President Obama has called charter schools "incubators of innovation" and "laboratories of innovation," and he has done so for several years, despite the fact that, so far, the laboratories have yielded nothing.
One of the standard justifications for the modern charter movement is that these laboratories of innovation will develop new techniques and programs that will then be transported out to public schools. Each charter school will be Patient Zero in a spreading viral infection of educational excellence.
Yet, after years-- no viral infection. No bouncing baby miracle cure from the incubator. The laboratory has shown us nothing.
Here's my challenge for charter fans-- name one educational technique, one pedagogical breakthrough, that started at a charter school and has since spread throughout the country to all sorts of public schools.
After all these years of getting everything they wanted, modern charter schools have nothing to teach the public schools of the US.
Both this profile from the New York Times and a teacher interview with Diane Ravitch show that the widely-lauded Success Academy model of New York is based on the emotional brutalization of children and tunnel-vision focus on The Test. This is justified by an ugly lie-- that if poor kids can get the same kind of test scores as rich kids, the doors will open to the same kind of success.
Put all that together with a mission to weed out those students who just can't cut it the SA way, and you have a model that cannot, and should not, be exported to public schools. Success Academy demonstrates that charters don't necessarily need to cream for the best and the brightest, but just for the students who can withstand their particular narrow techniques.
But then, most modern charters are fundamentally incompatible with the core mission of public schools, which is to teach every single child. Examination of charters show over and over and over again that they have developed techniques which work-- as long as they get to choose which students to apply them to. New Jersey has been rather fully examined in this light, and the lesson of New Jersey charters is clear-- if you get to pick and choose the students you teach, you can get better results.
This is the equivalent of a laboratory that announces, "We can show you a drug that produces fabulous hair growth, as long as you don't make us demonstrate it on any bald guys."
Modern charters have tried to shift the conversation, to back away from the "laboratory" narrative. Nowadays, they just like to talk about how they have been successful. These "successes" are frequently debatable and often minute, but they all lack one key ingredient for legitimate laboratory work-- replication by independent researchers.
Replication is the backbone of science. Legit scientists do not declare, "This machine will show you the power of cold fusion, but only when I'm in the room with it." The proof is in replicating results by other researchers whose fame and income does not depend on making sure the cold fusion reactor succeeds.
If your charter has really discovered the Secret of Success, here's what comes next. You hand over your policies and procedures manual, your teaching materials, your super-duper training techniques to some public school to use with their already-there student body. If they get the excellent results, results that exceed the kind of results they've been getting previously, results measured by their own measures of success, then you may be on to something.
But if you only ever get results in your own lab with your own researchers working on your own selected subjects measured with your own instruments, you have nothing to teach the rest of us.
Andy Smarick recently charted up some charter results, looking at how they relate to CREDO and NACSA ratings. He did not make any wild or crazy claims for what he found, but he did note and chart correlations. The more CREDO likes a city (it offers more opportunities for chartering), the higher its charter testing results. The more NACSA thinks charters are regulated in a city, the lower the testing results. There are many possible explanations, but here are two that occur to me: the more charters you let open, the more they can set the rules and collect the students that they want, and the more that regulations force charters to play by the same rules as public schools, the more their results look just like public school results.
Maybe, as Mike Petrilli suggested, it's time to stop talking about charters as laboratories and stop pretending that they're discovering anything other than "If you get to pick which students you're going to teach, you can get stuff done" (which as discoveries go is on the order of discovering that water is wet). There may well be an argument to make about charters as a means of providing special salvation for one or two special starfish. But if that's the argument we're going to have, let's just drop the whole pretense that charters are discovering anything new or creating new educational methods that will benefit all schools, and start talking about the real issue-- the establishment of a two-tier schools system to separate the worthy from the rabble.