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Home » Chalk Talk – What’s in a Word? Reckoning with Charters and Oprah

May, 2006

Three weeks have passed since Oprah’s much-advertised two-part series on American education that aired on April 11-12. Though watched by millions, and saluted by many, it was at best a modest success, and certainly not a reformer’s dream. Despite Oprah’s sincere concern for kids and her outrage at the failure of public education, the queen of day time talk – and leading advocates of charter schools – missed an enormous opportunity to advance a critical agenda.

With high hopes my crew at The Center for Education Reform assembled in the conference room for Part One, in anticipation of daytime television finally telling seven million viewers that a crisis abounds in education – and that there are solutions that defy conventional wisdom.

Earlier this year, ABC’s 20/20 took on the education establishment with gusto and ensured that anyone watching would understand that the issues ailing our schools are a complex web of rules, regulations, and power struggles. We expected no less from Oprah.

With great fanfare Oprah’s crew walked the halls of decrepit school buildings as Melinda and Bill Gates decried the failure of American education and recommitted to doing everything they could. “Great” we all said after about 20 minutes, waiting for some rationale behind why things are so bad. But in the entire first hour we watched, reasons were never given. Instead, as poor children toured a beautiful suburban school with swimming pools and a state-of-the-art gym, the uninformed audience could only conclude that money was the difference between good and bad, crisis and success. The biggest insult for education reformers, who understand that it is management of money, not money itself that is the issue, was when author Jonathan Kozol – well versed in exposing the squalor of inner-city education, broken toilets and all, to pull at our heartstrings – did what he usually does best. He placed the blame on inadequate financial resources rather than where it belongs, incompetence in management, regardless of resources.

We were stunned as the show drew to a close without even a mention of why schools offer uneven education and opportunities. “Maybe they are trying to hook us,” we concluded. “All of this and more will be revealed in day two.” We knew from the promos that some of our best charter school friends would appear in the next episode, and help put it all in context: that all over the country public charter schools are curing the ailments of conventional public schools which no amount of money has been able to fix.

And so when the second part of Oprah’s series ended without ever mentioning the word charter, we – and thousands of reformers – were stunned. And it is this complete disregard for the essential facts of why the schools profiled were even worthy to be on the show, that is the issue with which Chalk Talk will now reckon.

Let’s start with the most obvious and astonishing oversight, that two of the charter movement’s biggest stars – people who have fought and sweated to start and run high quality charter school organizations which serve children who would otherwise languish, or worse, in conventional schools, somehow decided not to mention that essential fact – that they run charter schools.

Kevin Johnson, a man I’ve long admired and just recently had a chance to meet, was someone whom we watched and cheered from the sidelines as he took to the local Sacramento school board, and then the California State Board of Education, his cause to convert his alma mater Sacramento High to a charter school. Johnson succeeded in his NBA career with the Phoenix Suns despite having had to attend a school where many kids would never see graduation day. Years later, the school was the slag heap of Sacramento, and Johnson’s St. Hope foundation, which had long worked to help children with after school programs, took to saving that school. He fought the unions, the school board and the general Blob, and he won – a triumph for the movement, for his kids and for the impact it made throughout the community.

There is only one thing that made such a feat possible – a charter school law enacted in 1993; a charter law which has been successfully amended by charter advocates fighting the odds against the same kind of people who tried to keep Johnson from opening his school; a charter law that every year is threatened with extinction; a charter law that would not be where it is today without the leadership and tenacity of the California Charter School Association to which Johnson’s network belongs, in addition to networks of other state and national groups who take up such fights in solidarity daily.

Yes, the school success that Oprah profiled was a charter school, a fact you would never know if you weren’t working in one yourself or reading policy manuals, which most folks don’t. We’ll speculate later on why Oprah’s producers chose not to mention the fact, but that Kevin Johnson would not force the word into every statement he made, was … well, if he won’t mention it, who will?

Another California charter, which succeeds because of the charter attributes of performance-based accountability and flexibility, is High Tech High. Oprah sang its praises too, calling it an “experimental school.” Experimental? The six-year-old school uses proven methods combined with innovative technology lessons integrated throughout the curriculum to send 100 percent of its graduates to college. New does not equal experimental – experimental means unproven. This one, folks, is already proven.

Why is a word important you might ask? What does it matter as long as we all understand that this is about better education? According to research by the Polling Company commissioned by the Center for Education Reform, fully 80 percent of all Americans cannot even identify a charter school as a public school (including writers and editors at the New York Times – but that’s a story for another day). In state after state, the degree of ignorance about this 15 year old reform which has transformed communities, schools and children’s lives remains known to but a few. Such ignorance is not their fault, but ours, those of us who work in this arena who fail to communicate, remind, bug, repeat, and educate our friends, family, acquaintances, merchants, school people, community leaders and policymakers daily. Imagine what you would think if you heard that the HIV crisis in America was known to only a few. Imagine if you knew only that there was a problem with HIV, and did not know that there was a way to prevent or treat it.

Not communicating about charter schools when you run one is the equivalent of being a doctor and not telling your patient how to prevent the spread of HIV. A bit strident for you? Think about it. As Oprah put it, every 8 seconds a student drops out of school. Dropout rates are directly correlated to a failed educational system – lack of rigorous course work, few expectations, and no accountability at the teacher, school, and district levels. Most dropouts go into dead-end jobs and end up facing an uphill battle to stay productive, or out of jail.

And that leads us to the subject of Bill Gates, whose fortune has been spent to improve the quality of life for millions of people across the world. That is our good fortune, and his right. And, yes, Bill Gates was a (Harvard) dropout, but not because he was not educated (he had the academic chops to get in, after all), but because he was bored and felt he could do more on his own.

Perhaps that’s why his Foundation spent $65 million last year to support small school initiatives, charter school networks and even national charter school organizations. Such philanthropy – following in the footsteps of other modern Titans, like the late John Walton of Walmart, the Fishers of the Gap, and Eli Broad of Sun America – is one reason why more than 3,600 charter schools exist today, and why policymakers are growing increasingly supportive of the reform effort despite more pressure than ever from teachers unions, school boards, and others who eschew the concept because it interferes with their conventional, agrarian-era system.

So it’s even more perplexing that someone who heads the list of wealthiest Americans, and apparently appreciates charters and indeed funds them, would not also make the effort to point out the fact that charters work because they are vastly different from other public schools.

We tried to find out why neither of the Gates felt such a comment necessary, but our inquiries were not answered. So we need to make some assumptions, and invite any and all responses:

  • The Gates’ network believes that the public will not like their support of charters and will boycott the products Microsoft offers. (This is probably the least likely, given America’s obsession with such products which I suspect we’d buy at all costs)
  • The Gates forgot, were coached to avoid such terms, or were edited every time they mentioned it. (Also not likely)
  • The Gates thought the type of the school not important – after all, it’s what happens in the schools, not the fact that it’s a charter.

This last reason is perhaps the most plausible and in fact, it would reflect the sentiment – albeit wrong – of a growing number of strong charter school providers. Despite the fact that their schools would not – could not – exist in a system where all the same non-essential rules applied, where families could not choose, and where teachers were required to abide by arcane uniform contracts, some do believe that their success is owed not to the charter opportunity, but to leadership first and foremost.

One leading charter school founder has often said that the choices parents make to send their children to her school have little to do with their children’s success, a notion that contradicts the very notion Saul Alinksy implored the civil rights communities to understand years ago – that community power has a transforming impact on individuals who otherwise are led through government structures with no options and no power to make that transformation possible.

It may not be obvious to some that an individual changes, and changes others around her, by making choices, but it is a fact, however subtle. The choices made by more than a million parents to send their child to a school other than that to which he is assigned influence their attitudes and behaviors in much the same way that a good exercise program has an impact on one’s mental and emotional behavior. It is internal, it is subtle, but both kinds of behavior invite improvements that impact one’s approaches to others. Choice in education also sends a signal to the children involved – even first graders notice when they have been given something different from others around them. Think about a child at a mall or a carnival – she might be given a snow cone in her favorite color, yet she will immediately want the other color she sees her friend holding. Children make these distinctions from birth. Attending a school that not everyone in their neighborhood or even family attends, but one that her parents have chosen specially for her – one that is clean, safe and appears to them, like their friend’s blue snow cone, to be the better choice – has a transforming effect.

Choice influences teachers, too. There is only one reason why Teach for America has become an automatic feeder “school” for charters – these bright college grads would rather join a crew of people who have independence from the typical bureaucracy and have more of a direct impact on students than fight city hall. Although some do go into the conventional district system, and do extraordinarily well there, the quality of the professional life that charters offer TFA grads has been credited with extending their teaching career well beyond the time they thought they would commit.

Such freedoms are the result of carefully crafted laws that are passed by legislatures, over long, combative, often controversial battles in state halls. I’ve been privy to more than 50 of these battles (probably more, but I stopped counting around then). I know which clauses and lines have the impact that would prevent Kevin Johnson’s teachers from having control, or keep Mike Feinberg’s KIPP academies from getting near-equitable funding. I’ve written the laws that allow my charter friends to be free from union contracts, or be given blanket waivers from copious rules regarding bathroom placement, paper purchasing, and transportation patterns. We’ve created the institutions that are more likely to approve the KIPPs of the world than not. Memphis took two years to approve a KIPP, while the State University of New York needed only one application cycle. Multiple authorizers bring charters into existence at a faster rate – and with more quality – than conventional school boards. The laws that allow this to occur are intentional. Every line in every law is there because someone ensured its placement, whether to make things easier, or more difficult. Fights ensue over one line in a law. And often times, charters owe their existence to such battles and the people, the associations, the grassroots activists who devote themselves to monitoring and leading such causes.

Yet causes have a focal point – an object, a word or a phrase. In this case, it’s “charter schools.” One would expect outrage from the charter school leadership about the lack of attention to the label, but there has been little. We asked our good friends Mike Feinberg and Kevin Johnson, and both thought we should leave well enough alone.

Says Feinberg, KIPP founder, “That’s a decision that the writers and the producers made. Putting on my charter advocacy hat, it would have been better if they mentioned that all three schools in the second half were charters. And at the same time, beggars can’t be choosers. We should be happy that the three schools that were highlighted as solutions were charter schools.”

Maybe, Mike, but how does one go from 20 percent to 100 percent knowledge of charters without acknowledging the primary reason that KIPP could be profiled? Imagine Coca-Cola advertising its lead product as a red can of sweet, carbonated soda that sells millions each month. This would have the effect of weakening the brand recognition, something which Coke spends hundreds of million of dollars to reinforce with every ad. An Oprah show is the equivalent of a multi-million dollar marketing campaign without ever once mentioning the product name.

There are individuals, like Mike, whom I have come to know and appreciate for their dedicated, focused approach and tireless efforts on behalf of their schools. Some of them run one charter school; most have grown more than one, and are branching out beyond their original state borders. Philanthropists throw money at them, and for good reason – their schools excel, with kids who otherwise would perform poorly in a conventional environment.

But the fundamental tenet of any successful enterprise is good marketing. Marketing distinguishes products for the public. Many in education rarely connect social enterprises with good PR. They rely on the content of their product to speak for itself, which only in limited circumstances produces any lasting impact. Oprah provided a few select charter leaders an opportunity for mass marketing that could have had an unprecedented impact on the advancement of charter schools.

Kevin Johnson of Sacramento High appreciated the coverage regardless. “The fact that Oprah and her producers decided to do two shows highlighting public education was very good for all of us,” Johnson told Chalk Talk. “All of the schools they highlighted were charter schools. It says a lot about the movement and what we were trying to do.”

To some extent Johnson is right, but highlighting charters and failing to note the distinction was not accidental. Producers are careful to choose words and phrases and editors focus on what they want the public to hear. Considerations were clearly given on some level, though inquires we made were not answered. I asked a few friends who have produced or currently produce shows for major networks about this. All of them emphasized that words are intentional, and speculated that either the producers didn’t think it mattered, or that there was some effort to exclude the term “charter schools” when traditional education pundits were consulted.

Whether or not the Oprah show overlooked a major reform effort deliberately or not is really not the issue, however. The real issue is why people whose positions are owing to the charter movement did not force the agenda during their interviews. Media savvy people like the Gates, Feinbergs and Johnsons of the world know that if you want someone to hear something, you have to repeat it over and over again. We’re told that producers made some choices, but the question is, with or without their consent?

Nearly 15 years after the first law was passed, the battles are not getting easier. When we show up in state capitals to share the successes, the rationales and the details behind why this or that change is needed in a charter law, we count on our colleagues as leaders in the charter school movement to help make that case. It’s not enough to just live it. They must voice it, advocate it, sell it, and make the connection for the public.

One of the most fundamental books in a decade about how revolutions come to be and how people create and survive epidemics is Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.” It’s vastly overlooked by the charter school world, but should be considered its bible. In it Gladwell argues that there are three kinds of people who create, sustain and advance movements, be they for products or social causes. (They can also be the same people who create what’s bad for society) The Salesmen cause people to want to buy something, the Mavens provide information, and the Connectors cause movements to expand because they make connections among an extraordinary number of people who in turn want to repeat what they say or do what they do. Connectors understand connections, salespeople provide critical mass to a product or service, mavens inform us.

The charter movement is at a critical stage but falls short of what Gladwell argues is necessary for a movement to tip. We have no shortage of Mavens, and our Connectors are well ensconced throughout states and communities (though they seem to be missing the connections necessary to make more people shift their behaviors). But it is the Salesman who can bring it home for millions more children. It is the Salesmen to whom legislators listen, upon whom media relies, and who had the chance – and missed it – to promote their very livelihood to millions of uninformed Americans who have no idea that different and better opportunities for their children exist.

For a group of people directly engaged in education, overlooking the opportunity to educate others is a tragedy and one that we simply cannot allow to happen again. To my friends and colleagues, from Mike, to Kevin to even those I do not know at Gates, consider this a friendly lesson you might give to the kids in your schools. For we only rise to the expectations given us, and I, for one, think we can and must do much, much better.