Charter schools subject of Urban Education Institute talk

Staff Writer

Economist Richard Murnane, co-author of “Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education,” was the keynote speaker last Tuesday during an event hosted by the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute (UEI). The event also included a panel discussion with educators from the university’s charter schools.

“While education is always important in this society, it has become much more important in this economy,” said Murnane, who along with co-author and economist Greg Duncan wrote “Restoring Opportunity.” “It’s difficult to support yourself and save for your family’s future without some sort of college credentials.”

In their book Murnane and Duncan examine academic and professional development initiatives that have contributed to the lives of low-income children from pre-kindergarten through high school in the Boston Public Schools Prekindergarten program, New York City’s Small High Schools of Choice and the University of Chicago Charter School Network from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

Murnane said he and Duncan found that as the income gap between high-income and low-income families increase, the disparities in education also increase.

“It’s not that high-poverty schools are doing a worse job than in previous years —low income children are doing better than they were 40 years ago,” Murnane said. “But because of the changing economy a little better isn’t good enough.”

He said technological changes resulted in an increase in payoff that led to increase in inequality and increased the demand of what children should learn in school. He said high-income families could afford to send their children to summer camps or tutoring programs to make sure they succeed but most low-income families may not have those opportunities.

Murnane said in schools with children from low-income families having peers who are likely to have achievement problems, high teacher turnover and high student turnover add challenges to the school year.

Murnane said he and Duncan searched for schools that had prolonged, proven methods that addressed the challenges. He said the schools they chose in Boston, New York and Chicago have strong and sustained school supports, sensible accountability and rigorous standards and use instructional approaches that are based on research.

“We know what needs to happen at the school level to help low income students do well,” Murnane said. “But only a small percentage, most low-income children, are not receiving these sustained schools supports.”

Murnane said, “The challenge now is how to develop systems and schools that have resources and knowledge to take advantage of supports UEI can provide.”
During the panel discussion, which was moderated by Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute, one of charter school’s methods of video taping classroom instruction for professional development coaching was discussed.

“Being a teacher requires you to be reflective,” said Erica Emmendorfer, first grade teacher at University of Chicago’s North Kenwood-Oakland Charter School (NKO). “UEI fosters reflection [and] being open to support and constructive criticism all in the name of becoming a better teacher who is ready to take suggestions and is open to support.”

Tanika Island, chief academic officer and former director of NKO, said videotaping lessons for professional development keeps both the administrators and teachers accountable.

“[This process] meant living in the classroom and getting to know each and every one of the 376 students,” Island said. “Knowing names and information allowed me to work with teachers looking at the tasks of students asking if this is challenging enough.”

Island said working closely with the teachers and getting to know the students also helped her build relationships with parents. She said working with “families often meant problem solving and offering supports.”

Shayne Evans, chief executive officer of the University of Chicago Charter School, said it is possible to do this across the city.

“Scalable expectations change the expectation not just in charter schools but all public schools,” Evans said.

Evans said by surveying the charter school parents and getting their agreement to alter part of the school day to allow time for professional development, “We’re not only erasing the gap we’ve reversed it.”

Murnane and Duncan found that U. of C. Charter students score 30 points higher on the SAT scale in reading, and 40 points higher in math than any other school in the city.

Evans said the school ranks number one in the city for having the most high school graduates that persist in college.