Wednesday, July 24, 2013

What We Talk About When We Talk About Charter Schools

I recently read a good primer on charter schools and their impact over at Slate. Education reform in general and charter schools in particular have become a hot button issue as of the last few years, but unfortunately a lot of the debate surrounding them is confused. In fact it seems to me that a lot of smart opinionated folks out there don't really know what charter schools are or even what the term "charter school" means. So in the interest of honest debate here's my take.

While the term get's thrown around a lot the term "charter school" is only a general description of the way a public school is created, it has little to do with things like curriculum, style or educational philosophy. As Ray Fisman put it in his Slate piece:
[charter schools] allowed educators and other concerned individuals to apply to the state for permission to operate a government-funded school outside of the public education system. In order to obtain and keep their licenses, these new schools needed to show they were serving their students effectively, based on goals laid out in the school’s “charter.”
Hence the term "charter school," but that's basically it, everything else is up to what the creators of the school want to do. For example, you can create a rigorous college prep oriented school with long days and a philosophy of "no excuses" or you create a high school focusing on vocational skills for at risk high school drop outs (which indeed is what the oldest charter school in the country is). This seems pretty simple, but a surprising number of commentators miss this often completely. In addition, the higher level of scrutiny by officials to ensure that schools are meeting the concrete goals laid out in the charter means that, in theory at least, the ones that don't succeed get shut down. This is of course the theory and it doesn't always work this way.

The important thing to note here is that there's no unifying concept to charters other than they can operate outside of a school districts bureaucracy and local collective bargaining agreements with teachers' unions. Everything else is really dependent on what the creators of the schools and parents who choose to enroll their children want out of a school. Note that having to send your kids to a school you don't like can happen in a system where you have to send your kid to your neighborhood school. This problem, sending your kid to a school you don't like, is a big reason why the charter movement got started in the first place. Historically the wealthy and middle class respond to things like failing schools by moving, because they have money and can afford to do so, while poor people are stuck in the schools they might like, or might hate. Again this is a big reason why charter schools got started in the first place.

Thus the 6,000 plus (and growing every year) charter schools in America represent all sorts of programs with all sorts of philosophies and all sorts of outcomes. Not unlike how traditional public schools represent a wide variety of programs and outcomes. Like more traditional schools charters run the gambit from great, to mediocre to notably bad. As Matt Yglesias likes to put it "on average, charter schools are about average." Another way to look at it is that the outcomes of charter schools are so diverse you can make any political argument you want with them. Which is why when someone says that "research about charter schools is mixed" or "there's no evidence charter schools are better" they need to be told to stop talking and enroll in remedial classes immediately. The point of charter schools is not to create a new uniform type of school called a "charter school" that's uniformly objectively better. The point is to try new things, and give people the option of going to different types of schools, some of which are much better than the failing public schools in their area. As pointed out in the Slate article, "Columbia Business School colleague and leading education researcher Jonah Rockoff puts it, saying charter schools are good is 'like saying Italian restaurants are good places to eat—some are and some aren’t.'" 

All of this makes the people categorically opposed to charter schools all the weirder looking. Education writer Dana Goldstein wrote an article once with a great window into the mind of some anti-charter people:
Kerryn Azavedo, a graphic designer in Lincoln, Rhode Island, pulled her son out of Blackstone Valley [charter school] after his kindergarten year, dismayed by what she calls the school’s overly strict discipline policies and lack of after-school activities.  She complained that Blackstone Valley’s extended school day, from 7:45 a.m. to 4 p.m., left her son exhausted and with little opportunity to participate in organized extracurriculars. (Extended learning days were originally intended to provide enrichment for poor children whose parents are unable to provide after-school supervision or activities.)

When Azavedo brought her concerns to the Blackstone Valley administration, “I never felt welcome,” she said in a phone interview. “They say, ‘This may not really be for you, somebody else might really need your spot, you’d be okay wherever you went.’” Azavedo didn’t like the fact that the school lacks an independent parent-teacher organization; instead, administrators organize parental involvement. And she was surprised to learn her son had sat for standardized tests five times during the school year, and unhappy that the school did not notify parents of each individual testing date.

Though initially attracted to the idea of an integrated charter school, Azavedo is now actively organizing against the opening of new Rhode Island Mayoral Academies throughout the state. “If it’s not good enough for mine, dammit, it’s not good enough for yours,” she said.
I feel for Azavedo, no one wants to have to send their kid to a school they don't like (although lots of poor families have to do this because they can't afford to move to the suburbs) but I honestly don't see why this is the school's fault. The long days and rigid structure is the model the charter is following, and if she didn't like it she shouldn't have sent her son there. I'm sure there are plenty of families that wouldn't like their kid to go to a vocational focused charter school, and that's fine, what they should do is just not opt to send their child to a vocational focused charter school, not try and ban them from the entire state. The great thing about charters is if you don't like it you can leave the charter school and go to a new charter, or your regular school, something that again isn't possible for all families in more traditional schools. All of this serves to make her decision to organize against any charter schools anywhere in the entire state because she didn't like one of them, well pretty bizarre. Rather than trying to limit the choices of other parents she probably should focus on reading the brochures more closely next time.

Charter schools are obviously not for everyone. Indeed some people have no need for them and some don't like them as a category or the individual ones they could send their kids to. And that's fine, those people shouldn't send their kids to charter schools. But some people really do like them and prefer them to their traditional public schools and yes they can make profound differences in people's lives.  As Fisman points out, once long ago, "One early enrollee, Demetrice Norris, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in 1992 that he had spent years, 'being lazy – not doing nothing' before he 'got a life back here in school' and 'got a chance to be something.'" Demetrice should have the chance to be something, and that chance is all charter schools really want.

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