Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Magnet vs. Charter

Once again, I had a version of this conversation.

Me: Charters are not public schools because they are not open to or committed to taking all students. They filter and cream and push out and refuse to backfill.

Reformster: What about magnet schools? Those are public schools which have stringent admission requirements. They don't educate every child, either, and they also pick and choose.

I can illustrate the hole in this argument by imagining the following contrasting conversations.

Conversation #1

Student: I would like to attend your most excellent magnet school!

School: Unfortunately, you have not met our stringent entry requirements. However, as is our legal and ethical responsibility, we will make sure to provide you with a full education elsewhere within this school district.

Conversation #2

Student: I would like to attend your delightful charter school!

Charter: Unfortunately, we don't want you. We don't have space for you. You are too old. You aren't a striver. You have educational needs we aren't prepared to meet. Or we accepted you, but now we've decided to push you out. Whatever the case, we are now done with you. Have a nice life, and good luck finding a place to go to school, because that's certainly not our problem.

Or perhaps these conversations.

Conversation A

Student: Is it true Mighty Swell Magnet School is closing?

School: I'm afraid it is, due to budgetary cuts and enrollment considerations, the district is shutting down MSMS and we won't open next fall. However, in keeping with our legal and ethical responsibilities, we have already placed you within one of the district's other schools. Don't worry. Your education will continue without interruption next year.

Conversation B

Student: Hey! This door is locked! How am I supposed to get to class today.

Charter: We closed. It just didn't make business sense to keep operating, so we are outies. Go away.

Student: But-- my education!!

Charter: Not our problem. Have a nice life.

In other words

Magnets are an extension of a district's system-wide commitment to educating every single child no matter what. Charters are not. 


  1. I think there's a distinction between magnets and selective enrollment schools. I do have issues with both - the same issues I have with charters - but fewer with magnets than selective enrollment schools. Yes, magnets and selective enrollments are more public than charters because they are transparent, the property belongs to the public, etc. But the issue of not accepting all kids is real and the issue of further segregation is real. Magnets and selective enrollments were sops to white parents who threatened to leave the district if their kids have to go to school with "those" kids, same as charters. Selective enrollments screen out "those kids" the same as charters. I'm not entirely opposed to magnets based on a specific focus (arts, science, language, etc.), but then, I don't see why all of those things can't be offered in every neighborhood school. I went to a po-dunk elementary school in downstate Illinois and then we moved to a po-dunk area of northeastern Indiana. Both school systems had rich programs in all areas, simply because it wasn't feasible to have many schools focused on many different areas. If those schools can pull it off, then so can inner city schools (yes, I realize federal, state and funding is drying up and that's drying up resources to provide those sorts of programs, but then let's make that the issue). It doesn't really make any more sense for kids to be running all over town to attend magnet schools than it does for them to be running all over town to attend charters. And I'm 100% opposed to any "public" school that demands an admission test. If ranking and sorting is wrong (and it is), then it's wrong to base an entire school on it.

    1. I went to a gifted elementary school in my city, which is technically a magnet school because students could live anywhere in the district. We obviously had to test to get in... I don't see what the problem is. Every parent thinks their kid is gifted, so you need some way to tell which kids actually are, haha. Letting everyone in and then waiting for the kids who can't handle it to have a breakdown and leave just wouldn't make sense on any level. I don't understand what your issue is... that school is a huge factor into the person I am today. If I hadn't been "ranked and sorted" into that school, I wouldn't have been able to work two grade levels ahead for most of my schooling, and that honestly would have changed a whole lot for me. Gifted schools (and special ed schools, for that matter) may "rank and sort", but only so they can give the students who need it the best education possible.

    2. All students need the best education possible, in line with their interests, talents and needs. Just because you were academically smart doesn't make you any better or more deserving than any other child.

      Incidentally, what was the racial make-up of your gifted school vs. the population in general? I'm betting it was significantly lower, right? Why do you think that is? Are black and brown people just not as "gifted" as white people?

      To whatever extent "gifted" education is necessary, it can be done within each school - we don't need to be creating separate schools. But I question how necessary it is because we all have strengths and weaknesses and we all have a lot to learn from everyone else.

      For the record, I too was in "gifted" classes as a kid. Now that I'm old and going gray I realize that that, and $2.25, gets me on the El.

    3. Dienne,

      Thomas Jefferson High School's mathematics curriculum includes the following courses, all of which require Calculus BC as a prerequisite:

      Multivariate Calculus
      Linear Algebra
      Advanced Mathematical Techniques
      Concrete Math
      Probability Theory
      Complex Analysis
      Differential Equations

      There is no way that each high school can offer this curriculum.

    4. Wow. How many people would even want to take this stuff? You'd have to take algebra in 6th grade to take two of these courses. This is not a high school curriculum.

      I don't know why most students need to take anything beyond algebra I and geometry anyway, and maybe statistics because it's used so much now in social sciences and marketing. And I don't understand why colleges want you to have algebra II and pre-calc. I took them and understood none of it but somehow got a high enough score on the ACT that I didn't have to take any math in college.

      The highest math I've ever found useful in real life is basic ratios and algebraic equations with one variable. And I think geometry needs to be reworked because it just seems like a mish-mash of totally disconnected things. The interesting thing is I found a book that belonged to my great-grandfather about carpentry and it seemed to be all geometry, but I couldn't understand it. What people seem to need more is a class in personal finance/money management. I didn't need it because my dad was an accountant and he taught me enough, but I've had friends who say it would have helped them.

      I don't know why anybody needs even algebra II unless they want to go into engineering, and I would think by the time they had geometry they would realize they like math and might like to be an engineer, especially if some concepts were introduced so you had an idea about them. And they could take higher level classes, but that's not most people.

    5. Rebecca,

      Mathematics is the language of the natural sciences, economics, and engineering. A world where no one knows even algebra is a world where no one knows science.

    6. No, I like algebra. I just never understood what any of it past that was for. I did wish I had taken physics, though. I never understood why it was classified as a science instead of math. Maybe it's kind of a hybrid.

    7. When we were learning quadratic equations, I had no idea why we were learning it or what it was for. What's the point of so much plugging things into formulas? What I wanted to know was how somebody came up with the formula to begin with. That would be fascinating.

    8. I mean, I like algebra I. Not algebra II, though. (Shudder). It didn't even seem like it was related to algebra I.

    9. We need those kinds of schools, the ones for kids who eat trig for lunch at 13, because "free appropriate public education" applies to the gifted, too.

      And by gifted, I mean the 2- and 3-standard-deviation kids. The ones whose intellectual development actually interferes with having a normal life. Because these kids *are* at greater risk of dropping out if we don't decide that the "appropriate" piece applies to them.

      Illinois has a residential high school for the gifted. Illinois has a population of 10 million. It makes perfect sense that New York City would need its own high school for the gifted.

    10. You need more of the math for college. Even though most people don't need it, society needs *some* people who can do it. The system needs to provide education and find out who can do the work.

      Higher levels of math are used for engineering, chemistry and social research (meaning, government mainly), among other things, but those are the most relevant to everyday life: building the world, and studying the world.

    11. I still don't see why you need so much in high school. If you do, it ought to be taught so that you understood what it's for. In high school the only math I remember using in chemistry was to balance equations, which, while sort of fun because it reminded me of algebra, was not what I would call higher math. Or maybe it ought to be taught in tandem with whatever science you need it for, because for me everything higher than algebra 1 was totally useless.

  2. Dienne is right about the role of magnets and selective enrollment schools as a sop to certain parents -- I know of several magnet schools that were an attempt to desegregate public school systems by attracting whiter and slightly more affluent students to the schools in poorer and browner neighborhoods through special programs. Mixed motives, for sure, but some of those schools did develop excellent programs and sometimes they did manage to maintain a fairer racial and socio-economic mix. Not always. Resource equity between schools and programs always seems to be an issue within larger public school districts. But at least within a public school district there is both public pressure and oversight and the possibility for all of the schools together to make the case for more resources for the whole district, a good education for all of the kids. The competition model of charter schools is fundamentally opposed to that goal.

  3. If imagined conversations are to be taken as arguments, let me imagine some conversations:


    Student: I would like to attend Thomas Jefferson High School.

    School: You must meet eligibility requirements in order to apply for admission. These requirements are

    1) That you are a resident of Arlington County, Fairfax County (and Fairfax City), Falls Church City, Loudoun County, and Prince William County. Residents of Farquier County and the cities of Alexandria, Mannassas and Mannassas Park are not eligible to apply to the school. Giving false residency statements is a violation of Virginia law (Va. Code § 22.1-264.1).

    2) That you must be enrolled in Algebra 1 (or something we think is equivalent but with another name) in eighth grade.

    Are you eligible to apply? Good.

    To apply to the school you must

    3) Take the Thomas Jefferson High School Admissions Exam. The exam has two sections, 45 questions in the verbal section, 50 in the math section. The exam lasts two hours

    Did you score high enough on the entrance exam? Good, now you are a semifinalist.

    4) Submit two teacher recommendations

    5) Go to one of seventeen sites in Northern Virginia to do the Student Information Sheet / Essay portion of the exam. You will be given two hours to respond to the SIS questions and write your essay.

    We will evaluate your admission material along with your GPA and decide if you will be admitted to Thomas Jefferson High School.

    You did not get admitted? You can always go to your local high school.


    Student: I would like to attend Green Run Collegiate High

    School: You must be in the Virginia Beach City Public school system to apply. To apply you must fill out our one page application form. We will ask if you have taken or are planning to take Algebra 1 before beginning ninth grade. If we have more applicants than seats available, admission will be determined by a lottery.

    We had excess applications and you did not get in? You can always go to your local high school.

  4. In my school district (not far from TE's, incidentally), we have a number of magnet programs from elementary through high school. They are, pretty much without exception, placed in schools in lower-SES areas of our county. Some are achievement- or test-score based, like the Highly Gifted program for grades 4&5 or the Math & Science or Communications & Humanities middle schools (one child accepted into one of those), while other magnet programs are strictly lottery in the event of over-enrollment (like the language immersion programs my other one attends in our neighborhood elementary school - we're one of a relative few families whose kids are NOT bused in). There is a third category of magnet programs available in a particular catchment area, with some seats open to kids outside that catchment area IF they are chosen by lottery and IF they provide their own transportation to and from the school (district does not provided busing to these), and another all-magnet high school open only to students in the western half of the county (so as to not tax the transportation unduly). A pretty broad set of offerings, and a pretty wide range of entrance requirements, ranging from merely living in a particular catchment area and filling out a form to testing in order to get in.

    I'm not sure if any backfilling occurs in some of these programs; I know there is some backfilling in early years of the foreign language immersion programs, as long as incoming students have sufficient language proficiency already, but unsure about other programs.

    What all of them do have in common, though, is that for students not selected into those programs either by dint of residency, low test scores, or unsuccessful lottery draws, there is always a "home school" to attend, and the funding, since it's still in the district, still applies to that child.

  5. Crunchy,

    Glad to see that your school district has a large number of specialized programs. Mine has none at any level, though it is fairly routine that students who have fulfilled the mathematics requirements for high school graduation will take (at their family's expense), mathematics classes at the local university while still in high school.

    1. Our school district has an arrangement with the local university where students, starting at the junior level, can take college courses for both high school and college credit, if their GPA is high enough, and it costs the student and parents nothing. My one daughter did her whole first year of college free instead of taking any senior classes. We also have a few select classes in the high school that can be taken for college credit.

    2. Rebecca,

      Our school district does not offer dual enrollment. None of the classes my middle child took at our local university counted toward high school graduation, all were at the family's expense. It was certainly worth the money to keep him challenged and motivated, however.

    3. TE: MCPS does have its share of issues and negatives; the plethora of special offerings doesn't mean it's all roses on this side of the Potomac. :-/

    4. Crunchy,

      With almost 15 times the number of students as my school district, Montgomery County Public Schools certainly has the scale to do much more than mine can.

    5. When I was in school in Michigan, it was actually law that if you maxed out the school's course offerings, you could take the next course through state universities or community colleges on the district's dime.

  6. You said: Charters are not public schools because they are not open to or committed to taking all students. They filter and cream and push out and refuse to backfill.

    I do understand that this is the case with many charters, but a generalization like that tars all charters with the same brush, and that is self-defeating. There actually are some charters that are not owned by investors and big money and which, despite having their "success" judged on the same "BS" tests, are actually giving students the opportunity for a more personalized education than they can't get in a public school where the teachers are effectively handcuffed.

    If you took the most effective teachers in your school and freed them to use their experience and skill to facilitate learning rather than cram externally determined factoids down kids' throats, mightn't they create a "good" charter--again assuming that they accepted all children?

    For the record, I have nothing to do with any charter schools. But I have visited charter schools that are truly "learner-centered" while still (on the surface at least) conforming to the stupidity of BS testing. And despite the more individualized nature of their programs, they are still scoring higher than all of the other public schools on the same BS tests! That should NOT be important, but unfortunately, it still is if a charter wants to keep operating.

    I appreciate your fight against selective, corporation owned, hedge fund charters, but let's not throw the baby out with the bath water.

    1. Peter's never said he's against all charters. The idea originally came from Albert Shanker, former president of the AFT, and the idea was to have them be innovative pilot programs or programs to serve a segment of the student population that is difficult to serve well in a traditional school. Peter has said those would be fine, but that is not what the majority of charter schools are. My state of Ohio is a corrupted mess, except for a very few charters, like a couple in my city that are for autistic children.

    2. Rebecca,

      Perhaps Peter could use the word "some" more often to make this clear. For example, in this post, Peter might state "SOME charters are not public schools because they are not open to or committed to taking all students" rather then his actual statement "Charters are not public schools because they are not open to or committed to taking all students". The lack of the word some would certainly mislead many to think that Peter meant to criticize all charter schools. Peter could, of course, simply state if he meant to criticize all charter schools or just some charter schools. We await his clarification.

    3. Rebecca,

      I think it is very difficult to say anything about "most" charter schools because of the diversity of charter schools. The largest charter chains make up only a small proportion (less than 3%) of charter schools. Neither you nor I or Peter have ever even heard anything at all about the education being offered in most charter schools.

    4. In my state they make up almost all charters. Charter chains, by definition of being chains, have many schools and many students. So I say "most".

    5. In this exchange with Dimitri Mehlhorn, Jersey Jazzman gives a chart showing the distribution of charters by operator: http://jerseyjazzman.blogspot.com/2015/10/charter-schools-exchange-part-iv.html The ones I know for sure are "no excuses" test prep factories make up about a third. "Other" makes up only a third. I know Illinois has a very similar distribution of charters. Further, the "no excuses" test prep factories are the ones growing at astronomical rates.

    6. Dienne,

      Thanks for the link, but I am a bit concerned about the pie chart. The Noble Network of Charter Schools has about 11,000 students (http://noblenetwork.org/) and KIPP claims almost 70,000 students (http://www.kipp.org/schools). Looking at the pie chart, the slice for Noble Network seems to be at least as large as the one for KIPP, so I am unsure how to understand the graph.

      I am curious about which charter schools you know for sure are no excuses. Could you list them?

  7. I probably could have been clearer. I*'ve said soooo many times that the classic version of charters have some real virtues, and in theory, modern reform era charters could be okay. But mostly modern reform era charters, not so much. But I am a little inexact in using "charters" as shorthand for "modern reform era charters"