because they are in fact a business which does grant writing for additional funding – fudging the evaluation data ( Funders want to know that their dollars actually did some good. So decide now how you will evaluate the impact of your project. Include what records you will keep or data you will collect, and how you will use that data.)  to the organization who ‘fronted’ the money for your program.     Charter schools are wonderful at the touchy/feely veneer and great at creating manipulated statistics alongside standardized test scores to ‘demonstrate’ how much good the funding was for the students.  As a general rule, charter schools cull the data at the last possible minute, have the development director make it nice (and make nice to the organization which supplied the money) and provide self referential anecdotals.  

At the end of the day, it is actually my wonder if charter schools do anything differently or better except for marketing, fund raising and veneer.  Since I have only been able to find data regarding how many students are in college at various points through,  I am not sure charter schools are better. What I do know is they are equally culpable of cheating and in some cases, since they have more at stake, more egregious in areas of data.

Sadly, I have been accused of not being a ‘player’ because I will not go along with the various games at school of grade inflation, manifestations of ‘cheating’ or just making the data sing.  Due to this issue, if I were to name names of specific people and schools who do, I would have the equivalent of a fatwah (by some local school districts) placed on me for speaking freely and truthfully about my experiences both within charter schools and regular public schools.  You become dangerous if you actually ask questions and ‘know’ what is going on.  So, when the burden gets to be too much, I leave rather than succomb to the pressure and games I am asked to play to get those numbers and test scores up.  Being moral has a correlation with being unemployed….