Friday, February 20, 2015

The True Purpose of Charters?

The prevailing sales pitch for modern charters is that they will be engines of equity and incubators of innovation. Certainly Albert Shanker, the original charter pitchman, saw them that way. And in many instances, that's how teacher-led, student-centered charters unfolded.

But it's not how charters are working today. The problems with fraud and mismanagement are widespread and well-documented at this point, but there are problems to consider with charters that aren't obvious pits of incompetence and greed. There's growing evidence that the charter movement is increasing segregation in many urban areas-- not just by race, but by economic status as well. There's no solid evidence that charters produce better student results. There have been no widespread adoption of successful new education techniques developed in the charter laboratories. And if you believe that a charter system lowers the costs of public education, then you must also believe that owning two homes is less expensive than owning one.

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Government support for the charter movement is greater than ever, up to and including the Obama budget proposal with its increased determination to direct public tax dollars to private charter operators. This despite the fact that charters have thus far not accomplished any of the goals they claim to pursue.

We really need an honest national conversation about charters; however, few charter boosters seem prepared to have a conversation based on anything but well-polished PR points. But one commentator on the charter advocacy side has been willing to talk honestly about the purpose of charters.
Mike Petrilli is currently head of the Fordham Foundation, a thinky tank that advocates for Common Core and school choice. But Petrilli raised a few eyebrows last December when he appeared in the New York Times advocating for charters as a way to get Worthy Students away from The Rabble. This is not a new point of view for Petrilli, who back in January of 2013 was calling charters "the last salvation of the strivers." Back then he was talking about the high expulsion rate for charters (and saying, basically, "so what?"). This week he stepped up to this plate again, this time in response to the kerfluffle about backfilling seats in charters. His point this time? Why should charters fill empty seats with students they don't choose to take and who might not be in line with the school's preferred profile for its student body?

We get the clearest picture yet of Petrilli's vision of the purpose of charter schools.

This isn't just a technical challenge; there's a moral question too. Backfilling is surely good for the student who gets to claim an empty seat. But what if it's bad for their new peers? What if the disruption to the many outweighs the benefits to the few?

It's not that those of us who work in public education don't understand his point. I would estimate that roughly 99.9% of public school teachers have thought at least once in their careers, "Boy, if Pat McSlacksalot would just stay home, this class would work a whole lot better." Charters just get to indulge that impulse.

Of course, roughly 99.9% of public school teachers can also tell a story (and it's one of the stories that energizes them) about reaching a young McSlacksalot. And we also learn early in our careers that the student who is a disaster for me may well be a whiz in the class down the hall. Are there students who are clearly way over the line in terms of bad attitude and poor drive? Sure. But there's a large number who fall into a grey and malleable area, who can be influenced and helped. And it's the oldest mistake in the classroom to confuse compliance and ability. Kudos to the charter schools who believe they have the magical skill to sort all the many varied forms of students. In public education, we can't toss them out, and so we're forced to, you know, actually teach them.

Great schools spend a lot of time building strong cultures--the almost-invisible expectations, norms, and habits that come to permeate the environment, such as the notion that it's cool to be smart and it's not OK to disrupt learning. Culture-building is a whole lot harder to do if a school is inducting a new group of students every year in every grade.

Well, yes. We know this is true, because we live with that truth in every public school. The basic premise here seems to be that some students deserve a good school, a good culture, a good learning environment-- and others do not. How can we possibly decide which students are which? Well, apparently "we" as a society should not get to make that determination at all.

As witnessed by the headline "Backfilling charter seats; a backhanded way to kill school autonomy," Petrilli is most concerned about how these issues affect the charter's freedom to make its own rules. Forcing charters to accept any student would be immoral. Here we see clearly one of the true features of the choice movement-- "school choice" is really "school's choice." It's not about parents and students having their choice of educational opportunities; it's about charters having their choice of students. Why do they need that autonomy?

When we force charters to backfill, or adopt uniform discipline policies, or mimic district schools' approach to special education, we turn them into the very things they were intended to replace. (emphasis mine)

What we're talking about is a two-tiered system. Charters will decide which students "deserve" a "better" school, and the rest will be warehoused in public schools, where teachers and staff try to do their jobs with whatever resources the charters have left for them.

"Better" in this scenario doesn't really mean educationally superior, a promise which few if any charters have been able to fulfill. "Better" means "surrounded by the Right Kind of People and not forced to sit in class with any of Those People." Ultimately, this is a system founded on simply abandoning students that charter operators deem unworthy. This is a system built on the idea that separate and deliberately unequal is not only okay, but desirable. There's no question that in many places, we have not fulfilled the promise of a good public education for all. But if our response is going to be to throw up our hands and say, "Never mind. It was a dumb, hopeless promise anyway," we need to have more honest conversation than we've had so far.

Originally posted in View from the Cheap Seats


  1. "When we force charters to ... adopt uniform discipline policies ... we turn them into the very things they were intended to replace."

    But isn't that exactly what charters do? Adopt uniform discipline policies? I believe they even have a catchy name for it - "No Excuses".

    1. Yeah, I don't understand what he's talking about either.

  2. Yeah, I thought the Department of Ed's whole point was "Every child can learn," but evidently charters don't know how to teach all children, nor are they expected to.

  3. While not a teacher myself, my family has multiple generations of public school educators and it is a constant topic of conversation. I am of the opinion that teachers should be wielding the charter school weapon themselves. The professional teaching organizations and/or unions should open their own system of charter schools and use that as an opportunity to conclusively demonstrate the knowledge and capabilities of the professional teacher.

    These “PT” schools would be able to be selective in which students they take, but for the professional teacher’s school, the selection criteria are simple – does the student want to learn? We need to be certain to clearly recognize that there is no such thing as “teaching” – there is only helping someone to learn. The simple bargain is if you show up every day, behave yourself, and are willing to give your best effort in the work we ask of you, we will take you at whatever educational level you are at and help you progress at whatever rate you are capable of. We will push you and expect you to be the best you can be and not let you settle for less, but not expect you to be the same as every other student. However, if you aren’t ready to learn and willing to work, this school isn’t for you.

    The charter school concept allows the PT schools to get out from under the thumb of state bureaucracy, with their accountability schemes, testing, pacing guides, and phony “high expectations”. It allows us to move away from nonsensical notion of “grade level expectations” where we somehow feel that all third-graders should meet the same standards even though there could be nearly a year’s difference in their ages. We can move away from the cycle of pushing through material too rapidly and then constantly remediating. The student works to mastery before progressing.

    The PT charter schools provide a big dose of truth to all of the parties. Parents and students acquire ownership and responsibility for their education instead of exercising “rights” and “choices” without consequences. Bureaucrats and politicians get to see how the pros do things and no longer get to “manage” and “provide oversight” from the ivory tower. The entrepreneurs can look elsewhere for their benjamins. And teachers take ownership and personal accountability for the process instead of being the victims.

    Bill Whitten

  4. Sorry if a similar comment shows up - I posted something and it doesn't appear that it has shown up yet, so I'll try to re-post the general gist.

    Anyway, the fact that charters can take only students who are "ready to learn and willing to work" is the problem. Kids who aren't ready or able to learn/work are still entitled to an education, so who should provide that? Oh yeah, public schools. And then you charterites will turn around and point to public schools as "failure factories".

    As far as charters getting out from state bureaucracy, if bureaucracy is the problem, why don't we address that within the public system? Why do we need to create a whole separate, unaccountable, privatized system just to do what's right?

    And finally, sorry, but it was the charterites who invented the "accountability" system. Charters were the ones who promised stellar test scores for less money. Now you're begging for more money and you have the gall to say, oh we really don't want to do this testing thing. Sorry, but you made the bed that public schools still have to lie in. Make yourselves comfortable.

    1. I’m going to pick a few verbal nits here. I recognize that some of your statements are verbal shorthand and I really don’t disagree with the intended meaning, but clarity is important.

      Your reference “kids who aren’t ready or able to learn” is an incorrect statement. Every child is ready and able to learn and has been doing so since birth. Hopefully, your intended meaning was that they were not ready for the particular bit of subject matter the standards and grade level expectations were demanding that they learn at that moment. That is why the fundamental element in my proposed teacher-run schools is identifying the readiness and ability of each student and assisting their learning within those parameters, not some arbitrary one size fits all standard imposed from above.

      State education bureaucracies are all about and completely subject to money and power. Education is simply their vehicle, not their objective. The only thing that can shift the bureaucracy is a large scale change in public attitude, parents voting with their feet and pocketbooks. If you saw 50-60% of the teachers at your local public school, including most of the ones you personally know to be very good, suddenly quit to go form their own school - that would get your attention. It you then discovered that the new school will take any kid willing to work and behave, and teach them within the scope of the student’s readiness and ability, you’d probably have your kid there in a flash and then get downtown and demand your state voucher.

      Going back to the second part of your original statement, about being ready and able to WORK, if the work being asked of the student is appropriate for their readiness and ability level, then they should be able to accomplish it IF THEY ARE WILLING. We have far too many students in our classrooms whose biggest obstacle is that they WON’T do something rather than they CAN’T do it. Granted, many of these kids have horrible issues in their lives – abuse, neglect, poverty, dysfunctional families – and if we have a compassionate society (a big IF nowadays) these should be addressed as a society. However, these issues are far beyond the scope of an education system to solve – education is a part of the solution, but only part.

      One final disagreement is with the phrase “entitled to an education”. Education is not something handed out or given to you. You don’t go up to the window, hold out your hand and say “I’d like my education please”. You are entitled to an opportunity to learn. What you do with that opportunity is up to you.