I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, October 15, 2012

It's Time To Get Real About Charter Schools

Paul Thomas tweeted a funny:
If u posted a blog about the need 4 more giraffes in elementary school lunch rooms, 57 charter advocates would post comments about charters
All too true: check out the discussion here, for example. Charter cheerleaders are relentless; evangelical soldiers in the reform wars, they are absolutely convinced that charters are laboratories full of innovation and creativity.

And it matters little to them that the vast majority of the evidence piled up on charters shows little to no average effect on student achievement. The beauty of charters, you see, is that the 17% of them that do better than pubic schools hold the key to saving our "failing" students. If we can look at these "successful" charters and tease out what makes them so awesome, we can spread the awesomeness around to everyone.

As I see it, there are three problems with this argument:

1) Why have charter schools at all if we can simply perform the same experiments in "innovation" in public schools? The very reformy Roland Fryer published a paper last month detailing lessons he thought could be learned by charter school successes. He boils it down to five "principles":  
  1. Focus on human capital. 
  2. Use student data to drive instruction. 
  3. Provide high-dosage tutoring. 
  4. Extend time on task.
  5. Foster a culture of high expectations. 
For right now let's leave aside the problems with Roland's research, which Bruce Baker handles with characteristic perspicacity. Suppose all of these things are things we want to test out. Is there any reason at all we can't try them in a public school? Do we really need a charter school to prove to us whether or not these are good policies?

I'll steal from the good Dr. Baker's metaphor to make this point: suppose we used helicopters to fly in tutors to work with kids every day after school. Would we say that the helicopters were the innovation that account for the success of the program? In the same way, what about a charter school's tutors is fundamentally different from a public school's tutors? Is the independent variable the charter, or the tutors?

And is it so surprising that tutors might help student achievement? Anybody would agree with numbers 1, 3, 4 and 5 above (2 depends on a lot of factors). Did we really need charter schools to tell us this?

2) What if the price we are paying to have a few "successful" charters is to have at least as many "failing" charters? The infamous CREDO charter study found that 17% of charters performed better than the average public school. Charter cheerleaders point to this as a reason to continue and broaden the charter experiment: these schools are "innovating," and their "innovations" can help all schools get better.

Even if that's true - what's the price? 34% of charters perform worse than the average public school. Are the "innovations" of the 17% so freakin' wonderful that they are worth throwing large numbers of  children into bad charter schools that wind up failing? Is it in the slightest bit ethical to promulgate a system that even reformies admit will lead to bad schools that will eventually close down?

3) What if the "innovations" of charter schools are things that cannot be replicated on a large scale? There were two very funny posts this weekend from EduShyster and Paul Thomas that make this exact point. If the "innovation" of a charter is to have a substantially different student population from the neighboring public schools, it's not a useful "innovation" because it's not replicable. Same with high levels of attrition, or higher spending, or a different demographic of teachers, or a discipline policy that encourages withdrawal from the school.

I have contended for a good long while that it's way past time for us to have an honest conversation about this. If parents in urban areas feel that they can't send their children to safe schools with a culture of excellence, we need to ask why. I couldn't, in good conscience, tell a parent who had a better alternative for his child not to do what's best for his kid simply to make a point.

But the price for this should, at the very least, be honesty. And I don't mean honesty on the part of those parents: I mean honesty from the rest of us.

That would mean admitting that charters do very little true innovation, and the "successful" ones do not owe their success to any really innovative practice. It would mean admitting that "successful" charters cannot be replicated on a large scale, because "success" largely comes from the characteristics of the students themselves, and not the schools.

Does that mean we should stop granting charters? Again, I am not going to tell any parent not to do what's best for his kid. But it's time to get real about charter schools; it's time to have a serious, adult conversation about what is happening. These schools are dividing poor and working class urban kids up into two groups: ones that can be "saved," and ones that... well, it's best not to think about it too much...

Charter cheerleaders: we'd all have a lot more respect for you if you would finally come clean about this. All you have to do is admit that charters are only ever going to be able to serve part of the urban student population. At least then we can go forward on honest terms.


Tamar Wyschogrod said...

You ask, "Why have charter schools at all if we can simply perform the same experiments in "innovation" in public schools?" Which is, of course an excellent question. I suspect the reformy answer would be,"Because we can't perform the same experiments in innovation in public schools." Asked why, they'd probably cite two bugaboos: unions and government regulation. And of course, to some extent, those are limiting factors that, to some extent, dictate what classes must be taught, what tests must be given, how much salary must be paid, how many hours can be worked, etc. That's not to say that innovation is impossible, but there are limiting factors. The problem is that the alternative - no unions and regulations - would be far more problematic, yet that's what reformies are advocating. The free-for-all of privatization (disguised as charters or not) may in fact open up some doors to increased innovation, but opens far more doors to profiteering, abuse, unethical practices, and any loony fringe idea that comes along. But there are always those who simply refuse to see that aspect - the types who claim to be perfectly happy living in the 100% free market competitive environment of an Ayn Rand world, where schools (and students) would sink or swim in a sea of infinite choice. The saddest thing, though, are all those people who don't want that world, but have been subjected to enough anti-public education propaganda to be willing to give it a try. I have no doubt they're the majority, but they lack balanced information on the subject because the discourse has been so heavily bought and paid for by the Billionaire Boys Club. Case in point: Education Nation. But that's a whole 'nother topic.

Deb said...

What, no picture of Cerf asking for the charter report? I feel deprived!!!!

To follow up on Tamar's comments - the experience and longevity of my children's school 's unionized teachers fosters wonderfully innovative programs. They just do not get up on charter soap boxes to scream about it. It is simply what they do. The teacher turnover in my town's charter school is alarming (30% attrition so far this year i think)?and we have to wonder why they do not stick around.