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Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Truth About Charter Schools Part II

Somebody asked me with regard to my last post how charters came about and why American schools are so awful. So before I get to the rest of the charter post:

How did we get here?

A little background: First of all, believe it or not, public education, in general, is doing a much better job for a great number of students than it did 50 years ago. What? You heard me. Fifty years ago, in the "golden age" of public education, we provided a quality education for middle and upper class white students. We also provided a world-class education for a small minority of those students through the creation of college tracks and advanced science and math classes in reaction to Sputnik. The rest of the American educational system, though, lay on a continuum between mediocre, vocational and non-existent. We did not educate poor people very well and we all but refused to educate minorities in much of this country. Rural education was hit and miss and the end result was that the empowered classes were educated while nobody else was.

We, as a society, bought in to Andrew Carnegie's ideal that we needn't provide education for the poor and working class beyond basic abilities in reading and math. Carnegie paid for libraries and the thought was that anybody who was good enough to deserve an education would take care of it themselves.

We did, however, believe in giving young people job skills, so even if a child left school with limited academic skills, they would possibly be trained for cabinetmaking, metalworking, or some other vocation.

This three track system of collegiate, vocational, and dumb changed, slowly, through the 1960's and 1970's. As a society, we gave in to the demands for equal access to quality public education. We did so, in many cases, without being willing to spend more on education so, in effect, we redistributed the existing money. What happened? In the 1980's, the empowered classes still had greater access to quality education which they provided for themselves through local property taxes and selective housing and everybody else got a better education than they had had before, but it wasn't nearly as good as the empowered classes had always had.

"Our schools are in crisis!" The headlines read in the early 1980's, and the stories detailed campuses where drug-addled students couldn't identify Iowa on a map, separate the Declaration of Independence from the Constitution, or identify the square root of 25. The answer: cut funding for education as they are obviously wasting what we give them. The grand slide began.

Somehow cutting school budgets didn't make them better, so the privatization movements began -- vouchers and charters began in earnest in the late 1980's and early 1990's under the thoughts that, if schools were run like a business they would be more effective, if there were competition then public schools would have to shape up, and that if that didn't happen then students should have help with private school tuition.

So here we are in 2011. There is less money in education per pupil than at any time in recent history and society has mandated that we bring all students, regardless of starting point or deficit, up to a level of proficiency in basic skills. This is an admirable and necessary goal -- don't get me wrong -- but the issue remains, how best to do so.

Another note: My knowledge is specific to California, so please do not assume that what I say is true about charters in other states.

Alright, just as everything negative that is said about charters can be misleading, so can all the positives. Mostly, the positives I hear are these:

1. They are run more efficiently
2. They offer students a choice
3. They are freed from the burdensome bureaucracy of the larger districts
4. They are able to respond more quickly to challenges
5. They are more family-friendly
6. They are safer
7. They give more attention to individual students
8. They offer greater opportunities.

This one is much easier to deal with because the answer for each of them is the same: It depends on the charter school.

Charters can be more efficient, certainly, thought that efficiency often takes the form of being underadministrated which can then lead to even greater inefficiencies later. They do offer students a choice, though in many cases, the choice is between vanilla and french vanilla, or between vanilla and axle grease -- neither of which is a real choice.

Charters can be freed from burdensome bureaucracies, but they are also fully capable of developing their own triplicate forms and circular chains of authority -- and they are also capable of having too little bureaucracy (not something I ever thought I'd say) and therefore having no ability to consistently apply policies and procedures. They are, indeed, more capable of responding quickly to challenges, but they often lack the resources to respond effectively.

Independent Charters are small and underresourced. A small independent charter, when confronted with even an insignificant drop-off in student achievement as measured by the API will be forced into Program Improvement by the state. They will have a short window of time to produce an Improvement Plan that will then have to be authorized by the chartering district. This generally means choosing off of a menu of predictably approved choices for change and the end result is that small independent charters that try to create change in struggling communities end up looking very much like the neighborhood schools in terms of academic and curricular approaches. Chartering Organizations like KIPP, ICEF, my own GreenDot, and PUC are all now equivalent to small districts in their size and behave accordingly. In the end, the ability to respond quickly to student needs, because of the ways that the charter laws and national education laws are worded, usually means throwing out the original mission of the school and being forced to mimic the same one-size-fits-all approaches that are showing modest gains in all public schools.

With regards to being more family-friendly and safer -- there may be some truth here. Charters are assessed as part of their charter on how they will increase neighborhood and parent involvement. Also, charter families tend to be at least slightly concerned about the quality and safety of their child's schools. The exceptions for this are the district take-over schools like Locke, Jordan, Camino Real and Palisades. These schools are forced to accept whatever child lives in their district area just like any district school. Here, the improvements in safety and family involvement are generally due to the fact that, as a smaller organization than LAUSD, they have more riding on the safety records of these schools and therefore focus more highly on them. GreenDot has turned Locke High School into a very safe school. In order to do this, they have spent a considerable amount of extra money over the last four years on safety and security -- money that the district was not willing to spend.

Individual attention and opportunities are truly going to be school by school. If I had a choice between sending my child to Diamond Ranch HS, a high quality public school, or a small independent charter, I would choose Diamond Ranch unless my child was one who would benefit from being on a small campus where s/he felt known. The resources are greater at Diamond Ranch, the opportunities are better at Diamond Ranch, the systems themselves are better at Diamond Ranch and my child would be offered a consistent and high quality education.

Of course, I don't live in Diamond Ranch and my kid's local high school will be Belmont. This means that I will be looking at local charter high schools and inter and intra-district transfers. It all, really, depends on what is available. If she got into the magnet program at the Downtown Arts High School, an LAUSD public school, I would want her to go there. If not, then I would probably try to get her into Camino Nuevo or Downtown Values charter high schools.

To sum up: Charters are not the answer. Charters are an answer. There is no "The Answer," and until people stop trying to find silver-bullet style solutions to the education problems in our society, we will stay right where we are.

One final note -- something that has been unsaid in much of the modern controversies regarding public education: College is not, can not be, and should not be the goal for every child. Purely practically, if every child went to college, college itself would quickly become meaningless. Every child should have the opportunity to go to college if the choose, but they should also have the opportunity to choose against it without shame, without embarrassment, and with options. Right now, that doesn't exist for many of our children. If they are not on college track, they are on "high school completion" track where they are taking easier classes with little to no enrichment, challenge, or training for life beyond high school.

College preparatory curriculum is the easiest, cheapest, least challenging way for a school to look like a high quality option. Vocational education costs much more money. Arts education costs much more money. Technical education costs much more money. Career training costs much more money. The next time your district or a charter touts itself as being College Preparatory, ask yourself: "Is this because they truly believe that college is the best option for all of the students enrolled, or is it because being college prep is cheaper and more politically acceptable than actually properly serving all of the students in their community?"

The average intelligence is truly average. Let's not create a system where anybody who is not above average in either intelligence, ability, situation, or drive ends up unemployable. That would suck.

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