May 4, 2006

Russell Byers Charter School

Joanne Jacobs mentioned today that she'll be visiting Philadelphia on May 17th to promote her new book Our School. She'll be appearing at the Russell Byers Charter School which is only a few blocks from where I work in downtown Philly. Woohoo!

I hadn't heard of the Russell Byers Charter School, so I checked out their website.

I don't like what I found. Their curriculum is an "innovative, hands-on academic program, Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound":
The Russell Byers Charter School is a learning community, built on the structures and principles of its educational model: Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound. In the Russell Byers community, students learn by doing. Academic goals are linked to adventure, service work, teamwork, and character development. And education becomes a partnership between student and teacher, as supported by enlightened school leadership and committed parents.

This partnership is key to the school’s overarching goal: empowering students to take responsibility for their own education. At RBCS, students are on a journey of self-discovery and knowledge acquisition, and teachers provide guidance for this journey, drawing on experience, compassion, and respect for diverse learning styles, backgrounds, and needs.

Using the ELOB model, students are supported in developing new skills and achieving mastery of them. As their confidence grows, so does their natural curiosity -- and their desire to try more complex assignments. This active engagement holds students' interest in the classroom and over time, enables an even more important development: it changes their way of being in the world. It turns them into lifelong learners, ever-capable of taking on a challenge.

Sounds to me like the height of nuttiness and completely inappropriate for the kids who likely attend the The Russell Byers Charter School. Strike that. It sounds inappropriate for any kid who values their education.

According to their website, the school has been around for five years now. That seems like sufficient time for the implementation to have stabilized. Let's head over to School Matters and see how the school is doing on the fifth grade PSSAs:

Reading: 20th percentile (state avg: 68th percentile)

Math: 8.6th percentile (state avg: 69th percentile)

Zoinks. Those scores are abysmal by any standard. And, there is no doubt in my mind that the nutty curriculum is fully to blame.

Let's check out the research on the Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound curriculum:

The CSRQ Center reviewed 24 quantitative studies for effects of Expeditionary Learning on student achievement. Of those, one study met CSRQ Center standards for rigor of research design. Based on its research design, the Center considers the findings of this study suggestive, which means that the Center has limited confidence in the study’s results. Because results of this study were neither statistically significant nor in a positive direction, the overall rating of the effects of this model on student achievement is zero.

The study that met standards used a matched comparison research design to compare the pre- to post-Expeditionary Learning achievement test score gains to gains in nonrestructuring schools over the same time period (1995–1999).

The test scores were composite measures of five subject areas of the TerraNova standardized achievement test (reading, language, math, science, and social studies). Results showed that Expeditionary Learning schools saw decreases in scores, relative to comparison schools, though the difference was not statistically significant.
I don't know what's worse--having almost 96% of your research thrown out because you don't know how to conduct scientific research or getting beat by the control group in the only valid study you could pull off.

There really should be such a thing as educational malpractice. Could you imagine having a jury find out that your educational philosophy is based on ten design principles, one of which is:
Wonderful ideas. Students are involved in activities
that require contemplation, reflection, and experimentation.
I kid you not. (That's from the AIR study I cited above, read the whole thing, as they say.)

On the bright side, the Russell Byers Charter School at least confirms the one valid study. We can now say with some confidence that the Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound curriculum will most likely lead to no increase in student achievement.

Luckily Russell Byers is a charter school since charter schools can be shut down. Hopefully, the market will work its magic and rid Russel Byers of its curriculum or rid the children of Philadelphia of the Russel Byers charter school. I wish the same could be said for many of the public schools.


Anonymous said...



Unfortunately, many states make it difficult to start charter schools unless they are different or have a theme (charter). Our state educators want charter schools to be for those students that the public schools do not want.

There would be no way in hell that a charter school could be started in our state that set higher standards. Ironically, one could argue that "Core Knowledge" is a theme and quite different than what public schools offer. It's one thing to have problem students go to charter schools, but it's quite another to have the better students leave.

There are a few examples of charter schools (mostly math and science high schools) that set high standards for all kids. One school in Massachusetts (Advanced Math and Science Academy - fought tooth and nail by the public schools. I remember that one of the turning points was when the public schools had their students write letters to the politicians. One look at the bad spelling, grammar, and arguments was all it took to accept the new school.

Even though charter school laws skew the charters to the "expeditionary" side of the educational spectrum, many want the charter school concept to go through a pass/fail contest. Charter schools do not guarantee a solution, but they do provide a process. Unfortunately, educators and politicians want to limit the range of educational choices provided by charter schools, thereby reducing the effectiveness of this process.

Our town's school committee wants the state to prevent our students from going to charter schools because our schools are "High Performing". They argue that charter schools should only be for school districts that have failing programs. This really is not a problem because the only K-8 charter school in our area is more fuzzy than the public schools.

Getting back to this charter school:

"Using the ELOB model, students are supported in developing new skills and achieving mastery of them."

Talk is cheap. This is a top-down, thematic, hands-on approach to education. I have yet to see an implementation that comes anywhere near the required systematic knowledge and skill mastery level. It doesn't happen. As the kids are happily working in teams on their "real world" education, there is little time left for true mastery of basics like fractions.

I am only marginally optimistic about charters. There are many forces that do not want them to succeed. As long as the public educational community can control or limit the schools' "charters", the results will be poor.

Anonymous said...

"We don't know what a good K-12 education system is because we've never seen one operating."

One other comment. This statement is more true for parents than for educators. Educators don't care. They know what they want and they will do what they want. Good education is what they think they are doing, by definition. Research and studies don't mean much except to support what they believe.

Parents, on the other hand are not so dogmatic. If the restrictions on charter schools were lifted, then parents would get a chance to see all sorts of educational models in practice. Unfortunately, all we see in our area now are thematic charters that are, well, unusual. Add to that a strong underlying support of public education (although charters are public education), and parents don't get much chance to see what education could really be like.

The goal is not to show a better way to educators - they think they already know and won't be convinced otherwise. The goal is to show the parents.

Anonymous said...

I think it's pretty hard to shut down charter schools....

Definitely easier to close a charter than a regular, though

Anonymous said...

empowering students to take responsibility for their own education

This is the line that sticks in my craw.

I've been skimming the literature on Differentiated Instruction. You see this everywhere. Diff-Instruct is going to empower students to take responsibility for their learning.

Fits perfectly with the new emphasis on Character Education over Self-Esteem.

Character = Taking Responsibility for Your Own Learning

We've been told this explicitly by administrators here.

Anonymous said...

State Senator Andrew Spano attended our last school board meeting to present the district with a check for white boards. (The white boards we have aren't being used. Now we'll have more.)

After presenting the check he gave an impromptu speech on the evils of charter schools and vouchers, and slammed Pataki for supporting both.

This is at a school board meeting. (Ed thinks Spano is a Republican, fyi.)

I gather "support our public schools" is becoming a battle cry even for super-affluent districts like ours. We just got a call from a parent urging us to vote on the budget as "supporters of Irvington children and public schools" (something like that).

The message was clear that in voting for the budget we'd be doing our part to support public schools - and the assumption of the caller was that the natural position amongst Irvington parents is to support not just our school but public schools in general.

KDeRosa said...

I think it's pretty hard to shut down charter schools....

True, but if and when word gets out maybe parents might stop sending their kids and it might go out of business the good old faashioned way. At least in theory, because in practice parents are proving to be somewhat clueless when it comes to picking schools.