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

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Reformy Myth Busting, 2016 Edition

I see we're in the middle of a full-blown spasm of reformy self-congratulation, self-righteousness, and self-regard concerning matters of school "choice" and anti-unionism.

Let's get a few things straight, shall we?

Reformy Myth: School "choice" has led to better outcomes for all students.

Facts: There is no evidence charter schools or voucher schools get, in the aggregate, substantially better performance than public district schools. Yes, some charter schools do better than prediction when using regression-based techniques to measure their outcomes; however, those charters almost always have features such as a longer school day (generally useless but helpful when disadvantaged students don't have other good options), more financial resources, different student populations which likely produce peer effects, or high rates of attrition that almost certainly account for much of the realized gains.

In other words: There is no evidence charter schools' "charteriness" makes them any better than public district schools.

Reformy Myth: Charter schools are closing the "achievement gap."

Facts: No charter school study that I am aware of has ever shown the effect sizes of charter schools to be anywhere close to the gap in test scores that can be explained by socio-economic differences.

Even the most generous reading of the few cherry-picked studies that are repeatedly cited by charter advocates shows that their effects are a fraction of effect of poverty and income inequity on school outcomes. Even the paid pitchmen for the most "successful" charter chains -- groups that have been around for decades -- cannot bring themselves to admit they are getting equivalent results to public schools that enroll affluent children.

Because it's just not so.

Reformy Myth: Teachers unions perpetuate a white power structure that has historically disenfranchised families of color for their own gains.

Facts: Certainly, teachers unions, like almost all American institutions that have been around for a long time, have had their moments of racist and classist behavior. No one should discount that; however, no one should also ignore the fact that, historically, the civil rights movement was closely tied to unionism.

The research consensus on the effect of teachers unions is, at best, mixed, although there is some evidence strong teachers unions lead to more equitable school funding systems. There is no question that we have a serious problem with the demographics of our teaching corps: we don't have nearly enough teachers of color, and the gap between the diversity of students and their teachers has meaningful consequences for student outcomes.

The idea, however, that unions are impeding the diversification of the teaching corps has no evidence to support it. Unions have been actively recruiting for a more diverse teaching workforce for some time. Further, blacks have a higher overall unionization rate than any other racial group; unions are a force that arguably makes workplaces more diverse.

In addition, we know that "choice" systems have targeted teachers of color for employment consequences. We also know charter teachers are more likely to be white and have less experience than teachers at public district schools. It's not an exaggeration to say many "successful" charter schools are systemically replacing experienced black teachers with inexperienced white ones. How does this support the dismantling of a "white power structure" in public schools?

One last point: the idea that charter schools are breaking up a white power structure is especially absurd when it's quite clear the entire charter industry has been promoted and supported by white billionaires.

Reformy Myth: School "choice" empowers families of color.

Facts: The true historical context for "choice" in education is that it was used as a pretext to avoid the desegregation of Southern schools. These "choice" plans, incidentally, impacted teachers of color disproportionately. By all indications, it appears that charter school expansion has continued to lead to more segregated schools -- in some cases in astonishingly blatant and pernicious ways.

School "choice" has been flourishing in places where local, democratic control of schools -- a privilege enjoyed by suburban families -- has been replaced by state control (Philadelphia, Camden, Newark, Detroit) or "strong mayor" governance (NYC, Chicago).

Those who think this is conspiracy theorizing need only read the words of the people who, with the backing of billionaires, created secret plans that called for dismantling local control of schools in cities and replacing public schools with charters. Of course, these days plutocratic charter cheerleaders don't even try to hide their intentions, no matter the damage they may do to local, democratically controlled systems.

These charter expansion policies have led to a "choice" for urban families between underfunded, crumbling, inadequately resourced, unsafe public district schools and shiny new charters that abrogate the rights of parents and students while remaining in many ways unaccountable to the taxpayer.

Many urban families have hit the point where they can only get their children into a safe, healthy schools by giving up many of their rights and democratic control of their education systems. Again: this would never be tolerated in white-majority suburban communities.

Reformy Myth: Charter schools do "more with less."

Facts: Even the researchers most familiar with the spread of charter schools in New Orleans, the reformy poster child for charters, acknowledge that the influx of extra funds made a difference there. Many other "successful" charters gather up substantial extra funds, which helps with their operation.

The idea that charters get "more money to the classroom" has no empirical evidence to back it up. Charters actually have very high administrative costs, including high salaries for their leaders.

Many charters have also been found to engage in all sorts of corruption and abuse, as well as legal but nonetheless pernicious rent-seeking activities. The current charter system is also wasting taxpayer money by encouraging the transfer of public capital to private hands using the public's own money.

Some charters have lengthened their school days by employing younger teachers but paying them more in exchange for increasing their hours. This has led to faculty that have far less experience than public school faculty, a threat to the long-term stability of the teaching profession. It is certainly not a strategy that can honestly be called "doing more with less."

Reformy Myth: Charter schools are innovative because they are "free" from (mostly union-driven) bureaucracy.

Facts: There is no evidence charters, as a group, engage in innovative classroom practices. "No excuses" charters engage in a pedagogy of compliance that would never be tolerated in suburban schools. Again, the "successful" charters use a non-unionized staff to hire younger, less experienced teachers who are willing to work longer hours; however, these staffs churn much more than public district school staff, which calls into question their long-term viability. Nothing about any of this is particularly "innovative."

Much of the instruction in "successful" charters appears to be based on test-prep, which is hardly a novel approach. There is reason, in fact, to believe that this sort of curriculum does not prepare students well for the rigors of four-year colleges.

Reformy Myth: There are some bad charter schools that we should shut down, but many , if not most, are excellent.

Facts: We know very little about most of the charter schools in America. The few high-flying chains touted in the press (thanks to their high-powered press offices and cozy relationships with editorial writers) represent only a fraction of the total charter school sector.

Charter oversight systems in Florida and Ohio and Pennsylvania and Michigan have been an unmitigated disaster. Even states with allegedly strong oversight like New Jersey have seen several high-profile scandals in charter schools. Charters are proliferating with inadequate oversight and inadequate attention paid to their true costs to the taxpayers.

Reformy Myth: Charter schools are public schools.

Facts: The courts have ruled repeatedly that charter schools are not state actors and, therefore, not public schools in any meaningful sense of the word. Students in charter schools are not accorded the same due process rights as students in public district schools. Many charters have auxiliary organizations or for-profit management organizations that are not subject to the same standards of governmental oversight as public district schools.

Charter schools can choose which grade levels to serve, how large their enrollments will be, what time of year to take students, the communities where they wish to locate, how they will accept applications from students, and who will serve on their boards. Public schools have no such luxuries, because they are public.

Reformy Myth: Education "reform" is a grassroots movement.

Facts: I have little doubt that many charter school parents genuinely care about their children's schools and are proud of their accomplishments. No one begrudges them their right to speak out publicly in favor of charter schools (even if the voices of parents who do not support charter proliferation are often ignored or marginalized).

That doesn't change the fact that a group of extremely wealthy white men are currently financing an industry which appears to be almost entirely devoted to selling the gospel of corporate-styled education reform.

These plutocrats continue to promote an agenda that most assuredly does not include raising taxes on them or curbing their excessive influence on our government and our media. The notion that their power is in any way equivalent to a few bloggers, teachers, union spokespeople, and education researchers who point out the emptiness of the pro-reform arguments is absurd on its face.

The public is, however, starting to wake up to the fact that this country is on the wrong track, and that public education and public teachers unions are not to blame. In the end, I am confident the truth will win out; I only worry that the system will, sadly, be so broken by these people that it will take a Herculean effort to reassemble it.

When that day comes, however, you can be confident my fellow teachers and fellow union members will be there to pick up the shattered pieces of our public school system and put it back together.

It's what we do.


ChicagoRob said...

You're dead-wrong, my dear brother! There IS evidence that teachers unions have a POSITIVE effect on (1) teacher turnover, (2) retention of good teachers, and (3) students' graduation rates!

Here's the study: http://www.law.harvard.edu/programs/lwp/papers/Teacher_dismissal.pdf?utm_content=bufferaad23&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

ChicagoRob said...

P.S. Badass article, brother!

Dave Eckstrom said...

Writing this was so much better a use of your time than the Twitter war on myths 3 and 4 that you got sucked into the other day. What's amazing to me is that you can teach all day and still create an argument 10 times more coherent and convincing than that of a reformy cheerleader who gets paid to do nothing else.

Duke said...

Rob, that's a good piece and well worth considering. But I'm not at the point where I'm ready to state the research consensus is that unions always have a positive impact on student achievement. For example, I have my problems with this:


But I'm not prepared (yet) to say whether and why it's wrong. So, for now, I'm sticking with my story: at best, the research is mixed. Thanks for the kind words.

Dave, I am trying to wean myself of tweet warring. Not easy. Again, thx for the kind words.

laMissy said...

Dear Jazzman:

You rock! Here in MA, our dear governor has vowed to raise the charter cap anyway he can (complete with a photo at the State house in front of supporters of Great Schools MA), despite the state auditor's report that charters are just meh and maybe worse. Also despite findings that MA public schools are "best in the nation". But who need facts when we have ideology?

Christine Langhoff