Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Discussion on Charter Schools

John Ayers, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

It’s deja vu all over again, argument-wise

John Ayers is a vice president at the Carnegie Foundation; for 10 years earlier in his career, he was the executive director of Leadership for Quality Education.

When I was building support for charter school creation in Chicago in the late 1990s, I worked for an effective and relatively reasonable business group in that city. My bosses argued publicly that charters succeed for one simple reason: there were no unions in place in charter schools.

I disagreed and politely maintained this causation was unproven — it was just too easy to say unions made the difference. Dynamic new schools have many virtues and virtually no one working in schools or in educational research agreed that this factor topped the list. I argued there are no magic bullets in public education reform. My guys simply laughed me off. “Don’t complicate things. It’s just so obvious: charters can be managed efficiently, and district schools cannot.”

A simple-minded consensus seems to have been reached, reflecting this business thinking: it’s just wrong. I watch in dismay as the Administration argues “bad teachers” are our problem, while promoting incentives for districts to close low-performing schools and advance charters. Recently elected Republican governors unleash an unprecedented attack on labor in the public sector, while praising every charter that comes down the pike, as if they are by definition good schools. They are the answer that fixes all.

It’s an appalling déjà vu for me. Let’s get real.

Piet Van Lier, Policy Matters Ohio

We need to put a high value on academic excellence and transparency

Piet Van Lier is a senior researcher for Policy Matters Ohio.

Education reformers take note — Ohio is a case study in how NOT to develop and oversee charter schools. Our legislators have taken a quantity-over-quality approach that has saturated urban districts with low-performing schools. The relative handful of successful charters in Ohio often serve children who differ from students in nearby district schools in terms of income, early literacy skills, special needs and even district of residence. While Ohio’s policymakers have mandated the closure of low-performing schools, management companies with their eyes on the bottom line have skirted the law. Those same operators have upended the legal authority of charter school boards by handpicking members and diminishing boards’ governance role. Furthermore, not enough has been done to ensure that ineffective schools don’t open in the first place. The state education department has delegated charter approval and oversight to independent entities over which it has been unable, or unwilling, to exercise meaningful control.

Pockets of promise do exist in Ohio’s charter sector, and districts and charter schools have begun working together even though state law has made such collaboration difficult. If we want to grow and support charter schools that can become models that benefit all public school children — in Ohio and elsewhere — policymakers need to put a high value on academic excellence, transparency and authentic community involvement. Along with this laser-like focus on excellence in the charter sector, we need to work harder to support district schools, not punish them. In the end, school improvement advocates need to make a new commitment to enact reforms that address head-on the challenges of poverty in education.

Bruce Fuller, University of California at Berkeley

Will the charter institution remain truly innovative and honest to its original spirit?

Bruce Fuller is a professor at Cal-Berkeley in the Graduate School of Education, focusing on policy, organization, measurement and evaluation.

The charter school movement is dead. The young institution of charter companies is alive — quite well in parts of the nation, while ailing elsewhere. It’s now been two decades since the first charters opened their doors, first in Minnesota and California, and then spreading like untended wildflowers across the land. But the quality of charters remains uneven — the average charter student still does not outperform her average peer in a regular public school.

So, it’s expected and often helpful that foundations and government are consolidating capital, focusing dollars on reputable charter firms (CMOs) that operate better coordinated schools. Some are showing quite promising results, such as KIPP and Green Dot, although up to one-third of their revenues come from private sources. Worries persist that the most engaged parents are being siphoned out of regular public schools by attractive charters. This must be weighed against the state’s responsibility to provide fresh opportunities for low-income families, to narrow the achievement gap and make our young workforce more productive and more engaged in civic life. That’s in everyone’s interest.

Will the charter institution remain truly innovative and honest to its original spirit? Early charter pioneers rightfully criticized urban school systems for often serving the adults first, children second. Twenty years later, some charter leaders have come to protect their own, failing to hold weak school accountable, even controlling what data are made available for independent analysis. The young institution of charter schooling may yet return to serve the public interest, demonstrating practices that invigorate teachers and lift all children.

Dan Domenech, AASA

We can learn from charters, but they’ll never replace America’s schools

All of us can cite examples of charters providing at-risk children with the education and support that will allow them to prosper in their otherwise bleak environment — but not all charter schools are as successful.

A recent study at Stanford University reports that while 17 percent of charter schools provide superior education results, 37 percent deliver learning results that are significantly worse than had their students attended traditional public schools. The other charter schools in the study achieved results no different from those of local public schools.

At the same time, many public school systems in America provide an excellent education to low-income children and children of color. For example, Montgomery County (MD), Fairfax County (VA) and Gwinnett County (GA) are among the largest school systems in America, yet they successfully graduate a diverse population of youngsters, many of whom are economically disadvantaged.

And, according to the latest Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll, 77 percent of parents with children in public school give their school a grade of A or B. That’s the largest percentage ever in the history of the poll.

AASA supports charters operated by the public school system, but by definition, charter schools are the exception to the rule. We in public education can learn from charters — and we should be working together on behalf of all our children — but they will never replace America’s public schools.

Mark Schneider, AIR

Where will charters be in 5-10 years?

Mark Schneider is a Vice President at the American Institutes for Research. He was the U.S. Commissioner of Education Statistics from 2005 until 2008.

Over the next 5 to 10 years, I expect to see a continued growth in the number of charter schools — and I believe we will see a proliferation of charters in relatively affluent suburban school districts moving them out of the poorly served inner-city neighborhoods where they tend to be presently concentrated.

I also expect to see consolidation in who provides charter schools, with the number of “mom and pop” one-off charter schools losing out to high-performing charter organizations. This is unfortunate, since some of our best ideas for charter schools started small and grew over time. We should also expect to see more vertically-integrated charter school systems, where students can attend, for example, KIPP schools from elementary through high school (a problem here is that entry for new students at higher grades may become more difficult as students already enrolled in the “system” take up seats in higher grades, leaving fewer seats for others).

I also expect to see an increase in closures of existing charter schools as they come up for renewal and as authorizers take a harder look at the academic performance. This is as it should be: a great appeal of charter schools (indeed one of their core reasons for being) is that they are not immortal — a failing charter school can and should be closed. There are disruptions that go along with these closures and we need to make sure that students and parents in charter schools have plenty of notice and help in securing a new place in a better performing school, but closures are a sign of strength not of weakness.
What many fail to understand is that the main problem with charters is not that they are successful or not. The main problem is that it creates a dual system of schools. This is extremely inefficient and ends up costing districts and states a lot more. Think about it…. The money follows the student to the charter. The charter can only accept so many students and most accept students from all over the district- not just one zoned area. So, for the majority of children in a neighborhood, their “choice” is to go to their neighborhood public school. The charter school down the road draws some of these children - taking money away from that school. So what? Well, that means that the remaining students have fewer resource teachers (media, art, etc.), fewer support staff (secretaries, lunch staff, etc). But yet, even though there are fewer students, the school can only operate with at least a minimum of personnel. Plus, this school needs to be prepared for students who leave the charter to return to the home school. Charters more frequently cannot meet the needs of all special needs children. They do not have the resources to staff a psychologist, medical assistant, speech therapist, physical therapist, occupational therapist, resource room teachers, etc. Thus, special needs students end up staying at the home school to receive services. So, what happens is that the regular schools are kept open along with the charter school in the same neighborhood. Prior to the charter school, there was only 1 school to maintain and operate. Thus, a dual system is created.
I would add that this dual system is typically not a fair system either. Now, I know there are charter schools that provide many services and are doing a great job. These are schools that have significant financial backing. They are public schools in that they really are getting a “grant” to educate the students. The school is more private than public. Charters without this extra money are limited in what ed services they can offer. They often turn kids away who need extra behavior supports or have special needs. They also do not automatically enroll a child. In other words, they have a lottery system typically. So, many children who apply are excluded from entry because they don’t “win” this lottery. Thus, charters exclude many children. The home school then ends up serving special needs children, children who need behavior supports, children who do not “win” the lottery, children who cannot get transportation to the charter school, and children whose parents aren’t interested in the charter program (or aren’t aware of it). Suddenly, the regular school looks like it is going downhill and the charter looks like it is so much better. In reality, the charter has successfully skimmed off the best students with the most involved parents.
The intentions of the charter program are noble. Many charters are very good- no doubt. There are many that aren’t so good either. However, the critical factor is that unless ALL students can attend the neighborhood charter and the charter agrees to serve all needs, we MUST maintain another school in that neighborhood. This is not cost efficient. A better idea is to give more autonomy to the existing public school; end accountability testing that creates a testing drill and kill environment; fund schools properly; evaluate teachers fairly; and provide extra supports and programs for kids in poverty, which is the main predictor of achievement.
Charters often have some underlying motives that are good for neither kids nor their communities. Some may transcend those motives, but it’s hard to break free from a tradition of exclusion, of elitism, and of different, cultural and class based definitions of achievement.
None of the observers, nor these comments, reflect the more painful and more dissembling roots of many charters. In my community, notably, an elementary school has had five principals in six years, and, for almost 20 years, contained a school-with-a-school of progressive practices. In the course of those nearly two decades the traditional and non-traditional schools became increasingly similar, as one might hope, and, last year, were officially merged, to begin as a single school this month.
It didn’t work. The more elite international parents are now trying to create a second charter school (in a district of only 8 schools altogether, one of which is already a k-12 Charter). They don’t trust the immigrants and poor kids to share their common values.
Ironically enough, they’re probably right. As Paul Tough pointed out so eloquently in the Times last week, it’s a lot more subtle than changing test scores to transcend class, language, culture, traditions, family, neighborhood and the sense of self that makes college and professional education unrealistic for many very talented kids. Yet the truth is that we have public education primarily as a means of creating a common public life, a community where shared experiences create shared and sharing wisdom and support. That was Horace Mann’s vision, and is still shared by most teachers, students, parents and communities - with or without Charters. What is so profoundly sad is when parents fail to go beyond their personal aspirations, to know and work with, life and celebrate the community to which they want to keep their children from contributing.
Personally, I’d charge each parent sending a kid outside the system a “surcharge,” since every kid has a social, political, and moral responsibility to teach peers and teachers, parents and the rest of us, and to let us teach them. Too bad school differences had to become wholesale, and I wonder when there’ll be a Charter for the KKK?

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