On Sunday's Meet the Press, starring Duncan, Sharpton and Gingrich, I heard Newt touting a Philadelphia charter school called Mastery. Mastery is also hailed by Duncan and the DOE as one of the nation's 15 "exemplar charter schools" and a model of a turnaround school (where they keep the kids and fire all the teachers and staff).
I'm not personally familiar with Mastery but it sounds like a good school for those who choose to attend and are able to get in. Of course I like its small-by-design approach with lots of personalized support and assessment based on content mastery. I also like students being able to take 5 years to graduate, if needed.
But because Gingrich pushed it so hard as a model, and Duncan went there to kick off his tour, it made me wonder--just who gets in, stays in, and graduates from Mastery? According to Gingrich, it's a "no excuses" school. That means that school leaders, believe that they can transcend all the negative effects that poverty and racial inequity.
Then Gingrich described Mastery this way:
Three years ago the state became desperate, took over the school, turned it over to Mastery, which is a charter school system. Same building, same students. Three years later, they're in the 86th percentile.Amazing! In just 3 years, just by taking over a school and turning it over to a private operator, these "same kids" jumped 61 percentile points. Is that all it takes--no mention by Newt of anything curricular, competency of teachers, money, small schools size, etc...
As you might expect, Gingrich wasn't telling us the whole story. While Mastery students did well in some subject areas like reading, they scored low and the school failed to make AYP in others (math). Rather Newt was using Mastery to push his own political agenda--not fair to Mastery and not fair to the neighborhood schools against which Mastery is being pitted.
It doesn't appear for example, that Mastery operates under the same rules or conditions as did its predecessor. And they don't exactly teach all the "same kids." For one thing, Mastery admits only those students whose parents are willing and able to sign a contract. Then prospective students are made to attend a pre-enrollment meeting. Mastery says the meeting isn't evaluative. But right there you eliminate all those students without active parents or those intimidated by the process or who question Mastery's program or school curriculum. Not a bad approach for matching kids with a choice program. But it gives Mastery a decided edge over the neighborhood schools.
Mastery also has a small enrollment, an 11.3:1 student-teacher ratio, and millions of dollars in extra grant support,
John Thompson at TWIE points out that at Mastery's Pickett campus,"there was a 42% attrition rate - a rate that would have killed their reforms in a neighborhood school." I'm currently looking at Philly charter school data to see if it conforms with Thompson's assessment. But it does sound familiar. It's obvious that if you recruit selectively and if you're allowed to get rid of many of your low-scoring kids, you're scores will go up. And if you push them back into the large, neighborhood schools, your scores will look even better than their scores.
P.S. Last week, Mastery kids couldn't get to school due to a strike of transit workers. But even before the strike, students had a difficult time using SEPTA because a dean was caught stealing $6,000 in student tokens and TransPasses. I hope Gingrich won't use that as an excuse.