Mike Kueber's Blog

December 13, 2010

Charter schools in the Rio Grande Valley – IDEA and the PSJA

One of the first postings to my blog concerned American education policy.  The posting was based primarily on a book by educator Diane Ravitch.  Ravitch recognizes the promise of charter schools, but is more concerned that they will hurt those left behind in public schools.  Last week, the Texas Tribune published an article on a successful charter-school network in deep South Texas – IDEA – that was expanding its scope by developing a training program for area teachers and principals.  (Don’t ask me what IDEA stands for; I’m sure it’s cute.)

IDEA was founded in 1998 by two veterans of Teach for America (TFA), the program that places graduates from primarily elite colleges without a typical teacher’s education in low-income areas for a two-year commitment – kind of like a domestic Peace Corp.  There are currently 192 TFA teachers working in the Rio Grande Valley. 

IDEA started small in Donna, TX and by all measures has been a success.  With the help of large grants from the federal government and private foundations, it will meet its goal of 11 campuses, 22 schools, and 8,000 students by 2012, and the Texas Education Agency has rate each IDEA school as “exemplary.”  Further proof of success – there are 14,000 kids on a waiting list to enroll in an IDEA school in the Valley.  That sounds like the movie documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” which I haven’t seen yet, but it is on my list of things to do.      

The Texas Tribune article, which was also published by the New York Times, was not a broad review of the IDEA charter schools, but rather focused on the collaboration of charter schools and traditional public schools (technically charter schools are public schools).  This cooperation strikes many as odd because these two types of schools are supposed to be mortal enemies engaged in a battle to the death. 

The Obama administration, which is a big supporter of charter schools, borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars and made that money available through Investing in Innovation (I-3) grants, with some of that money designated to promote charter-district collaborations. 

IDEA, in coordination with the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District and Teach for America – sought a grant to create the Rio Grande Center for Teaching and Leading Excellence (RGC).  Against all odds – only 49 applicants from a national pool of more than 1,700 – the PSJA-IDEA-Teach for America partnership was the sole winner from the state of Texas. 

According to the Texas Tribune article, the RGC is intended to train teachers and principals. 

  • First-year teachers and those recruited from elsewhere will attend the center for a few weeks of training over the summer. They will also go to multiple sessions throughout the year and can call on the center for extra help. In all, about 1,200 educators will pass through the center over the next four years.

That purpose is a bit inconsistent with the initial press release from the local congressman, Ruben Hinojosa, who announced (as politicians are wont to do) the grant earlier year.  According to Hinojosa, training is only a small part of what the RGC and more of its focus will be recruiting:

  • IDEA and PSJA will work together with Teach For America to create a program that will recruit, select, onboard, evaluate, reward, support, train and retain teachers and school leaders for both IDEA and PSJA schools.  Dr. Noel Tichy, who designed and helped launch the New York City Leader ship Academy, will be the evaluator of the program.The goals of the program are to increase the number of new and experienced teachers and other instructional leaders and at the same time reach more students through high-quality education.

    “Our goal is to bring highly effective teachers in every classroom and exceptional principals in every building,” said Tom Torkelson, President, CEO and Founder [actually, co-founder] of IDEA Public Schools. “We want to help our teachers identify their goals while offering them full support to become successful in the classroom and in their careers”.

    The estimated number of students who will be served in a four year period is 50,365. The grant is for the period of October 1, 2010 through September 30, 2014.

(Leave it to a politician to substitute the number of students served by this program instead of the number of teachers and principals – $8 million for 50,365 students is more effective than $8 million for 1,200 teachers and principals.) 

This focus on recruiting is consistent with the education strategy espoused by many educators.  The Texas Tribune article described this strategy by quoting Ed Fuller from the Center for Teacher Quality, “South Texas really has to rely on their own homegrown talent,” said Ed Fuller, a senior research associate for the Center for Teaching Quality. “You get into this vicious cycle.”  According to Fuller, many South Texas students who decide to enter teacher training programs have low SAT scores. When they graduate from the teacher training and earn their certification, many of them also tend to score low on certification tests. Research has demonstrated that those who had low scores are often less effective teachers.

The bottom line is that IDEA schools are succeeding like any other successful American business engaged in free enterprise.  Many years ago I made up a name – enlightened capitalism – for an economic system that minimizes some of the ugly features of dog-eat-dog, greed-is-good capitalism, and perhaps that is what we have with Rio Grande Centers for Teaching and Leading Excellent.  (I wonder if the name was a pun for Rush Limbaugh’s Excellence in Broadcasting.) 

I believe the IDEA people sincerely want the PSJA system to succeed, even if that success cuts into the IDEA waiting list.  If this collaboration of IDEA, PSJA, and TFA is successful, it might ameliorate author Diane Ravitch’s concern that public schools will become a ghetto for losers.  Possibly this competition of ideas will accomplished what charter-school proponents have always hoped for – i.e., competition will raise everyone’s level of performance.  But America has to be willing to allow institutions to fail.  Creative destruction is an essential side effect of innovation and progress. 

Good luck, PSJA.