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Noliwe RooksBack to OpinionNoliwe Rooks

Reframing the debate over charter schools

The College Board's College Completion Agenda.

As 2012 begins, and along with it, our personal resolutions for the New Year, there is no better time for the nation to give a collective thought to our resolutions for the country’s public education system. The College Board has recently released a report called the College Completion Agenda, looking back at our progress in 2011 toward achieving the goal called for by the Obama Administration of having 55 percent of young people in the United States earn a college degree. Our report card is not good.

Today, with roughly 41 percent of American citizens earning a college degree, we have fallen to number 12 among the world’s developed countries. While the falling numbers of college graduates indicate a cause for concern, the numbers for African-American and Latino young people indicate an especially disturbing crisis. Only 19 percent of Latino youth have completed an associate’s degree or higher, with 29 percent of African-American young people having done the same.

In the last year there has been quite a bit of media and policy attention put on urban education reform. Feel-good stories about the success of certain charter school models like the Harlem Children’s Zone’s Promise Academy, The Uncommon Schools network, and the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) abound. These schools, the media narrative goes, are poor, black and brown kids’ great hope — promoting higher test scores, increasing high school graduation rates and advocating for higher levels of college attendance.

They are certainly newsworthy, but a closer look reveals that the story of their success is more complex than portrayed. According to research available on the KIPP website, though almost 85 percent of the students graduating from their schools go to college, only 30 percent actually graduate. Of course, high school graduation is a worthy goal, and some college-level work is better than none. But according to the 2011 College Board report, in order to impact poverty rates, increase the qualified workforce for American businesses and ensure economic growth nationwide, college graduation is key.

Policy makers, education reporters and philanthropic organizations who really want to bring about a lasting change in the education of poor and minority youth in urban areas must begin to focus not on the educational “flavor of the month,” but on schools with models that have proven to lead to consistently high levels of college graduation over time.

One such school, the Richmond, Calif.-based Making Waves Academy, while not featured in any films or even mentioned much in the press, has a 20-year history of stunning educational success with the most economically disadvantaged children in one of the lowest performing school districts in the country. More than twice as many of the students who attend Making Waves graduate from college as do those who attend KIPP schools, with almost 60 percent of their students graduating from college and almost 30 percent of that number going on to graduate school. The students from Making Waves are already graduating from college at levels called for by the Obama administration.

The Making Waves Academy works differently from the charter schools we generally hear so much about. In addition to a high quality educational environment, which includes full daily periods of art classes and sports programs (often missing at traditional charter schools), at Making Waves, students are provided with a whole host of support services, from nutritional counseling to parent education to mental health support. The school has high expectations and makes no excuses, but is realistic about providing a safety net that will ensure the success its students.

Another way that Making Waves differs from many highly publicized charter schools is that they do not primarily hire recent college graduates to teach their students. Most of the teachers at Making Waves are highly experienced. Many have doctorates or master’s degrees. Also, instead of holding teachers almost entirely accountable for the success or failure of their students, with threats of dismissal for teachers when students don’t achieve, teachers at Making Waves are provided with professional development opportunities and peer mentoring programs. They also participate in the governance of the school and have a role in shaping both the curriculum and the environment, for themselves as well as for the students. As a result, turnover is low. Of the 80 staff and faculty at the school in 2010, only five left in 2011. Turnover among teachers and staff at many highly touted charter schools can reach as high as 50 percent. It is hard to ensure stability with that kind of change.

And Making Waves Academy is efficient with its funding, too. The school has been able to achieve all this success at an annual cost of about $15,000 per student. This amount is less than what the states of New Jersey and New York currently pay to educate children.

So, why don’t we know more about this school and others like it? Because far too much of our country’s education debate is focused on the schools that publicize and market their models most aggressively, as opposed to those where college graduation is the number one priority.

Hagiographic media coverage of certain charter schools leads the public to believe that the battle over how to educate poor and struggling Black and Latino students has been won. With the low numbers of Blacks and Latinos graduating from college, this is far from the case. According to the Census Bureau, the average college graduate will earn close to a million dollars more over the course of a lifetime than a student whose road dead-ended at high school. High school and college dropouts account for 75 percent of the prison population in some states.

To be clear, the high-flying numbers achieved by schools like the Success Academy Charter Schools in Harlem, for example — where between 94 to 97 percent of all Black and Latino students pass state achievement tests — should be lauded. The vast majority of Success Academy students are on track to graduate from high school, which is no small thing for a community with high school graduation rates hovering around 40 percent.

But we have to want even more for our kids. Students in top schools with equivalent test scores tend to graduate college upwards of 70 percent of the time. Why isn’t the same true for the Black and Latino students within highly touted and publicized charter schools? It is time to focus on the educational models that have an answer to that question, and the long history of proof to back it up — not the ones with the flashiest press kits or the most charismatic communications representatives.

Noliwe Rooks is the associate director of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University and the founding coordinator of the Center’s urban education reform initiative.


  • Citizen

    We get better education when parents are involved and the parents are not afraid to control their children. Also we don’t pay teachers anything consequently you get what you pay for as the old saying goes. You have to pay enough to attract smart people into the teaching filed. Base salary for a teacher should be $70,000/year instead it is about $25,000. Teachers don’t need to be dealing with disciplinary problems. If kids don’t want to learn and their parents don’t care we can no longer afford to drag those kids along anymore. Send them home to the parents and forget about them I am betting that their attitude towards life might change. When they realize their mistake they will return to school. If not, then they were not going to be very productive in the first place. 

  • Heidihomom

    Get rid of tenyear and go for performance based education. We can no longer run our schools the way they have always been run. If professionals can’t change then it’s time to get rid of them.

  • nvsand

    It’s not the school, public or private. It’s not the teacher, good or bad.  It’s the student and family, involved and responsible.

  • Veritasvirtuoso

    While the aims of the Making Waves Foundation and the separate school entity, Making Waves Academy, are admirable, many of the claims made by this article are inaccurate, at best.  The author claims the statistics and accomplishments of the Making Waves Education Program (a completely separate entity from the newly established Making Waves Academy) as one-and-the-same for the Academy.  At best, this is an unintentional oversight committed by someone not entirely familiar with the relationship between the Making Waves Education Foundation and the Making Waves Academy.  At worst, this is blatant statistical manipulation  and unethical reporting.  

    The school (Making Waves Academy) cannot claim any graduation rates or college acceptance/graduation rates, because it has graduated NO students.  The Making Waves Education Program is an entirely separate educational support model (tutoring program) that has demonstrated notable success.  However, the Making Waves Academy is only in its fifth year of operation and has graduated no students.  In fact, statistics from the California Department of Education indicate that students at MWA perform only slightly better than their district counterparts academically, and that the school has repeatedly failed to meet AYP indicator standards.  Additionally, the faculty turnover rate mentioned in this article is an egregious fabrication.  In actuality, teacher turnover rates at MWA each year are significant and an investigation into the number of white, highly qualified, highly educated teachers leaving the school (voluntarily or otherwise) versus teachers of color who are uncertified and/or do not otherwise meet NCLB highly-qualified standards, yet are retained and/or promoted to administrative positions, reveals an alarming trend. A glance at the current faculty roster will confirm that the author’s claim that “many [teachers] have doctorates or master’s degrees” is a stretch, to say the least.  In the past, the school could claim administrators with advanced degrees including doctorates, however all have since been fired. In fact, out of all current school administrators, only one current MWA school leader possesses a California administrative credential.  A year-to-year comparison of faculty rosters will reveal that teachers and administrators with credentials and education beyond basic certification do not often remain at MWA beyond their second year.  I am stunned that someone with the author’s pedigree would have written such a review without doing the requisite accurate research, and am saddened to realize that I suspect it has something to do with the fact that the school’s largest donor is a Princeton alumnus.    Accurate California Department of Education statistics for Making Waves Academy can be found at

  • MWATeacher

    This article, unfortunately, is filled with lies (or, at best, misinformation).  I trust Ms. Rooks was informed by the MWA Foundation as to the “facts,” but they are not true, and she has been misled.  The school has the highest teacher turnover rate in the district, and contrary to what the article states, teachers ARE fired, at an alarming rate.  Teachers are not given support or professional development, are berated weekly at staff meetings, and morale at the school is at an all-time low.  This is NOT the school to use as an example of what is possible for charter schools.  This school is an example of what can go wrong with charter schools, where money is misused, teachers are abused, there is no union, consultants run the school, and facts are altered to create a perception of success.  No teachers have doctorates or masters degrees; most are first to third year teachers, and none receive any support.  

  • Really?!

    I teach at MWA, and it has a lot of strengths, but this article is so thoroughly suffused with mendacity, even the punctuation marks are liars.
    Turnover last year (voluntary + fired) was ***around 50%***, and this year the firings are way up. At our last meeting of the year, admin flunkies referred to the outgoing teachers as “cancerous tumors that had to be cut out” throughout the meeting and everybody was too terrified and/or numbed to challenge them. This is typical of our staff meetings, which are demoralizing bacchanalias of dominance, collective punishment, and Orwellian double speak.
    Teachers have absolutely no say in how the school or even their own classrooms are run (that line is by far the biggest howler in the article). If we did, and if the bosses stopped terrorizing and dividing us for just a little while, MWA could compete with any rich school in the suburbs in 1-2 years. This article, to say the least, is not helping anybody move towards that goal, and I’m shocked that it is on PBS’s web site.

  • Teach_ER

    Lies! This article is a jaw dropper and an insult to those on the frontlines. How dare you call yourself a journalist and post such atrocious claims. Do your research, interview the right people-contact the county, teachers fired, and a group of impartial parents, then you will get your real story.
    Making Waves Academy is the reason why people do not believe in charter schools-they are s problem in education, not a solution.

  • Teach_ER

    Lies! This article is a jaw dropper and an insult to those on the frontlines. How dare you call yourself a journalist and post such atrocious claims. Do your research, interview the right people-contact the county, teachers fired, and a group of impartial parents, then you will get your real story.
    Making Waves Academy is the reason why people do not believe in charter schools-they are s problem in education, not a solution.

  • awesome

    You want the truth? Go to a job interview. I have heard a mixed bag of comments about this school so I thought I’d give it a try myself and see firsthand what the hubub was about. I found out and ran for the hills as quickly as I could, not looking back. Schedule an interview, tour, & demo lesson and at the end speak privately to a variety of staff members.

  • Shocked

    Journalism 101: Even opinion pieces are supposed to either quote or at least cite a source. Not one teacher (or even an administrator!) is quoted or cited in this ridiculous puff piece about a school that has become notorious in the Bay Area for its abuse of staff, high turnover, and incompetent leadership. I’m not a fan of teacher unions, but take it from somebody who survived MWA–the blatant tyranny that reigns at this school makes NYC’s “rubber rooms” look good by comparison.