Saturday, August 29, 2020

Brookings Makes A Bad Pro-Charter Argument

Mona Vakilifathi graduated from the4 University of California, San Diego, with a BS in political science and government back in 2009, and she's been working policy jobs ever since. Over at Brookings, she has some thoughts about Democrats, charter schools, and ed policy, and while she seems to mean well, she has missed a few spots here and there. I've read it so you don't have to.

Let me get the answers from you!
She opens by repeating the reformster narrative that charters divide Democrats along racial lines, citing the "research" from DFER showing that Black voters want charter schools. The poll (from May of 2019) is another one of DFER's attempts to push the narrative in a pro-charter direction. That poll was particularly riddled with questionable technique and spin. And most of the Black Democrats want charters "data" has come from people trying to push charters. So her premise is problematic.

She also offers a quick history of recent "evolving politics"by citing Trump and DeVos as charter supporters, however, DeVos and Trump have left charter schools behind, throwing their weight behind voucher programs like the DeVosian Education Freedom voucher program. This may be because DeVos has always preferred the idea of tax dollars going to private (religious) schools, and Trump's use of vouchers as a way to draw Catholic support.

And she brings up the old "Albert Shanker liked charters" line, skipping the "and then he realized they were turning out to be awful" part. But her definition of charter schools simply identifies them as schools with "greater policy discretion." There's a great deal of complexity, including the reformster belief that charters can unleash the magical power of market forces, that she skips, other than offering this line from the Vast Understatement Hall of Fame: "As the charter school movement evolved over time, charter school advocates prioritized charter school growth with little attention to how charter schools might benefit traditional public schools..." That's a feature, not a bug, in the market forces conception of charters. Vikilifathi is talking Shanker when she should be talking Friedman.

She notes that charters don't seem to do much better than public schools when it comes to student achievement, by which she means scores on a narrow ill-designed two-subject Big Standardized Test. I'll just go ahead and fix that for her from here on in.

She specifically identifies Democratic opposition to the Charter Schools Program, but a desire to rein in that program is not necessarily about opposition to charters, given that the CSP has thrown at least a billion dollars of taxpayer money into a pit of waste and fraud. Vakilifathi has some ideas about how the CSP can be put to better use.

She pulls this nugget from the body of research-- that charter schools manage higher test scores  than public schools in urban communities. She sails past some of the obvious explanations-- creaming, pushing out low-scoring students, self-selecting for involved families, intensive test prep, longer school hours, and whittling down cohorts without backfilling empty seats (for examples of all these in action, see Robert Pondiscio's How the Other Half Learns  about Success Academy).

Vakilifathi seems to believe that charter schools might know some magical secret to learning, and her policy suggestions are built around that assumption. She proposes that the CSP be amended to do the following.

1) Prioritize federal funding to charter schools that will innovate, experiment, and identify best practices. In other words, she wants the Obama/Duncan notion of charters as laboratories of learning. She wants charters to commit fiddling with ways to improve test scores for low-income, racial/ethnic minority, or special education students (it might help to first require charters to accept special education students). The charter also has to submit to "rigorous, empirical evaluation of the policy intervention for broader dissemination." In other words, they must break down their secret formula to share.

2) The USED must publicly disseminate the results. Show how they made the secret sauce, and share it with all other schools. Include what they did, how they did it, and the improved test scores that they got out of it.

3) USED must give low-scoring public schools to help them implement the special sauce. The public school announces it wants to try East Egg Charter's special sauce, files out an application, gets a grant. They, too, go under the sciencey microscope to see how well that policy idea raised test scores at the school.

In short:

I argue that charter schools provide a unique opportunity to identify evidence-based best practices to improve low-performing traditional public schools because of charter schools’ rich variation in state regulatory exemptions, charter school practices, charter school accountability policies, and student enrollment. Democrats should consider amending CSP to incentivize charter schools to revert closer to its original intent as laboratories of traditional public schools to improve low-performing traditional public schools and student performance.

So, there are several reasons to be less than excited about this idea.

1) Charters are unlikely to be excited about it. Since the movement is largely premised on the notion of unleashing free market forces--well, in that context, this proposal makes as much sense as telling MacDonald's that they have to show Wendy's how to make fries.

2) Vakilifathi's use of BS Test scores as a measure of achievement disqualifies the whole business right there. The tests are a lousy measure of student achievement and school effectiveness-- which are two entirely different things that Vakilifathi just sort of lumps together. Either way, the Big Standardized Test is not the measure to use, unless you want to re-organize schools around standardized test results instead of education.

3) Vakilifathi makes the unfounded assumption that the methods used "successfully" at East Egg Charter can be transferred whole cloth to West Egg Public High School and work just as well, as if the specific situation of the school is not a major factor is student achievement. Hell, as any classroom teacher can tell you, I can't even transfer the methods I used five years ago into today's classes. Hell, lots of times I couldn't even transfer the methods I used third period into sixth period.

4) There is zero reason to think that the charter world, populated primarily by education amateurs, knows anything that public school systems don't already know. Charter success rests primarily on creaming student population (and the families thereof), pushing out students who won't comply or are too hard to educate, extending school hours, drilling tests like crazy, having teachers work 80 hour weeks, and generally finding ways to keep out students with special needs that they don't want to deal with. None of these ideas represent new approaches that folks in public education haven't thought of.

5) If charters were pioneering super-effective new strategies, we would already know. There is a well-developed grapevine in the public education world. If there were a charter that was accomplishing edu-miracles, teachers all over would be talking about it. Teachers who left that charter would take the secret sauce recipe with them, and pretty soon it would be being shared across the country. After decades of existence, charters do not have a reputation in the education world for being awesome--and there's a reason for that. Puff pieces and PR pushes may work on the general public and provide fine marketing, but that's not what sells other teachers.

Short answer-- if charters knew something really awesome and impressive, public school teachers would already know and already be copying it.

6) Rigorous empirical evaluation only measures certain sorts of data friendly things, and we are talking about a wide variety of human beings in a web of complex relationships. You can only get so far trying to, say, do a rigorous empirical evaluation of why two people are best friends. But it will only scratch the surface (and it will not tell you the secret to making two other people become best friends).

7) We've sort of tried all of this (see Obama/Duncan administration). There's even a whole federal website of "What Works" that supposedly provides evidence about a random assortment of programs and materials. You probably haven't heard about it because not that many folks find it useful.

Vikilifathi's idea seems sensible enough on paper, but it just doesn't translate to the actual world of charter schools these days. We're going to need better ideas than this; however, that's a discussion that may best wait until after November.


  1. Vikilifathi's ideas don't sound sensible even on paper to anyone who knows anything about education and has ever taught. She's behind the times, a poor researcher, and clueless.

  2. All public school advocates be asking this question: What is driving force pushing parents to opt for charter schools?

    Is it better, more qualified teachers? . . . No.
    Is it innovative and original curricula or pedagogies? . . . No,
    Is it awesome enrichment programs and unlimited extra curricular opportunities? . . . No.
    Is it chronic discipline problems that are out of control in their neighborhood public schools? . . . ?