Whether or Not Charter Schools Are the Answer Depends Upon the Question

It should not astonish me—but it does—how often Education is a topic of conversation among lay persons, and when educators are in their presence, we are often asked our opinions. Many of us bask in our temporary roles as spokespersons for our profession, even though we know the questions are likely born of simple courtesy in the practice of polite conversation.

Over the past few years, the number of lay people is increasing with whom I speak who bring up the topic of charter schools. Recently, my wife beckoned me to join her from across the room.

There was a twinkle in her eye, so I was not surprised when she introduced me to Bill (not his name) and said, “Bill here tells me he thinks charter schools are the answer, and I told him you were an educator and might want to talk with him about it.”

My wife is not an educator, but she has been the only lay person in some gatherings of educators where she has been subjected to the endless droning that can result when we begin to discuss our profession. Bill had introduced education into his chat with my wife, and I was the cavalry summoned to rescue her.

“Do you think charters are the answer?” Bill asked as my wife hustled away.

“I think it’s the answer for the kids that get into good ones,” I replied.

“Oh?” he said with some surprise.

“I just spent a year,” I continued, “working with twelve charter schools in Philly that were deemed to be in serious need of improvement according to PDE—you know, the Department of Education—and I can tell you I’d recommend ten of them to any parent as positive options for their kids.

“Not every charter is effective,” I continued. “In 2010, I was asked to compare the average state test scores in Pennsylvania for traditional schools with charters, and the average for the charter schools was appreciably lower. Just like with traditional public schools, there’s a great deal of variability in the effectiveness of charters.

“The problem with charters,” I said, “is what their existence is doing to the chances of the most challenged and disadvantaged of urban kids.”

“But isn’t that the point?” Bill asked. “Don’t charters help those kids?”

“Those few that get into an effective one, like Mastery Charter Schools in Philly. Unfortunately, many of the kids who could benefit from those opportunities never get the chance. Sometimes it’s serendipitous—like for those schools that use lotteries for admissions—or kids may not live in a catchment area that is served by a charter school in those cities where a charter school organization was selected to run a failed public school. In Philly, those are called Renaissance Schools.

“And then there’s the matter of parents who themselves have been failed by public education, parents who may lack the experience and understanding of what opportunities are out there for their kids.”

“I guess there are just too many poor parents who don’t care about their kids,” Bill said.

“I’m not saying that at all. My experience has been that there are way too many parents who don’t care about their kids among all classes of people, including the very rich. I think, like I said, it’s just a matter of understanding, better said, sophistication.

“If I were a fly on the wall at dinnertime in the home of a very advantaged teenager—whose parents do care about them—I’d probably be hearing them discuss what went on in school that day, what further thinking had gone into that next summer’s college tours, how they were doing on the project due next Tuesday, things like that.

“Advantaged parents bring this stuff up at dinner,” I continued, “because they’ve lived the process. They discuss these things with their peers at work, at the club, at cocktail parties. They know how important this stuff is. It’s what an advantaged middle class parent just does.

“Parents who may not have completed high school, who have multiple jobs because they need them to provide for their family, and who seldom have the time to sit down to dinner with their kids because of those jobs, aren’t likely to have the sophistication and experience about all it is they should probably be doing for their kids.

“And how would they? And I’m talking about parents that care deeply about their kids. They may not—literally—have the time to learn about charter school opportunities for their kids, or just as important, find out about the process needed to apply.

“Sure there are kids who don’t have a chance to get into a charter because how they’re parented is akin to neglect, but my nonscientific sample of one tells me that’s not the primary reason, but even if it were, those kids are part of a massive number of disadvantaged kids who won’t have the opportunity to get into a really good charter school because there aren’t enough of them.

“Which leads to the biggest problem with the concept of charter schools. Until there are enough seats for all disadvantaged kids in effective charters, it means those that don’t get that opportunity are left behind, often in substandard schools run by overwhelmed administrators, many times taught by inexperienced youngsters or by too many older teachers who don’t believe the kids can learn because of the baggage they bring to school.

“Seven or eight years ago, a retired teacher told me he thought Osama bin Laden, on his best day, would never have dreamed up a better way to create a cadre of well-armed, angry, and disenfranchised urban terrorists than what we were doing in urban education, and what he was talking about was how, because of charter schools, the most challenged and disadvantaged city kids were being concentrated in schools that were negatively overwhelmed by their presence.”

Bill looked at me for a beat like I had lost my mind, but he recovered, and because he was apparently struggling to come to grips with a point of view that was contrary to a strong paradigm he must have had, he took another tack.

“But doesn’t the existence of good charters create competition that makes public schools better?” Bill asked.

“That’s what charter proponents have been saying from the very beginning,” I replied.

“Well?”

“Bill, think about it. When there’s competition, there’re winners and losers. ‘A rising tide floats all boats’ might be a workable concept here, but I’m not aware of any studies that reinforce the claim that competition with charters makes traditional schools better. In Philly, my sense of things is that charters compete against each other, not against traditional schools.”

“So what you’re saying is that you’re opposed to charters,” Bill said.

“Not at all. Remember, I got to know twelve charters the state said were ‘failing,’ and I’d still recommend ten of them to any parent. They are really good schools with compassionate, knowledgeable faculty and sound leadership. What I’m upset about is the notion that as a culture, we don’t have the will to demand that ALL schools are effective.”

“Is it a money thing?” Bill asked.

“Resources are important…to any school, charter or traditional…but keep in mind that most increases in education dollars in any district or school go to salaries, and there are no studies I’m aware of that show a causative relationship between teacher salaries and student achievement. It’s not money, it’s will.”

“You said will before, right?”

“Our collective will as a society to demand that educators practice what studies tell us works in classrooms. It means the collective will to insist that managers manage based upon what we know about motivation, not just motivation of kids, but motivation of the adults that teach those kids.”

“You’re talking accountability,” Bill said.

“I am, but not the failed systems that states try to implement: accountability with a capital ‘A.’ I’m talking about the accountability that does use essential metrics to measure student performance, but not in a way that uses meaningless standardized test scores.

“I’m talking about accountability with a small ‘a,’ the most important kind if accountability, accountability that results when enlightened leaders create collaborative school cultures where teachers understand their moral imperative to do what research says they should do for their kids, where ‘trust is a starting place,’ where kids know their teachers believe they have the capacity to learn tough stuff, where teachers and kids hold themselves accountable to achieve. Accountability with a small ‘a’.”

“So, the answer isn’t charters then?” Bill asked.

“It depends on the question, my friend.”

“You know, you just mentioned standardized tests…” Bill began.

I laughed and replied, “I think I need another beer.”

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