Ep. 251: Big Ideas – “Choosing Diversity” with Lance Izumi

May 11, 2021

Lance Izumi joins us to talk about his recent book, Choosing Diversity: How Charter Schools Promote Diverse Learning Models and Meet the Diverse Needs of Parents and Children. He breaks down misconceptions about charter schools, including how much one institution can differ from the next.

Jason Bedrick: Hello, and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice. And this is another edition of our Big Ideas series. Today I’m delighted to be joined by Dr. Lance Izumi, a senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute. He is the author of a recent book titled, Choosing Diversity: How Charter Schools Promote Diverse Learning Models and Meet the Diverse Needs of Parents and Children, which is the subject of today’s conversation. Lance, welcome to the podcast.

Lance Izumi: Jason, it’s great to be with you. Great to see you after so much time.

Jason Bedrick: Yes, likewise. So look, your book deals with charter schools and there are just tons of misconceptions about charter schools. Misconception that they’re private schools, that they charge tuition, that they’re religious schools, none of which is true. So before we dive in, maybe you could just quickly define what a charter school is.

Lance Izumi: And that is an important thing, because many people still, even after so many years of their existence, don’t really know what a charter school is. Charter school is a publicly funded school, so it is a public school, but it’s independent of the school district in which it is located. And so it’s usually managed by its own board and it has greater flexibility to be innovative. But in exchange for this flexibility, they have greater accountability because their charter has to be renewed every so many years. And therefore they have to show some types of results in order for that charter to be renewed, unlike most regular public schools, which go on forever and ever, despite whatever results they producing.

Jason Bedrick: And these charter schools, of course, the way they produce high results is because they cherry pick their students, right? They have very high admission standards. Is that correct?

Lance Izumi: Well, that’s certainly what the opponents of charter schools have been saying for years and years and years that whatever good results that studies have shown that charter schools are producing are because, well, they’re creaming the crop. But as I point out in my book that you mentioned, Choosing Diversity, many of these schools, these charter schools are actually catering and servicing the students who are actually at the very bottom of the education and academic scale, and often students that the regular public schools are not able to educate. And so therefore the charter schools are often the last stop of last resort for these students before they exit the system and never get an education.

Jason Bedrick: Right. And of course, the charters are subject to an open enrollment requirement. And if there is over subscription, then they have to run a lottery, they can’t pick and choose who shows up. But one major misconception is that charters are basically all alike. And so when people hear charter schools, even those that are more informed and then might know that okay, these are not private schools and they’re not religious schools think, “Okay, they all look like KIPP,” the Knowledge Is Power Program, “Or they all look like uncommon academies, right?” They are all urban schools that have a no excuses model, really focused on test scores, and your book tries to explode that myth. So, could you tell us then a little bit about the diversity across charters? And let’s say, are charters more diverse than public schools, than traditional public schools?

Lance Izumi: I think that’s a very important point, Jason, because I think that when, and as you point out, even people who are knowledgeable about education do make the assumption that charter schools are very similar to each other. And that’s why I have often said that, “That is not true.” And that’s why I’ve often said, that even when you see research that compares regular public schools to charter schools, let’s say based upon various academic achievement indicators, what you’re assuming then is that all regular public schools are basically alike, which is actually true. But also you’re assuming that as an aggregate all these charter schools are basically alike, and that is not true. And so what I’ve tried to do in this book, Choosing Diversity, is to show that the charter school sector is very different, not just from the regular public schools, but also very different from each other.

So one charter school can be very different from the next charter school, even though they may be right next to each other. And so as you point out, these charter schools are not all like KIPP or some of these more well-known charter school networks, which people may be familiar with that operate on a particular model. What I tried to do in this book Choosing Diversity is to show that, “Hey, look at all these different types of charter schools that are out there. There are charter schools that cater to kids with special needs. There are charters that offer a classical education model. There are charter schools that are in rural areas. There are charter schools that specialize in using high-tech tools to educate their students.” So it’s a very broad and diverse group of schools out there. And I think that I’ve tried to give the reader a flavor of that diversity, so that when they read newspaper articles for example, about charter schools, one of the things I hope they will say is that, “But what kind of charter schools are we talking about?”

Jason Bedrick: That’s a fantastic point. It’s sort of like researchers that are studying charter schools would be like a nutritionist who’s trying to study whether or not going on a diet works. And so they’ve got one group of people that didn’t go on a diet and then one group that went on a diet. Well, there’s the Atkins diet, there’s the Mediterranean diet, there’s a thousand different types of diets out there. So you can’t look at going on a diet in the aggregate, right? You have to separate that out. You have to dis-aggregate it. So one question for you before we dive into the book, how do you think researchers could do a better job of actually studying different types of charter schools? How would you break it down so that we get a more accurate assessment of what these charters are doing?

Lance Izumi: Well, I think that, and I haven’t made my hard and fast categories, but I do think that I chose the different charter schools that I profile in my book, because I think they represent kind of broad categories. You know, you have your typical urban schools. I have some examples of those. I have a example of a incredible rural charter school, schools that use these high-tech or online educational software tools and specialize in that. Charter schools that specialize in the arts, the performing and fine arts, for example. Or charter schools that look at special needs kids, whether they be homeless kids or whether they be kids on let’s say the autism spectrum. And so I think that when researchers are looking at the performance of charter schools, they really need to kind of dive down to a little bit more of a micro level to see what are these schools doing?

What kinds of methodologies are they using? Many of these schools have diametrically opposed philosophies about how they’re teaching their kids. So in my book I have schools that are focused on using a project-based learning model, where the kids are basically kind of constructing their own solutions to problems. And then on the other hand, I have charter schools that explicitly say that they will never use a project-based learning model and that they are very focused on a direct instruction, teacher-centered type of model. And so to be able to try and compare, or to group those schools into one bundle, doesn’t make any sense. And I think that we need to evaluate these schools. A lot of it based upon the type of pedagogy they may be using, the type of learning models they may be using. And also who they’re catering to, who’s the audience, who are the customers that are going to these schools?

Jason Bedrick: Well, one of the audiences that you mentioned was students with special needs, and you noted that these are not just students with particular disabilities. But also sometimes they have other types of special needs. They might be from homeless background. They may have anger management issues, and your book highlights one school in particular, Life Learning Academy. And I should note also that the Pacific Research Institute produced an Exxon video, which you star in toward the end, about this. I was listening to it over lunch. I noticed my wife was on the other side of the table doing her own thing, and I looked up and I saw she actually, her eyes had gotten teary, and I thought it was because of what she was doing. But no, she said she was eavesdropping on the video. So she was very moved by it, I was very moved as well. Could you tell us a little bit about Life Learning Academy and what they’ve been able to accomplish?

Lance Izumi: Well, I lead off my book Choosing Diversity with Life Learning Academy, because it is like a really amazing school. And it busts again a whole bunch of myths. Life Learning Academy is based in San Francisco, but it’s actually based on the little island of Treasure Island. So if any of your listeners have ever been to the San Francisco bay area and have ever driven over the San Francisco Bay Bridge, they’ll know that the Bay Bridge is actually broken into two bridges. And the center part of it is actually Treasure Island. And Treasure Island used to be a former military base, and it’s now being redeveloped, but you know, it’s largely abandoned still right now. And Life Learning Academy is located on this little island in San Francisco Bay, mainly because it is neutral gang territory. No gang in the San Francisco area claims that as it’s turf, because no one’s there.

And so they were able to put this charter school on this neutral gang territory, and it caters to the most difficult to educate demographics in the San Francisco area. You’re talking about kids who have dropped out. You’re talking about kids who have extensive juvenile criminal history, kids who have very broken families, kids who are homeless, and homeless, meaning whether they are couch surfing from couch to couch at friend’s places to living under bridges. So we’re talking about very difficult to educate kids, kids who have found that oftentimes that the regular public school system is not giving them what they needed in order to learn. And this school was established in order to provide that last lifesaver to them, educational lifesaver.

And one of the innovative things that this school has done, because it focuses a lot on homeless kids, and because San Francisco has a large homeless population, as I believe most of your listeners probably know, they have actually become the first public school, publicly funded school in the state to actually build a dormitory facilities for their homeless kids on the campus. So they actually have a place to sleep at night before they go to school.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah, and in the video you point out too that not only did they build the dorm, they are actually teaching the students how to live independently, teaching them how to cook and how to take care of a property. They’re also doing things like gardening. It’s a lot of project-based learning, and at least the kids that are interviewed on the video were speaking about it in glowing terms, how it really, they were in some very dark places and that this has in some cases literally been a lifesaver for them.

Lance Izumi: That’s absolutely right. I mean, it has been a literal lifesaver for them. I interviewed a young man named Alan Pickens for my book, and he had been a student at Life Learning Academy. He was a very angry young man. And because of that anger he had adopted very unhealthy habits. So, as a high schooler, his weight had ballooned up to 330 pounds, because he used food as a way to deal with his anger. And he dropped out of school and eventually found his way to Life Learning Academy, which was his last hope. And it taught him not only academic skills, but life coping skills. And so he was able to basically turn around the way he would thought about himself and his life and how he interacted with other people. And it was a bit of a tough love type of routine that they drilled into him that he couldn’t blame other people.

He needed to take some self-responsibility, self-accountability for the situation that he was in. And it was for him actually very revealing, because one of the first times it really was somebody came up to him and basically shook him by the lapels and said, “That you need to try and improve your own life and focus on that as opposed to blaming other people for where you are.” And so it totally changed his life. You mentioned that the film that we produced, there’s a young man named Carlos in there. And he went through the similar type of experience where he was involved in gangs and had a crime history. And yet he was able to go to Life Learning Academy. Again, totally turned his life around. And at the end of the film he says, “That the school literally saved his life.”

And so, the school provides these students again, not only with life coping skills and academics, but they also provide them with work training experiences. So they have agreements with various museums, corporations, nonprofits around the bay area to give these kids internships and work experience so that they understand that there is life outside of their very narrow family backgrounds and that they can succeed and there is a brighter future for them.

Jason Bedrick: So in addition to various needs, you also have various interests and aptitudes and charters try to appeal to those. One type are these STEM schools or, science, technology, engineering, and math schools, or sometimes they’re called high tech highs. Could you tell us what these schools are and how they differ from a traditional public school?

Lance Izumi: Well, I think that there’s several different types that I profile in my book. I mean, one type is very focused actually on using the new wave of online educational software programs in order to be used as tools for their students. And so there’s a school called Design Tech, which is in the San Francisco Bay area. And it’s actually located on the campus of the high-tech corporation Oracle. And Oracle employees actually will teach the kids at certain points during the year in certain classes. And because they’re located on the Oracle campus, these kids have the opportunity to then visit different parts of the company to see how STEM really works in real life. That school uses online technology to do what they call design thinking. So design thinking at Design Tech is about finding a problem, and then figuring out what you believe is a solution, but then also then having empathy for your audience, the people who will then be the recipients of your so-called solution, and then adjusting that to their needs.

And so that at the end of the day, that you have a design that not only solves a problem, but actually meets the needs of the consumer. And so, in order to do things like that, they’ll use educational software. For example, if you’re going to build a building for a purpose for the community, they will use a online software that will allow students to construct a building. But in order to do that, they need to be able to understand geometry, be able to do geometry, be able to do the mathematical calculations in order to actually build this building for the community, which feel some sort of need in the community. So it both teaches the kids kind of social entrepreneurship, but also teaches them those basic subjects that they need to learn in STEM.

Jason Bedrick: You also profile schools, they’re doing something that’s very, very different. Instead of with a focus on high tech and the newest and latest and the greatest, you’ve got some schools that take a more classical approach that are focused on the greatest that has ever been thought and said, so could you give us a taste of what a classical charter might look like?

Lance Izumi: Yeah, a classical charter, again, it’s a very interesting creature. One of my favorite charter schools, not just for this book, but actually one of my favorite charters I’ve ever visited is actually a classical charter called John Adams Academy. And it’s located in suburban Sacramento in Northern California and has three campuses. But what they do is they are based on a learning program that looks at America’s national heritage. It focuses on primary documents of Western civilization, the great classics of Western civilization, whether that be Rousseau’s Social Contract, Dante’s Inferno. They don’t use textbooks, they use the great works and they use the primary documents. So they will actually study the founding documents of the country. And they’ll have courses such as Latin and Greek that are required.

But I think what’s important for your listeners to understand is that this is not just some very dusty, 17th century version of education. This is actually a very modern, interactive type of education. So while on the one hand you are studying the great works of Western civilization, the methodology that the teachers use in order to discuss these works is not just a professor at the front of the class just giving a lecture. The teacher uses a Socratic method where the teacher and the students get involved in very deep discussions about these great works. So the kids aren’t just memorizing what’s in the First and Second Amendments of the constitution. They’re discussing it in a very deep way. When I visited John Adams Academy, the very first time I visited them, I went into an ancient history class where the teacher and a student were having a very deep discussion about what the duties and what the powers of the Greek God Apollo were. And it turned out that in that discussion, and this blew me away, the student actually had some deeper insights into Apollo then the teacher, and the teacher had admitted that, “Well you know something, I had really never thought of that before. And you’re right.”

So I think that that’s important for people to understand that when we talk about classical education, we’re talking about not just the material that kids are learning, but also that in classical education schools are trying to instill a type of critical thinking in their students that make them not only understand, but work with and use those classical materials in their lives. And especially in leadership roles, which the school promotes.

Jason Bedrick: Now, people listening might be thinking, “Okay, well, this all sounds well and good. It would be great to have a wide variety of different types of charters. I can go over to this high-tech one. I can go over to this classical one and everything in between.” But that works in an urban area where there’s lots of people, and for rural areas this is just not going to work. They’re so small. Really you can only, economies of scale means you’re really going to only have one school. So charters really are not for rural areas, but you actually profile some rural charter schools in your book. How does that work in rural areas?

Lance Izumi: Well, I thought it was very important to profile a rural charter, because I mean, again, the stereotype of charter schools is that they are mostly urban areas, limited to the major cities in the country, and that’s not true. So I profiled a rural charter school called Grimmway Academy, which is located in the little town of Shafter, which is, and I’m telling you if you’re on Highway 99 down in California, if you blink, you’ve passed it. And so, and it’s located basically in orchards. And so the school is on eight acres of rural land there and it focuses on a STEM curriculum. It has a student body that is heavily immigrant. So 90% of the kids there are from Hispanic backgrounds and many of them are English language learners, so they’re not really fluent in English. And so I think what’s important for listeners to understand that is that whereas charters, again, often given the false label of being schools that only appeal to high achievers, for example, and those from high demographic income groups that this isn’t the case.

And you have to just look at a school like Grimmway Academy and the type of students it’s schooling and to understand that that’s not true. And these students, it’s really amazing to see them, because the school uses a lot of online educational software in online learning labs that are very specific to the student that allow the school to catch the learning problems of these kids as they’re happening in real time and to address them immediately. And so they’re able to then pull kids out to get them remediated on the spot. Kids are grouped often in, based not on their chronological age, but based upon their learning level at the time.

So you might have second, third, and fourth graders grouped into a group, because they’re learning at that same level and the school can help them better advance because they’re at that same level, as opposed to simply grouping them in chronological age. The school it also focuses a lot on their, because they’re in a rural area and they have a lot of land, on their gardening program, which is really a signature program for them. And they grow foods that they use for their cafeteria. So all the students will eat all of the different types of fruits and vegetables that they themselves grow on the campus for lunch. And it’s a really fantastic, and you can talk to the students and they’ll say that the garden program is one of the reasons why they love the school.

Jason Bedrick: So in other words, because charters are given greater freedom and autonomy, they’re able to better meet the needs of local communities, whether that’s a rural community that wants to have their kids spending some time out in the local orchards growing things, or it’s just a charter anywhere that says, “We’re not going to follow the state C time requirements. We are actually going to move our kids based on their mastery of a certain subject. So we may group them not according to age, but according to their level of ability at any given moment.” So because these charter schools are doing so many different things, and you said, “You can’t clump them all together because they look very different. A classical charter and a high-tech school and a Montessori, they all look very different. They’ve got different goals. They attract different types of families and different types of students with different needs or aptitudes or interests.” So how do we judge success?

Lance Izumi: I think we judge success by trying to look at what I would say will be market indicators. So for example, one of the things I tried to do for a lot of these schools in my book is to ask the people who run them. It’s like, “Give me your data on parental satisfaction. So regardless of the type of pedagogy and learning model that you’re using, how are the parents viewing your school?” And most of the cases, well, all the cases where there was actual data, there was overwhelming support by parents and satisfaction by parents for the school. And so I think that’s really important, because parents wouldn’t keep their kid in a school that they felt was not meeting their needs. And I think that one of the things that I found in that rural charter school Grimmway Academy, for example, and this is the kind of thing that won’t show up in necessarily in a university study.

But the reason why a lot of those kids, when I interviewed them at that school said that they loved being at Grimmway Academy was because not necessarily because they were acing it on the state tests, but because they felt the school kept them safe. Because in their previous schools that they had attended in the regular public system, they felt unsafe. One fourth grader told me that at his previous elementary school, somebody, an adult had tried to break into the school and had actually been shot by the police in an altercation. And that made him extremely nervous. And he couldn’t learn, because he felt so much anxiety from that type of incident. And so when I interviewed him, he told me about how safe it was at Grimmway Academy. And that he actually listed all the different safety features the school employed, how many gates were locked, how many gates they had, when were the monitors there to ensure that no one who shouldn’t be there was on campus.

You know, so I think that those are the kinds of things that researchers need to try and find. While test scores are important and I’ve used test scores in my research in the past. But I think that we have to get at some of these non-test score based factors in order to understand why parents really support these charter schools.

Jason Bedrick: I think that’s an excellent point. And it’s a point you make a few times in the book. In the research community we like to use test scores because we think of them as objective, but they’re not the main objective that parents are looking at. Test scores are an important element, but if you have a choice between school with high test scores, but your kid feels unsafe, or a school that makes sure that your kids were safe, even if the test scores aren’t as good, although I would say that those two are usually somewhat correlated. Families want safety first. After safety is out of the way, then they want a whole bunch of other things. Test scores is one of them, but there’s a whole lot more that goes into an education than just the test scores. You noted too that different states have very different charter school policies. So, take Arizona where you’ve got like 20% of the students in the state are in a charter school. They have a very diverse charter sector.

Then you’ve got Kentucky, which has a charter school law that has failed to produce even a single charter school. So what can policy makers do to encourage a more robust and diverse charter sector?

Lance Izumi: Well, I think that a number of different charter school organizations like The National Public Charter Authorizers Association, our friend, Nina Rees, who runs that organization, they’ve put out a model charter school law that has all kinds of different provisions in it. Ones that I know that you and I would agree with, that there shouldn’t be caps on the numbers of charters and that there should be appeal rights when local school boards turn down your charter, all of these sorts of different provisions and to make a strong charter law. Because you’re right, Jason, that whereas in a state like California, which has 1,000 or more, 1,200 charter schools, you’ll have other states, which for example, with West Virginia, which has just approved a charter school, which is only has a very small handful of charter schools.

And so the charters are not evenly distributed across the United States. And I think that what’s important is that for parents and the public to understand is that there are areas in states that have good charter laws. You mentioned Arizona, is certainly a really great state, not just for charters but for school choice in general. That we need to look at those states as models, policymaking in each and every other state. I mean, even though California has a lot of charter schools, we’re actually regressing in terms of the restrictions that the state is imposing on charter schools. And so we actually should be looking more towards Arizona and less at some of these other states that have had bad charters for many years.

Jason Bedrick: Our guest today has been Dr. Lance Izumi, the senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute. He’s the author of Choosing Diversity: How Charter Schools Promote Diverse Learning Models and Meet the Diverse Needs of Parents and Children. Lance, thank you so much for joining us.

Lance Izumi: Thank you, Jason. I really appreciate it. And congratulations to all the people at EdChoice who do such terrific work. I’ve used your research and all your materials for many years, and it’s a great organization.

Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the Big Ideas series, please send them to media@edchoice.org and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. Follow us on social media @EdChoice. And don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website, edchoice.org. Thank you, we’ll catch you next time.