Category: Charter schools

Choice and Walling Off Poverty

School choice has remained a compelling part of education reform discourse and policy into the twenty-first century—but not simply among conservative politicians and stakeholders.

For example, despite growing evidence that charter schools are essentially no better or worse than traditional public schools, political and public support for charter schools remains robust primarily because they are touted as parental choice.

And especially in the good ol’ U.S. of A., what could be wrong with all parents having the same choices that wealthy parents have?

Except, that bromide is compelling only within the context of idealizing choice—ignoring that parents make all sorts of horrible choices daily, negatively impacting their children, ignoring that parents tend to choose schools for socio-political reasons that have little to do with academic quality, and thus, that choice isn’t a positive market force for education reform but for one of the greatest ills to ever impact society and education in the U.S.: segregation by race and class.

While the talking points for school choice advocates have shifted over the last few decades, “all parents should have the same choices that wealthy parents have” drives the essence of their advocacy, and allows this ideology to skirt the overwhelming evidence against school choice as a positive mechanism for education or social reform addressing inequity.

During this presidential election season, amid rising social tensions, there is renewed calls for building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Like school choice, this plan is compelling along extreme ideological lines only; in practice, both are unwarranted and even incendiary.

Yet, what we are failing to acknowledge is the act of walling is already in place in the U.S.—the wealthy walling off the poor, and the mechanism for that is choices made by the wealthy [1] that school choice advocates idealize:

There are over 14,000 school districts across the country. Many of the 35,000 borders that divide them contribute to increasing economic segregation and create barriers to opportunity that is sometimes just out of reach. This occurs in large part because between 40-60% of schools’ fortunes depend on property values in the neighborhoods that surround them. This reality creates incentives for wealthy areas to wall themselves off from their needy neighbors, keeping their property wealth for their own children’s schools and leaving other communities to fend for themselves.

Ironically, the school choice charade is about choice. [2]

As a country, we have made a choice not to address social, economic, and educational inequity directly. We have chosen instead to remain faithful to the invisible-handed God of Choice who daily raises one defiant finger toward the poor and disenfranchised.


[1] Explore the powerful interactive map at this link.

[2] A great deal of irony exists also in the funding for edbuild, including a number of neoliberal, pro-choice organizations.

Weekend Quick Takes June 25-26

Read Julian Vasquez Heilig’s What other universities should learn from UT, and note especially this:

Not discussed in the current ruling, but I believe relevant, is that Fisher did not fall below a bright line by which whites were rejected and minorities admitted. As reported in The Nation, UT-Austin offered admission “to some students with lower test scores and grades than Fisher. Five of those students were Black or Latino. Forty-two were white.” Additionally, “168 black and Latino students with grades as good as or better than Fisher’s who were also denied entry into the university that year.”

It is unfortunate that Fisher believed wrongly, in spite of factual evidence and data to the contrary, that she was discriminated against because she was white. In fact, by pursuing a case where the data was very clear on this point, she continued the insecurity and insidiousness of racial prejudice that has unfortunately permeated our society for centuries.

Also see his co-authored Actuating equity?: Historical and contemporary analyses of African American access to selective higher education from Sweatt to the Top 10% Law


There may be many cracks in Maintaining the Charter Mirage: Progressive Racism, including Paul Hewitt’s A modest proposal for charter schools; consider this:

Now that I have established myself as an opponent of charter schools I have a proposal for the Walton family and charter school proponents everywhere. I propose that you go against my friend’s admonition that we need public schools for charters to succeed. If charter schools are so good, let’s make every school in the current school district a charter school. Let’s dissolve the traditional school board and have them become trustees of school facilities. Let’s take all the existing school facilities and have charter school groups nationwide bid through proposals to take over and run that school. State law may need to be altered a little for this grand experiment. For example, no student living in the current school boundaries could transfer to a school in another neighboring school district. This would ensure that the charters serve all students in the community including the special education, English language learners, and at-risk children to ensure that no child could be “pushed out.”

Just imagine, every school would be a charter school and parents could have their choice of schools for their child. The traditional lottery system would be used at each school, and if the parent wasn’t lucky enough to get their first choice they could go to their second or third. Because the population of the entire school district would be involved there could be no discrimination and all students, even the at-risk, would be served. The traditional creaming of top students that is the major criticism of charters would be eliminated. This would be a completely free-market school choice system.

The double irony to this confrontation as (mostly) satire is that transforming all public schools into charter schools has already occurred—in New Orleans; see Endgame: Disaster Capitalism, New Orleans, and the Charter Scam.

And while edureformers continue to mislead political leaders and the public about such turnover/turnarounds, New Orleans is but one example of how these market-based reforms have proven to be utter failures.


In 1949, former NCTE president and English teacher/educator Lou LaBrant argued: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).

In 2016, former NCTE president and esteemed educator and activist Joanne Yatvin confronts the same disturbing dynamic in her Too Little and Too Late.

Regretfully, Yatvin’s powerful refuting of the National Reading Panel, at the base of No Child Left Behind, was mostly ignored by political leaders and the public. Yet, she is once again ringing a bell that must be heard:

To the Editor:

As a retired educator, still deeply involved with the teaching of reading and writing, I was dismayed to read that the Portland Public schools are still tied to one-size-fit all commercial materials for teaching reading and considering combining pieces from several of them to make a new program. By this time experienced teachers should have learned that each child learns to read in his own time frame and in his own way, and that real literature and non-fiction are far better tools than anything concocted by commercial publishers.

Learning to read is not all that difficult when children are given interesting and well-written books for group activities and allowed to choose books that appeal to them to read on their own. It also helps when adults read aloud interesting books with illustrations on a regular basis. That is how children learn vocabulary and begin to understand the world outside their own homes and neighborhoods. Reading poetry helps too, because of the repeated word sounds and lines.

Over all, we should remember that reading and writing have been around for many centuries, and that the people who wanted and needed to use those skills found them easy to learn– often without a teacher, and certainly without any breakdown into separate skills, workbook exercises, or tests.

Sincerely yours,
Joanne Yatvin

The entire accountability reform movement driven by ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes tests benefits mostly the education market—not students, not teachers.

In fact, as my current graduate literacy course has revealed to me, teachers both recognize the negative impact of required reading programs and materials and feel powerless to set those materials aside in order to implement what their children actually need.


I entered the field of education fueled by the belief that traditional schooling needed to be reformed. I am a public school advocate, but I also recognize that traditional public schools have served white middle-class and affluent children well (even though, as I can attest, that population often excels in spite of traditional schooling) while mostly failing vulnerable populations of students, specifically black, brown, and poor children.

My fellow pro-public school friends have been proudly sharing Jack Schneider’s America’s Not-So-Broken Education System.

While both Schneider and those sharing his piece are, I am certain, driven by good intentions, I must caution that such defenses of public schools suffer from whitewashing—a not-so-subtle middle-class lens that fails to adequately emphasize the racist and classist policies entrenched in public schools.

Public education as a social reform mechanism has not happened; public schools more often than not reflect and perpetuate the very worst aspects of our society.

If I may, I believe those of us who are adamant about supporting public education are committed to the potential, the promise that public education could be or should be something better, at the very least a model of equity if not a lever for equity.


Related to the above concern, access to experienced and certified teachers is a key aspect of both how our public schools have failed and how we are currently committed to the very worst aspects of education reform (for example, Teach For America and value-added methods for teacher evaluation).

Derek Black has compiled a powerful and important examination of Taking Teacher Quality Seriously.

See the abstract:

Although access to quality teachers is one of the most important aspects of a quality education, explicit concern with teacher quality has been conspicuously absent from past litigation over the right to education. Instead, past litigation has focused almost exclusively on funding. Though that litigation has narrowed gross funding gaps between schools in many states, it has not changed what matters most: access to quality teachers.

This Article proposes a break from the traditional approach to litigating the constitutional right to education. Rather than constitutionalizing adequate or equal funding, courts should constitutionalize quality teaching. The recent success of the constitutional challenge to tenure offers the first step in this direction. But the focus on teacher tenure alone is misplaced. Eliminating tenure, without addressing more important fundamental challenges for the teaching profession, may just make matters worse. Thus, this Article argues for a broader intervention strategy. When evaluating claims that students have been deprived of their constitutional right to education, courts should first ensure that states equally distribute existing quality teachers, regardless of the supply. Courts should then address state policies that affect the supply of teachers, which include far more than just salaries. When those remedies still prove insufficient to ensure access to quality teachers, courts must ensure that the removal of ineffective teachers is possible.


And a perfect companion for your weekend reading comes from 1969: “Bullshit and the Art of Crap -Detection” by Neil Postman.

Here’s just a taste:

Thus, my main purpose this afternoon is to introduce the subject of bullshit to the NCTE. It is a subject, one might say, that needs no introduction to the NCTE, but I want to do it in a way that would allow bullshit to take its place alongside our literary heritage, grammatical theory, the topic sentence, and correct usage as part of the content of English instruction. For this reason, I will have to use 15 minutes or so of your time to discuss the taxonomy of bullshit. It is important for you to pay close attention to this, since I am going to give a quiz at the conclusion.

9 June 2016 Reader: School Choice, GPA v. SAT/ACT

I. School Choice, Charter Choice

Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City, Nikole Hannah-Jones

When the New York City Public Schools catalog arrived in the mail one day that spring, with information about Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new universal prekindergarten program, I told Faraji that I wanted to enroll Najya in a segregated, low-income school. Faraji’s eyes widened as I explained that if we removed Najya, whose name we chose because it means “liberated” and “free” in Swahili, from the experience of most black and Latino children, we would be part of the problem. Saying my child deserved access to “good” public schools felt like implying that children in “bad” schools deserved the schools they got, too. I understood that so much of school segregation is structural — a result of decades of housing discrimination, of political calculations and the machinations of policy makers, of simple inertia. But I also believed that it is the choices of individual parents that uphold the system, and I was determined not to do what I’d seen so many others do when their values about integration collided with the reality of where to send their own children to school.

One family, or even a few families, cannot transform a segregated school, but if none of us were willing to go into them, nothing would change. Putting our child into a segregated school would not integrate it racially, but we are middle-class and would, at least, help to integrate it economically. As a reporter, I’d witnessed how the presence of even a handful of middle-class families made it less likely that a school would be neglected. I also knew that we would be able to make up for Najya anything the school was lacking.

As I told Faraji my plan, he slowly shook his head no. He wanted to look into parochial schools, or one of the “good” public schools, or even private schools. So we argued, pleading our cases from the living room, up the steps to our office lined with books on slavery and civil rights, and back down, before we came to an impasse and retreated to our respective corners. There is nothing harder than navigating our nation’s racial legacy in this country, and the problem was that we each knew the other was right and wrong at the same time. Faraji couldn’t believe that I was asking him to expose our child to the type of education that the two of us had managed to avoid. He worried that we would be hurting Najya if we put her in a high-poverty, all-black school. “Are we experimenting with our child based on our idealism about public schools?” he asked. “Are we putting her at a disadvantage?”

See Also

Why Sending Your Child to a Charter School Hurts Other Children

Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era

Just as mass incarceration from the war on drugs continues institutional racism once found in slavery and Jim Crow, education reform, especially the “no excuses” charter school movement, resurrects a separate but equal education system that is separate, but certainly isn’t equal. The masked racism of mass incarceration and education reform share many parallels, including the following:

  • Both depend on “racially sanitized rhetoric,” according to Alexander, that thinly masks racism. “Getting tough on crime” justifies disproportional arrests, convictions and sentencing for African Americans; “no excuses” and “zero tolerance” justify highly authoritarian and punitive schools disproportionally serving high-poverty children of color.
  • Both depend on claims of objective mechanisms – laws for the war on drugs and test scores for education reform – to deflect charges of racism. Alexander recognizes “this system is better designed to create [emphasis in original] crime and a perpetual class of people labeled criminals, rather than to eliminate crime or reduce the number of criminals,” (p. 236) just as test-based education reform creates and does not address the achievement gap.  
  • Both depend on racialized fears among poor and working-class whites, which Alexander identifies in the Reagan drug war agenda: “In his campaign for the presidency, Reagan mastered the ‘excision of the language of race from conservative public discourse’ and thus built on the success of the earlier conservatives who developed a strategy of exploiting racial hostility or resentment for political gain without making explicit reference to race” (p. 48). The charter school movement masks segregation within a progressive-friendly public school choice.  
  • Both depend on either current claims of post-racial America or the goal of a post-racial society: “This system of control depends far more on racial indifference [emphasis in original] . . . than racial hostility,” Alexander notes. (p. 203)
  • Both depend on a bipartisan and popular commitment to seemingly obvious goals of crime eradication and world-class schools.
  • Both depend on the appearance of African American support. Alexander explains about the effectiveness of the war on drugs: “Conservatives could point to black support for highly punitive approaches to dealing with the problems of the urban poor as ‘proof’ that race had nothing to do with their ‘law and order’ agenda” (p. 42).

This last point – that African Americans seem to support both the war on crime and “no excuses” charter schools – presents the most problematic aspect of charges that mass incarceration and education reform are ultimately racist, significant contributions to the New Jim Crow.

For example, Carr reports that African American parents not only choose “no excuses” charter schools in New Orleans, but also actively cheer and encourage the authoritarian policies voiced by the schools’ administrators. But Alexander states, “Given the dilemma facing poor black communities, it is inaccurate to say that black people ‘support’ mass incarceration or ‘get-tough’ policies” because “if the only choice that is offered blacks is rampant crime or more prisons, the predictable (and understandable) answer will be ‘more prisons.’ ” (p. 210)

New Orleans serves as a stark example of how this dynamic works in education reform: Given the choice between segregated, underfunded and deteriorating public schools and “no excuses” charters – and not the choice of the school environments and offerings found in many elite private schools – the predictable answer is “no excuses” charters.

II. GPA v. SAT/ACT

Study: Colleges Put Students Into Remedial Classes Who Don’t Need Them

The Alaska study, conducted by a regional research laboratory funded by the U.S. Department of Education, found that SATs, ACTs and the placement tests used by the University of Alaska were all poor predictors of how a student might do in a college-level math or English class. Many students who did well on these exams bombed their college classes, and vice versa. Instead, the researchers found that if college administrators had simply looked at the students’ high school GPAs, they would have done a much better job at figuring out who needs to relearn high school material and who doesn’t.

“We definitely should be including GPAs when assessing college readiness,” said Michelle Hodara, the lead author of the study and a senior researcher at Education Northwest. “We found the same thing that community college researchers and practitioners are finding, that high school GPA is a really powerful measure of college readiness, even for students who want to earn a four-year degree.”

Developmental education and college readiness at the University of Alaska

This study examines the postsecondary readiness of first-time students who enrolled in the University of Alaska system over a four-year period. The study calculates the proportion of students considered academically underprepared for college and how placement rates for developmental education (that is, non–credit-bearing courses) vary for different groups of students. The study also determines the proportion of students placed in developmental education who eventually enrolled in and passed college English and math. Finally, the analysis looks at whether high school grades, rather than exam performance, are a better predictor of success in college-level courses.

Results show that developmental education rates were higher in math than English for students pursuing any degree type and increased as the gap between high school exit and college entry grew. Among students pursuing a bachelor’s degree, developmental placement rates were highest for Black students from urban areas of the state (in math) and Alaska Native students from rural areas (in English) compared to all other student groups. Almost half (47 percent) of students placed in developmental courses eventually passed college English and almost a quarter (23 percent) passed college math. For students who enrolled directly in college, high school grade point average was a stronger predictor of college-level English and math performance than were SAT, ACT, and ACCUPLACER scores. Secondary and postsecondary stakeholders can use the findings to help identify students in need of support to be college-ready and to consider further conversation and additional research regarding whether and how to use high school grade point average as part of the placement process.

Former College Board Exec: New SAT Hastily Thrown Together; Students: March SAT Recycled in June

Manuel Alfaro is the former executive director of assessment design and development at the College Board.

Beginning on May 15, 2016, Alfaro has published a series of posts on Linkedin in an apparent effort to reveal the haphazard construction of the new SAT, released and first administered in March 2016 and again, in June. (He is also posting info on Twitter: @SATinsider.)

Below are excerpts from Alfaro’s Linkedin posts, all of which provide an enlightening read concerning the sham Coleman has thrown together and labeled the “new SAT.”

6 June 2016 Reader: Mythbuster Edition

In the spirit that feels appropriate in the wake of the death of Muhammad Ali—and the concurrent failure of mainstream reflections ignoring or whitewashing the real history of his life—I offer below a collection of education-related links that can serve as powerful mythbusters for the ongoing false claims common in the mainstream media and among political leaders as well as edureformers.

Charter Schools

Failing The Test Series

Regardless of motives, the charter initiatives in Oakland and Los Angeles together signal a significant watershed in the growth of a statewide movement that was birthed by California’s Charter Schools Act of 1992 to create classroom laboratories that might develop the dynamic new curricula and teaching methods needed to reinvigorate schools that were failing the state’s most underserved and disadvantaged children.

How that modest experiment in fixing neighborhood public schools could morph in less than 25 years into the replacement of public schools with an unproven parallel system of privately run, taxpayer-funded academies is only half the story of California’s education wars that will be examined in this series, much of which is based on conversations with both sides of the charter school debate. Over the next few days Capital & Main will also look at:

  • The influence wielded by libertarian philanthropists who bankroll the 50-50 takeovers.
  • How charter schools spend less time and money on students with learning disabilities.
  • The lack of charter school transparency and accountability.
  • How charter expansion is pushing Oakland’s public school district toward a fateful tipping point.
  • The success of less radical yet more effective reforms that get scant media coverage.
  • Nine solution takeaways for struggling schools.

(from Failing the Test: A New Series Examines Charter Schools, Bill Raden)

Charters and Access: Here is Evidence, Julian Vasquez Helig

No, Eva, You Can’t Do Whatever You Want, Jersey Jazzman

Teacher Effectiveness/Experience

Does Teaching Experience Increase Teacher Effectiveness?: A Review of the Research, Tara Kini and Anne Podolsky

Based on our review of 30 studies published within the last 15 years that analyze the effect of teaching experience on student outcomes in the United States and met our methodological criteria, we find that:

  1. Teaching experience is positively associated with student achievement gains throughout a teacher’s career. Gains in teacher effectiveness associated with experience are most steep in teachers’ initial years, but continue to be significant as teachers reach the second, and often third, decades of their careers.
  2. As teachers gain experience, their students not only learn more, as measured by standardized tests, they are also more likely to do better on other measures of success, such as school attendance.
  3. Teachers’ effectiveness increases at a greater rate when they teach in a supportive and collegial working environment, and when they accumulate experience in the same grade level, subject, or district.
  4. More experienced teachers support greater student learning for their colleagues and the school as a whole, as well as for their own students.

Vouchers

On negative effects of vouchers, Mark Dynarski

Recent research on statewide voucher programs in Louisiana and Indiana has found that public school students that received vouchers to attend private schools subsequently scored lower on reading and math tests compared to similar students that remained in public schools. The magnitudes of the negative impacts were large. These studies used rigorous research designs that allow for strong causal conclusions. And they showed that the results were not explained by the particular tests that were used or the possibility that students receiving vouchers transferred out of above-average public schools.

Another explanation is that our historical understanding of the superior performance of private schools is no longer accurate. Since the nineties, public schools have been under heavy pressure to improve test scores. Private schools were exempt from these accountability requirements. A recent study showed that public schools closed the score gap with private schools. That study did not look specifically at Louisiana and Indiana, but trends in scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress for public school students in those states are similar to national trends.

In education as in medicine, ‘first, do no harm’ is a powerful guiding principle. A case to use taxpayer funds to send children of low-income parents to private schools is based on an expectation that the outcome will be positive. These recent findings point in the other direction. More needs to be known about long-term outcomes from these recently implemented voucher programs to make the case that they are a good investment of public funds. As well, we need to know if private schools would up their game in a scenario in which their performance with voucher students is reported publicly and subject to both regulatory and market accountability.

School Discipline, Race, and Gender

Black Girls and School Discipline: Four Researchers Unpack K-12’s Racial Bias

* Please note the disturbing series of comments at the end.

Most of the discussion around the disproportionality of black students’ suspension or expulsion from K-12 schools has focused on boys. Only more recently have researchers begun to surface the numbers of black girls who are subject to severe disciplinary measures in schools, including by school resource officers.

According to federal data, black girls are suspended from school at a rate that is six times higher than that of their white female peers. In New York City and Boston, black girls represented 56 percent and 61 percent, respectively, of all girls disciplined in those cities’ K-12 schools, even as incidents of discipline against black girls go underreported. Black girls receive harsher criminal sentences than their white female peers do in the juvenile-justice system, and they also represent its fastest-growing population.

For this special Commentary package, Education Week Commentary sat down with researchers Adrienne D. Dixson, Shaun R. Harper, Bettina L. Love, and Terri N. Watson at this spring’s American Educational Research Association conference to discuss their perspectives on this crisis.

School Funding

New Study Connects the Dots Between School Funding Choices and Student Achievement, Highlighting the Dangers of Retrenchment in Courts, Derek Black

Mind the Gap: 20 Years of Progress and Retrenchment in School Funding and Achievement Gaps, Bruce D. BakerDanielle Farrie, and David G. Sciarra

Although there has been significant progress in the long term, achievement gaps among the nation’s students persist. Many factors have contributed to the disparities in outcomes, and societal changes can explain progress, or lack thereof, over the past few decades. This is well documented in the 2010 Educational Testing Service (ETS) report Black–White Achievement Gaps: When Progress Stopped, which explored achievement gap trends and identified the changing conditions that may have influenced those trends. In this report, we extend that work by focusing on the relationship between school funding, resource allocation, and achievement among students from low-income families. We tackle the assumption that greater resources, delivered through fair and equitable school funding systems, could help raise academic outcomes and reduce the achievement gap. The goal is to provide convincing evidence that state finance policies have consequences in terms of the level and distribution of resources, here limited to staffing characteristics, and that the resulting allocation of resources is also associated with changes in both the level of academic achievement and achievement gaps between low-income children and their peers. Using more than 20 years of revenue and expenditure data for schools, we empirically test the idea that increasing investments in schools generally is associated with greater access to resources as measured by staffing ratios, class sizes, and the competitiveness of teacher wages. When the findings presented here are considered with the strong body of academic literature on the positive relationship between substantive and sustained state school finance reforms and improved student outcomes, a strong case can be made that state and federal policy focused on improving state finance systems to ensure equitable funding and improving access to resources for children from low-income families is a key strategy to improve outcomes and close achievement gaps.

Portfolio/Takeover Districts

The “Portfolio” Approach to School District Governance, William J. Mathis and Kevin G. Welner

Beneath the abundant and vigorous advocacy lies a very limited body of generally accepted research. Understanding the effects of “portfolio district reform” is hampered by messy reform contexts, where portfolios are only one of several major ongoing reforms, thus weakening causal inferences. Understanding these effects is also hampered by definitional problems—elastic labels with different components and different names being applied in different places.12 Further, the school cultural changes are often massive, interactions are complex, and politicization generates a great deal of noise. This renders the isolation of specific facets enormously difficult.13 Yet amidst the claims and counterclaims,14 several findings are clear:

  1. Charter schools do not appear to have much impact on test scores, but they do have some negative unintended consequences.15
  2. Similarly, school closures may have some positive or negative impact, but they certainly result in instability.16
  3. School turnaround approaches have, in general, been very disappointing, in large part because of the problems with closures and charter schools.17 The churn in the system, loss of institutional knowledge and loss of culture results in community and school disturbance and instability. Closing even low-performing schools can prove disruptive as community support dissipates, particularly if higher performing schools are not readily available.
  4. Research on mayoral control shows mixed evidence concerning effects on test scores.18

We would not be surprised to see some “portfolio districts” see some benefits, while others will see primarily detriments. Governance changes—particularly those aimed at decentralization and deregulation—tend to involve complex trade-offs. Opponents will be able to point to failures; advocates will be able to point to successes. In the end, though, student outcomes in under-resourced urban districts will continue to be driven by larger societal inequities.

 

Maintaining the Charter Mirage: Progressive Racism

As a former (and humbled) recipient of the National Council of Teachers of English’s George Orwell Award, and devoted reader of Franz Kafka, I am prone to recognizing when a Twitter debate seems surreal—and yesterday’s pushed me to suspect I was a victim of a parody account (but I wasn’t).

Spurred by my posts confronting the Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) embracing both takeovers of traditional public schools and “miracle” claims from a privatized charter chain, I foolishly waded into a charter debate with a self-professed “libertarian” edujournalist who writes for a publication that advocates for school choice and is a research fellow for The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice as well as the superintendent of South Carolina’s Charter School District (if charter schools are public schools why do we have a separate school district for them?).

My Orwellian/Kafkan moments included the edujournalist calling me an “ideologue” and the superintendent bristling at my questioning the value of one year of data on the “miracle” charter school—seems there is no time for accountability for those knee-deep in the pet projects of the accountability movement.

But it became even more ridiculous (the feeling of a parody account even more intense) when the edujournalist began to Tweet horror stories about public schools, suggesting (“come on” was his refrain) that these cherry pickings somehow justified continuing to support the charter school mirage. (You see, the charter/school choice crowd cannot maintain multiple facts in mind at once—that we can challenge the very real failures of traditional public schools and recognize that the charter school alternative has been an equally negative failure.)

Because charter schools are without a single controversy—students of color walking out due to a lack of diversity and lack of racial sensitivity, children wetting their pants under the intense focus on testing.

Nope. Nothing to see here in the rosy land of the charter mirage.

The charter mirage is a scam, similar to the entire buffet of education policies embraced during the past thirty years of accountability.

This political scam can be traced to two facts: (1) politically and socially in the U.S. we refuse to identify and confront directly the race, class, and gender inequities that scar our nation and all our public and private institutions, and (2) education policy is driven by ideology and not attention to research, which makes even more disturbing that a superintendent would argue that we don’t have time to evaluate data about whether or not any school’s claim of success is real.

If we can address both of these, however, we can recognize the key elements in the charter mirage*:

  • Charter schools are reinforced by a non-critical media enamored by “miracle” school stories that are nearly universally discredited by careful consideration of the claims. Exceptional charter schools are either false claims or outliers that offer absolutely no evidence needed for how to reform all schools.
  • Charter schools are essentially indistinguishable from public or private schools. The evidence base reveals that school types remain insignificant when we consider populations of students. Some school practices have better and worse outcomes—but none of these are somehow linked to school type (what Matthew Di Carlo has labeled, for example, as “charterness”).
  • Charter schools share with traditional public schools a pattern of re-segregating students by race and social class.
  • Charter schools are prone to skimming (choosing preferred students), attrition (sometimes purposeful counseling out), and serving populations of students unlike those traditional public schools must serve (charter schools may include racial minorities and poor students, but ELL and special needs populations are underserved). All of these dynamics shade any effort to claim a charter school is more effective than a traditional public school.
  • Charter schools increase the problem of black/brown and poor students being taught by inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers—notably by the close association between charter schools and Teach For America.
  • Charter schools tend to embrace racially insensitive “no excuses” policies that exacerbate inequitable discipline policies also common in traditional public schools.
  • Charter schools may appear to serve better poor and minority students, but media and political praise for KIPP and KIPP-like charter schools often ignore that claims of greater “months of learning” attributed to the charter school (and somehow the “charterness”) is directly proportional to simply extending the school day and school year. In other words, if charter schools extend the day and year while not increasing “months of learning” that would be a news-worthy story.
  • Charter schools and all school choice create student, teacher, and funding churn that negatively impact the possibilities of needed and effective reform.

Advocacy for the charter mirage is almost always by people invested in charter schools or school choice regardless of the consequences. Charter mirage advocacy is also driven by the missionary zeal of progressive racism.

The “miracle” school mantra is directly linked to that missionary zeal that comes from thinking “I” know what is best for others and “I” can do what others cannot (because “I” am exceptional).

If New Orleans’s education debacle has taught us anything, we must admit both that the historical and political negligence of poor people of color—their children and their communities—is inexcusable and that disaster capitalism in the form of doing to that same community with charter schools and a TFA teacher force is equally inexcusable.

And this brings me back to the Orwellian nature of all this: the charter “miracle” is a charter mirage—a mirage propped up by those invested politically and personally in the mirage as well as by those edujournalists who are unable to step back and consider evidence over ideology.

To suggest that we have only two choices—the historically negligent traditional public school system or the charter mirage—is a nightmare from which we need to wake.


See Also

Failing The Test Series

Failing the Test: A New Series Examines Charter Schools, Bill Raden

Failing the Test: Measuring Charter School Performance, Julian Vasquez Heilig

*Charters and Access: Here is Evidence, Julian Vasquez Heilig

Questions for the P&C about School Closure, Takeover

The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) has taken an editorial stand in favor of closing a high-poverty, majority-minority school and a private takeover of public schools in Charleston (see a history of the debate here).

Now, a P&C editorial asks more questions:

How many classes of children should come up through the school’s failing system before the district makes some big changes?

Another question: Don’t those children deserve to try an educational approach that has proven to be far more successful?

Since turn about is fair play, let’s investigate those questions and ask a few in return.

At the very least, these questions are loaded, and as a result, misleading.

Burns Elementary (to be closed) is framed again as “failing,” and the Meeting Street Academy, “successful.”

As I have documented, many problems exist with the “good”/”bad” school labeling.

But in this case, we must be extra skeptical because all of the praise for the “successful” and the promises of even more success in “closing the achievement gap” for poor and mostly black students rest on the claims of the private entities invested in this process.

So there are actually some very important questions that the editors at the P&C are failing to ask:

  • Why have some students been allowed ever to languish in school conditions that are subpar when compared to vibrant schools and opportunities for other students in the same city? Burns Elementary with a poverty index of 96 is but one school that represents a long history in SC of how negligent we have been as a state in terms of providing anything close to equity in the opportunities poor and racial minority children are afforded.
  • Why does any public school board need a private partnership to do what is needed to offer these students the sort of school all children deserve? If what is needed is so obvious, and so easy to do (which is a subtext of the editorial), the truth is that the school board simply does not have the political will to do what is right for some children.
  • And this is very important: What third party, not invested in the Meeting Street Academy, has examined the claims of academic success in the so-called “successful” schools that are being promised as fixes for Burns? I cannot find any data on test scores (setting aside that test scores aren’t even that good for making these claims), but I have analyzed claims of “miracle” charter schools in SC—finding that these claims are always false. Always. I do not trust that Meeting Street is going to prove to be the first actual miracle school in a long line of those that have been unmasked before.

This last question cannot be overemphasized because the political process has proven time and again that political leadership can be easily bamboozled by glitzy claims but routinely fail to examine the evidence that would guide well our educational policy, as Christopher Lubienski, Elizabeth Debray, and Janelle Scott have revealed:

But what was perhaps most interesting was the degree to which research played virtually no part in decision making for policymakers, despite their frequent rhetorical embrace of the value of research. While many interviewees spoke of the importance of research evidence, nearly all were unable to point to an instance where research evidence shaped their position on an instrumentalist issue.

SC political leaders have pushed for school choice, charter schools, VAM evaluations of teachers, ever-new standards and high-stakes testing, exit exams, third-grade retention, and now takeover policies for so-called “failing schools”—yet all of these have no basis for policy in the body of research refuting the effectiveness of each one.

For the editors of the P&C, as well as our political leaders and the public, the real questions are why do we persist in ignoring the stark realities of our inequitable society, why do we then continue to play politics with our schools that are just as inequitable as our society, and then why do we refuse to consider the evidence about addressing social and educational inequity directly in our policies?

Again, as I have stated many times, the answer is that the people with the power to change things simply do not really care about change because any change can threaten their perches of power.

Closing schools, renaming schools, shuffling students—these are the practices of those who are invested in the status quo regardless of the consequences for “other people’s children.”

Outliers Never Evidence of Normal in Education

In Money, Race and Success: How Your School District Compares, the NYT, like most of mainstream media, is begrudgingly coming to admit that race and class inequity in the U.S. has a profound impact on the education of children—and that simply tinkering (badly) with school policy is not enough to change that reality:

We’ve long known of the persistent and troublesome academic gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers in public schools.

We’ve long understood the primary reason, too: A higher proportion of black and Hispanic children come from poor families. A new analysis of reading and math test score data from across the country confirms just how much socioeconomic conditions matter.

Children in the school districts with the highest concentrations of poverty score an average of more than four grade levels below children in the richest districts.

But then there is this:

The data was [sic] not uniformly grim. A few poor districts — like Bremen City, Ga. and Union City, N.J. — posted higher-than-average scores. They suggest the possibility that strong schools could help children from low-income families succeed.

“There are some outliers, and trying to figure out what’s making them more successful is worth looking at,” said Mr. Reardon, a professor of education and lead author of the analysis.

Well, no, if we find outliers—and virtually all data have outliers in research—we should not waste our time trying to figure out how we can make outliers the norm.

The norm is where we should put our efforts in order to confront what is, in fact, not “puzzling” (used earlier in the article) at all; the data are very clear:

What emerges clearly in the data is the extent to which race and class are inextricably linked, and how that connection is exacerbated in school settings.

Not only are black and Hispanic children more likely to grow up in poor families, but middle-class black and Hispanic children are also much more likely than poor white children to live in neighborhoods and attend schools with high concentrations of poor students.

Our great education reform failure is one of failing to rethink our questions and our goals.

Let’s stop trying to find the “miracle” in a rare few schools where vulnerable students appear to succeed despite the odds against them. With time and careful consideration, we must admit, those appearances almost always are mirages.

Let’s instead put our energy in eradicating the poverty, racism, and sexism that disadvantages some students, vulnerable populations easily identified by race and social class, so that we can educate all students well.

And while we are making efforts at social policy, let’s end the in-school policies that we know “exacerbate” inequity: tracking, teacher assignments (and TFA), high-stakes testing, grade retention, discipline policies grounded in zero tolerance and “no excuses,” and segregation through school choice (including charter schools).

Education reform, as was highlighted in the original court case examined in the South Carolina documentary The Corridor of Shame, is obsessed with playing the hero by seeing who can pull the most babies out of the river.

And then examining the ones who survive the potential drowning in order to “make” all babies survive the trauma of being cast down stream.

But no one seems interested in walking upstream to stop babies being thrown in.

Life and learning do not need to be something children survive—and we must confront that we have decided that this is exactly what we are willing to accept for “other people’s children.”

It would not be so if we believed and acted upon that “they’re all our children.”


The Allegory of the River