by Max Brantley
Channel 4 reports some of the discussion at the Little Rock City Board last night about interest on the city's part in obtaining power in the city's district court to take more control of truancy cases and speed their handling. There's a concern — almost certainly legitimate — that truant teens are at least part of the explanation for city crime problems.
Related reading: An interesting essay by an education reform watcher about a similar problem in New Orleans. That city has turned over most education to charter schools and closed schools in the poorest, roughest neighborhoods. (Those closed schools, wouldn't you know it?, had the worst test scores.) Charter schools need not trouble themselves with the hard-core cases. Five unexcused absences and the students are gone from charters. The remnant conventional schools must keep enrolling them and trying to reach them. That's good for the surrounding community, by the way, particularly when a vigorous truancy effort keeps them in classrooms more often than not. Better in school than on the streets. Not so good for the test scores in those schools. The researcher writes of the reshaping of New Orleans into a charterized system with the Recovery School District:
Prior to the Takeover, students who were unmotivated, uninterested in learning, disruptive, and who came from dysfunctional families filled New Orleans high schools, causing low School Performance Scores. Charter schools were created to develop innovative ways to teach these difficult-to-teach students. Instead, charter schools were granted the authority to simply expel them. New ideas on how to teach disruptive and unmotivated students have not emerged from charter schools simply because charter schools are under no obligation to teach these students. Also, difficult-to-teach students are discarded from the low performing schools that are closed by the RSD at the end of each year.
So, here's the irony: If the city is successful at achieving a higher enrollment of hard cases in the school district, parents of less disadvantaged children may be even more likely to want to flee. Charter advocates argue these children should have safe harbor options. The unspoken rest of that position is the implicit abandonment of the tough cases to other schools, whose teachers may then be blamed for "failure," as measured by the test-score god. I remind you of my column last week that shows some of the state's most heralded safe harbor charter schools have scored average to below-average in assessments comparing students of similar economic background.
No solution offered here, just hand-wringing. Of course we should try to keep all students of school age in school as much as possible and try as hard as possible to reach them. But let's be a little bit more nuanced in assessing blame for the unreachables.