“The Lottery” and Charter School Semiotics

Lottery Poster

On December 6th, SFER St. Olaf hosted a film screening of the hit Education documentary The Lottery. Focused on the successes of one very high performing charter school in New York, this film is known for its emotional pull and largely one-sided interpretation of the education reform movement.

As the New York Times stated in a 2010 review, “On one level, this heart-tugging documentary recounts the experiences of four children competing in the academy’s annual intake lottery. On another, it’s a passionate positioning of charter schools as the saviors of public education.”


Recognizing the power this film has to start a discussion about the Charter School agenda that occupies headlines often on both local and national levels, our SFER St. Olaf screening was designed to incorporate an interactive Q&A. We were lucky enough to connect with St. Olaf alumnus Dan Wick–an Associate at the Minnesota nonprofit organization Charter School Partners (CSP). This organization coordinates to “launch” Charter Schools in Minnesota, and hopes to have 20 take off in the next 5 years. CSP’s work includes an “aggressive advocacy component,” and several “partner schools” whom CSP supports in an effort to make each charter school a “successful closing-the-gap school.” These partner schools are targeted because they have experienced initial success. CSP helps them to replicate and expand in order to serve more students.

After Dan agreed to speak about his experience working in a new Charter School network following our screening of The Lottery, a group of 6 students (and SFER members) sat down to draft questions and shed light on the complexity of the Charter School movement and its place in education reform. Like everything else in education reform, we knew that this was a loaded, complex, and multi-angled dialogue. It deserved to be treated like one.

Before the big day, we decided to pre-screen the movie in an empty English classroom for our SFER St. Olaf members who signed on to help plan this event. Equipped with cookie-filled bellies and pages full of notes, we started to type. Our first questions: How do these schools operate? What is a Charter School, anyway? The movie assumed we knew the answers. Though I’ve read about Charter Schools again and again, I found the logistics and legalities difficult to articulate. We realized that a Charter School 101 debriefing was in order. 45 minute later, 2 students had volunteered to do research for a pamphlet we would hand out at the film screening, and we had 9 questions to send Dan Wick:

1) Can you give us a brief overview of the work you personally do with Charter School Partners?

2) What local charter schools are you modeling future charter schools after? What were the successful tactics you noted in these schools?

3) How have you dealt with anti-charter school sentiment? What has your organization done to combat this sentiment?

4) How are the teachers in the charter schools you work with assessed?

5) Do you see charter schools as a primary solution to closing the achievement gap?

6) This film shows the climate of the charter school movement in an urban area. Can you speak to any of the differences in communities that are not urban?

7) Why build new charter schools rather than isolate the “best practices” used in successful charters and implement them in traditional public schools? How can we marry the two systems to create a better overall picture for kids?

8) We noticed on the CSP website that CSP has “an aggressive advocacy component.” What specific policy does your  organization advocate for implementation in all schools in order to further level the playing field?

9) How has your liberal arts perspective as a St. Olaf alumnus shaped your approach to the work you do with Charter School Partners?

Brad West, one of our leading Executive Board members for SFER St. Olaf, developed a Charter School 101 break-down that we would share at our event. Here are the facts he compiled:

Definition of a Charter School
Charter schools are public schools that do not have to conform to all the same regulations of traditional public schools. This gives them increased autonomy to develop innovative teaching practices that wouldn’t be possible in traditional schools. In exchange for this autonomy, charter schools are held accountable to their charter, or performance contract, which means they must produce their intended educational outcomes and results. So the key concept behind charter schools is that they operate autonomously and are held accountable for their students’ achievement.

Brief history of Charter School Movement
Ray Budde, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, first developed the idea that schools should be held accountable for results and not for processes and inputs originated in the late 1980s. In 1991, Minnesota became the first state to pass a charter school law. Since then, charter schools have proliferated and can now be found in forty states plus Washington, D.C. According to the Department of Education, in 2010, 1.6 million students were enrolled in charter schools, and five percent of public schools were charter schools.

As we’ve seen in The Lottery, charter schools are very controversial for a number of reasons. Supporters of the movement claim that these schools use their increased autonomy to achieve the kind of positive results we rarely see in inner-city school districts. And of course, while some charter schools are very well-run and boast high student achievement, there are also bad charter schools out there. Meanwhile, critics attack charter schools for being anti-union and for undermining public education by turning education into a private business model to be exploited for profit.

When we spoke with Mr. Wick one week prior to the event, he walked us through the presentation he would give–an impressive overview of the Charter School presence in Minnesota and his place in it. Understanding the confusion that comes with understanding the Charter School movement, and tailoring his speaking points to fit our questions, Dan left room for debate and free-form conversation.

Titled  Are Charter Schools the Solution to the Achievement Gap?, Dan’s “Prezi” showcased the nuance and systems thinking that our chapter of Students for Education Reform strives for. Unpacking scatter plots, statistics, and school profiles, Dan showed us the many ways The Lottery is oversimplified. Not every Charter School is Harlem Success Academy (the school showcased in The Lottery.) We cannot forget that like traditional public schools, these schools fail too.

SFER St. Olaf member Brad West gives his Charter School 101 Introduction

SFER St. Olaf member Brad West gives his Charter School 101 Introduction

Dan Wick, Charter School Partners, St. Olaf Alumnus ('09)

Dan Wick, Charter School Partners, St. Olaf Alumnus (’09)

Charter School Partners works to identify the Charter Schools in Minnesota that are currently “beating the odds.” These are the schools that see a narrowing in the “achievement” and “opportunity” gaps for their students as they get off the ground and begin to make changes in classrooms and communities. These are schools with adult leaders committed to the principle that “all kids can learn at the highest levels.” They are spaces where instructional vision is consistent across the board, and accomplishments happen quickly. Student data is collected incessantly and used to adjust teaching to meet individual needs. The “successful” schools Dan outlines share a “high expectations” and “no excuses” culture–working to give students a vision for their future (usually one that points to a college degree.) Time is a valued entity, and the school day reflects it–often stretching past 4:00. Dan Wick stresses that the Charter School model is not a silver bullet solution, but a flexible model that we might learn from. What our country needs are great schools. What form they take shouldn’t be the issue.

Step by step, Dan took us through the varied circles of CSP. He painted the practices of the organization as conscientious and community-based. Teachers with a high success rate working with low income kids and communities are recruited by CSP–approached with the possibility of “changing the trajectory” for under-served students in Minneapolis. They are the “rock stars” with 200% growth rates–meaning they manage to effectively teach 2 years of material in one. After signing on, these superstar teachers are given their very own start-up Charter Schools. As soon-t0-be principals, they hone their beliefs, learned teaching practices, and educational values into a kind of values “mission statement” for their schools.

CSP supports these men and women by taking care of the legwork involved in achieving authorization and writing grant applications. They help to provide time for Charter School development–2 years of community engagement and lesson planning and faculty building that do not fit the norm for Charter Schools in Minnesota. CSP pulls together a team of local experts to weigh in as these Principals develop their goals. The organization also arranges residency for the future Principals–giving them a taste of high performing schools in the area and encouraging further investigation of best practice models. CSP does not hold lotteries for the positions open in their schools. Instead, they encourage “authentic engagement” with communities and active recruitment of students in the 2 year grace period.

Though we were impressed with CSP’s innovative model for start-up, our group of ten  movie-goers still wondered about the inevitable conundrums and problems. Dan Wick was selling a formula for a great school. I wondered if this seemingly cold interpretation of educational success was too scientific for dynamic communities and schools.

To me, Charter Schools are successful when they are fit to communities. Harlem Success Academy uses the heart wrenching platform of a public lottery to prove that they are wanted by a community divided along Union lines. “We are giving our students a future” they seem to scream. “Look at all of these anxious parents. Look at these tiny faces. Take in the hundreds we have to turn away because the system isn’t changing fast enough.” The Lottery reminds us that every parent cares about their child’s education.

CSP works to harness the invaluable voices of parents–investing in parent organizing and getting their Principals out into “the field.” However, like so many other organizations, they have a formula. They follow a flow chart of Charter School foundation building.

Dan reassured me. He told us that though there is a “formula,” it differs with each location’s unique landscape of community engagement.

In the rest of our time together, Dan fielded similar questions and concerns from his audience: (These Q&A synopses are not direct quotes.)

Q: How do you decide when a Charter School has gotten to the point of failure where it must be shut down? What about the fact that it must take some of these schools at least a few years to start seeing results?

Image from childrenseducationalliance-mo.org

Image from childrenseducationalliance-mo.org

A: In general, most new charter schools don’t start off as “rock stars.” It is the job of organizations like CSP to try to provide the tools that make it possible to be a “one-off” charter that is effective right away. In terms of assessment, Charter Schools use internal tests just as traditional public schools do. The Authorizer and the school develop a performance contract that goes beyond standardized tests. This contract includes aspects like “parent satisfaction.” In Minnesota, the founders of charter schools use unique models. In this state, much of the message for Charter Schools is about innovation. This is nearly impossible to measure, but is more important than test scores in some cases. (Here, Dan made clear that Charter School goals in different regions vary significantly. For example, in the depiction of NY in The Lottery, the heavily pushed goal is “college for every child.” In MN, the mantra is about innovative learning and teaching in the classroom–offering the skills kids will need for any path they take. )

For CSP, the goal is to do well on both tests and innovation skills that get kids through college (i.e. the new buzz words in education like “grit,” “zest,” and “perseverance.”) CSP believes that we must take into account the cultural factors of college completion that need to be learned throughout a K-12 education. In this sense, character building is emphasized alongside standardized testing in the Charter Schools that partner with CSP.

Q: In the film, we saw the parents of the failing NYC school PS129 incredibly angry about the possibility of Harlem Success Academy occupying the current PS129 building. The dialogue was heated, and the community seemed furious. Have you had to deal with any opposition like this? Criticism for your organization? If so, how did you handle it?

A: In NYC, space is a huge issue. The purpose of the lottery is saying that if we had more buildings in NYC the most effective Charter Schools could scale up today. However, this isn’t necessarily the case in MN. Unions don’t hold the same leverage they do in NY (but they are still an obstacle.)

We generally are called corporatists, Hedge Funders, or corporate reformers. We have a stigma that says we are privatizing schools…We are just trying to find flexible ways to create change in an effective time frame. Unions can prevent this because the contracts are so hard to negotiate. It would be great to have a district system that had charter-like flexibility, but it’s unlikely.

Q: What does the future look like for Charter Schools in MN?

A: Eventually, we want to have a model where Charter Schools are higher quality schools right off the bat… What happens if a majority of kids on the Northside are educated by Charters? This could change the district model…


Dan Wick speaks with Katie Busch, co-chapter leader of SFER St. Olaf

After our  Q&A session, Dan took time to follow up with a few extra-interested students.  Channeling his Liberal Arts Education, Mr. Wick made connections and explained the intricacies of only one part of an incredibly complex hierarchy in a way that we understood.

Despite a low turnout at the event (final exam studying was already well underway at this point,) the conversation was nuanced and rewarding. All who walked away from the theater felt they knew more about Charter Schools. We spent the evening ruminating over CSP jargon and system-changing solutions.

Like Dan Wick, I don’t see Charter Schools as the “quick-fix” solution for our nation’s education system. I am impressed with the results of many of the highest performing models, and I recognize the innovation and potential for progress that comes with comprehensive “formulas” for start-up schools across the country.

And yet, I still have a great deal of hope for our traditional public schools. I don’t believe that the answer is to let these schools fail and ultimately be replaced by charters. There are hundreds of traditional public schools that are performing at higher levels than even the best charters. Granted, these public schools often have access to more resources, higher paid and well-respected teachers, and the funds for extra-curricular activities that are proven to develop the whole student.

A big part of me wonders why we can’t share the “best practices” that the Charter School movement has harnessed with all of our schools. I am not the first one to have this thought, and I know that many Charter School proponents will blame Teachers’ Unions for this “impossibility.”

In a country where the profession of teaching is underpaid, under-respected, and unsustainable, I see Unions as a necessary entity. I wish that the contracts didn’t make it so difficult to fire teachers who are not adequately serving their students, but I understand that protection in a time of such economic chaos is a good idea. Like any other profession, great teachers have the right to feel secure.

Over this past week, the amazing work that teachers do and the relationships they build has taken center stage. We have seen the face of Victoria Soto, a 1st grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, displayed across Facebook newsfeeds and memorial newspaper spreads. She thought quickly and hid her students in cupboards and closets when she heard  gunshots down the hall. She sacrificed her life for her students– killed by the gunman as they sprinted to safety outside. Victoria’s heartbreaking and inspiring actions remind us of the extreme dedication so many teachers have to their students. We trust teachers with our children for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. For this reason, we need to figure out a way to make sure that they are able to do their work  as well as possible and with high levels of support. We also need to make sure that the profession attracts the best of the best–competing competitively with the salaries of other white-collar jobs and acknowledging teaching as a vital piece of our country’s success. Charter Schools are trying to do this in many cases, and traditional public schools can too.

Is there a way to bridge our traditional public school model with the Charter School craze that has showcased so many victories for kids? I think that the least we can do is try. We’ve realized that the partisan nature of our government is hindering growth and progress. We are shackled by our inability to compromise and collaborate across party lines. The same might be said of the education reform movement.

In the tense scenes of The Lottery, we see adults confront each other–unwilling to back down despite the unspoken agreement that something needs to change. We are a country of  ideas. Let’s start using them to find our common ground. As President Obama declared last night from Newport, “This is our first task: caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged. And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we’re meeting our obligations?”

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One Response to “The Lottery” and Charter School Semiotics

  1. Pingback: Be the Change: Visiting Hiawatha Leadership Academy | growingupinamerica

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