5/24/11

What do Crash Diets and Charters Have in Common?

Having had struggled with my weight all my life I pay very close attention when I hear success stories of people who've lost an enormous amount of weight in a short time. Usually these success stories are followed by a sad ending, "they gained it all back, and then some." On a very similar note, I am very wary when I hear success stories about some school 'somewhere' that managed to 'close the achievement gap' and get students from very low scores to very high ones within a short span of time. What we don't usually hear in these stories is whether these schools are able to maintain these gains over the long haul.

A crash diet is very similar to what these schools do to succeed. They work great, but for a short time. In a crash diet you essentially avoid some form of food, to an extreme. When I was 16 I did a soup diet and for the only time in my life I achieved the skinny. Of course, since a crash diet mimics 'holding your breath', one has to come up for air at some point, right? The minute I began to eat the other foods I have been avoiding, I put all the weight back on. Sound familiar? We all know this cycle.

Similarly, these schools that claim academic success in the standardized tests may very well have done so, but the question we MUST ask when we hear these stories is, "Are these gains sustainable over time?". Two years ago when I was both nursing my daughter and looking for a job as an art teacher, I felt very lucky to land a phone interview with a KIPP-like school in NYC. The interview was going great until the interviewer shared that all teachers go away on a 4-day sleep-away retreat every August. I said that was impossible for me, seeing as I was a nursing mother to a baby and I wanted to continue to nurse for a while longer. She spoke before talking and said, "we've never had that problem before". Needless to say, I did not get the job. When I was younger, and without a husband and a family I did double shifts at my teaching job, yet as a mother of two, and married, dedicating and donating extra hours to my job was just not possible; my priorities were different.

These schools that claim to close the gap rely heavily on these young, not-yet-committed-elsewhere folks to run the show, yet what happens to the school when these teachers get married? have kids? have other priorities that are not their jobs. Seeing as the amount of hours required does not allow for very much personal time, teachers move on to more humane work settings once they marry or have kids. Also for each new teacher transition the new staff brings a new set of dynamics to the equation, further destabilizing the school. How could anything be sustained in such a dynamic environment?

This is why I believe in supporting public schools and strengthening public schools above charters. Most charters operate under this same model I described above. They might meet and maybe even exceed expectations in some instances, but because of the very way they are structured, these gains are not sustainable over time. Just as a well-balanced diet works best to keep the weight off permanently, schools need to shoot for solutions that are long-term, and sustainable over time and do not mimic crash diets.


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