Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Dear Doug1943

A commenter at Diane Ravitch's asked a question which I think, if nothing else, probably represents the thinking of a lot of folks out there. Ravitch who is "taking a break" (which generally means she's only posting a dozen times a day instead of a hundred) asked for replies, so here's mine.

First, Doug1943's question:

I think the problem is this: the people opposing allowing people to escape from bad public schools don’t seem to want to acknowledge that there is such a thing as bad public schools. Or, at most, they seem to believe that if we just raised taxes and put more money into these schools, they’d be better. Or, that there is nothing the schools can do, it’s general poverty that is the problem.

Of course, if any or all these views are correct, then you must carry on doing what you’re doing (which seems to me, as an ‘outsider’, is just talking to yourselves, which is the norm for American forums on both Left and Right).

However, I think you ought to give some thought to trying to address the issues that proponents of vouchers, charters, etc. claim are real: that at least some public schools are unreformably bad, and parents who have some ambition for their children should be allowed to escape from them. In other words, should have the same opportunities that the Clinton and Obama children had.

Or, if you agree that some public schools are bad, but not unreformably so, how can they be reformed?

It’s this that — again as an outsider — strikes me as your great weakness: you don’t seem to admit that there is a problem at all. Thus your quotes around “better” in your reply: you seem to dismiss good exam results that some charters get. Now, maybe you’re right about these results– I certainly have huge reservations about multiple-choice standardized tests. But you ought to make the case.

By the way, I personally would prefer there to be a system of state schools that had high standards, and educated all children to the limits of their inherent capabilities, so that the issue of ‘charter schools’ and vouchers wouldn’t even arise.. I assume that such a system would cost substantially more than the current system, but that it would be well worth it. But we don’t seem to be allowed to have that choice.

When it comes to believing in the badness of schools, I think you'll find a full spectrum, with people on one end believing that all "government schools" are bad and should be abolished, and people on the other end believing that public education must be preserved and never displaced or challenged. As with most spectra, this one contains few people at the ends and most in the middle, with folks from all sides interspersed on all sides of each other. Likewise, we will find a continuum running from "Poverty means nothing at all and anyone with some gumption and good teaching can overcome it" all the way to "Poverty is an inescapable blight that can't be overcome ever." Policy makers have come pretty close to the former position, making it easy to characterize anyone who brings up the problems of poverty at all as someone who has given up because of poverty, but I don't think that's the case. Poverty matters. It's not destiny, but it can't simply be ignored, either.

Most public ed advocates that I know and interact with would agree that, particularly in some large urban districts, there are some schools with serious problems. I would never tell you that all public schools are flawless and there are no huge problems. There are, from serious underfunding to long-standing institutional racism to a lack of any sort of vision from leaders. There are absolutely some serious issues, but it does not appear to me that choice-charter-voucher advocates are proposing anything that will actually solve any of the problems.

They call to mind lying with a broken leg on the sidewalk, and someone runs up with a chain saw and says, "Hey, I'm going to take off your arms" and I ask what help that will be and are they even a doctor and they reply, "Well, no-- but we have to do something!" No, thanks.

Do charters generally do a better job? There's no clear evidence that they do-- often they get the same results with the same kids (as far as we can tell, given that we have no good way in place to measure school success-- your reservations about standardized tests are on point) and a little too often they do worse. Do charters solve poverty? No. Do charters and choice spur competition that leads to greatness? There's zero evidence that they do. Do they allow children to "escape" bad schools? Maybe-- but here's the big problem as charters are currently handled: the escape comes at the cost of making a bad school worse by stripping it of resources. And as I frequently point out, the free market can't handle this problem. The free market survives by picking winners and losers and dropping the losers out-- there is not one single business or business sector in this country that serves every single citizen, but serving 100% of US students is exactly the education gig.

So in short, yes, there are problems and no, the charter-choice-voucher idea doesn't solve any of them.

So what are my alternative suggestions? Let me first note that the guy who wants to treat my broken leg by chainsawing off my arms is the person carrying the burden of proof. But as someone who is invested in public education, and who has already noticed most of the issues that charter fans holler about in their marketing materials. In the interests of not writing an entire book, let me offer just a quick list of some major steps that, I believe, would help.

1) Fair, full, equitable funding for all schools. No, we don't have the national will to fund every school to Lexus level, but right now we're letting states and districts run some Lexus schools just across the tracks from Used Kia schools. That's not okay. You can even have charters-- but you have to pay for them. You cannot run ten homes for the cost of one.

2) Dramatically reduce unfunded mandates.

3) Get rid of test-centered accountability, which has created test-centered schools. Yes, we need accountability, but the current method is truly, deeply useless. I have some thoughts, but this is not a book.

4) Let teachers teach.

5) Let communities have control of their own schools.

6) Rebuild the teaching profession and undo the damage of the last fifteen years. Put the profession under the control of professionals. Too much damage has been done by politicians and other amateurs who think that since they once went to school, they should set policy for the nation.

I don't believe that some schools are unreformable* because a school is not a building-- it is the total of the teachers, staff, leaders, families and students that some together in that school. To believe that a school is unreformable I would have to believe that a neighborhood or community is unredeemable, and I'm not prepared to believe that about any group of human beings. But to reform you have to have resources, leadership, and a strong relationship with the community being served. It is not clear to me how, in East Egg or West Egg or even Rotten Egg, you could do that with a charter but somehow not with the public school you already have, and it seems that the charter solution is to swap out the students or the families or the local connection.

I agree that we haven't been given the choice of really funding public education as if we meant it, and charters in many markets seem like a way to say, "Well, we'll just spend the money on the students who deserve it," which is not, to my mind, the American education gig, either. It is deciding to rescue only some children from a burning building without making any attempt to put the fire out. That, to me, is not okay.

*I originally mistyped this as "reformable"


  1. Couldn't have said it better myself (and I have a big ego!).

  2. Well said, Mr Green. I would add one suggestion for improvement of all schools, public or private. Good teachers teach because they love people and ideas. If they loved money, they would do something else. So we must pay them enough. Paying them more will never work, which is why studies suggest merit pay is a failure.

    What teachers want is independence. No one looking over their shoulder.

  3. I wouldn't bother any further with dear old Doug. He's just a racist troll trying to stir sh-- up. Read his comment on Diane's blog of your post:

  4. Non-chainsaw-to-arm reforms:

    1. Strengthen discipline.
    2. Refocus the curriculum to build knowledge rather than skills (note to fellow liberals: this reduces the achievement gap)
    3. Return to limited tracking after 6th grade. Another word for tracking is "differentiation".

  5. Well done. Your discussion of poverty reminds me of Gerald Bracey's comment...

    "When people have said 'poverty is no excuse,' my response has been, 'Yes, you're right. Poverty is not an excuse. It's a condition. It's like gravity. Gravity affects everything you do on the planet. So does poverty.'"

    Poverty doesn't negate the possibility of success, but it's there as a condition, and overcoming it is a constant challenge.