The Charter School Delusion
How does the old saying go? If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
Thus wisdom applies yet again, this time to the charter school delusion. The documentary Waiting for Superman presents charter schools as “the answer,” and holds up the Harlem Children’s Zone among others as exemplary programs. Further, the film implies these schools are the only way out of the terrible public school system which ranges from mediocre at best to ghastly at worst (according to the naysayers). Yet it completely misses the point about how programs such as Harlem are able to be successful.
This issue bears repeated attention because people like David Guggenheim (maker of this film as well as the equally suspicious An Inconvenient Truth) continue to toss charters into the mix as the answer to the education problem.
Unfortunately, as numerous studies have shown, charter schools are no more and no less effective, on average, than public schools. There are good ones and there are bad ones. What Guggenheim and others like him continue refusing to consider is a much more challenging question, and a much more worthy one for a documentary: What is it, exactly, that makes a school good or bad? What causes a school to function effectively?
Bill Gates, governments across the country (and the world), and non-profit (and for-profit) organizations everywhere in between continue trying to answer this question, sort of. But they keep focusing on the wrong variable–the teachers.
Teachers: The Wrong Target
The truth is uncomfortable for everyone who doesn’t already know it: the teachers are not the primary source of a school’s effectiveness. This is true in public schools, and it’s true in charters. It’s true in private schools, and it’s true in colleges.
A teacher does not gorge his students with knowledge, fill them up to the brim, and then send them out so they can expunge it all over the sidewalk. If this were true, lecturing would be the best form of instruction.
On the contrary, a student learns, by his or her own effort, and retains what knowledge is learned most deeply. In this a teacher can have great influence, and this–not test scores, not dropout rates, not attendance–is the key aspect of teacher improvement we should be focusing on. How to help students learn in a way that fosters true understanding and comprehension of the content, not just formulaic jargon that meets some state standard list on a poorly written test.
Tom Stritikus, the dean of the College of Education at UW, had this to say in a guest column in the Seattle Times (Friday, Oct 1, 2010) about the Superman documentary:
“Teachers must arrive at schools ready to navigate the most challenging classrooms.
They must have the skill set to adjust curriculum for a diverse array of learners.
They must be ready to use evidence and adjust their practice on the fly.
They must understand what children need to learn and how to help them do that.
Every teacher preparation program–alternative or traditional–must ensure that future teachers have these skills.”
Except for the first point, this is entirely possible to accomplish for the majority of incoming teachers. I would add a few skills to the list in addition to these, but the funny thing is, most incoming teachers already have a good measure of these skills. We’ve had a number of new teachers come to our building since I got there ten years ago, and almost all of them have been eminently qualified. My principal and the staff, as well as the majority of students who’ve had them, would back me up on this.
Causes of Success for Charters
But I make the exception on Stritikus’ first point because some classrooms, quite honestly, are beyond navigation for all but the most psychologically savvy of teachers. The number of classrooms like this is small compared to the total, but it is large enough that it cannot be discounted or dismissed, and hard enough to handle for most teachers that we need to not delude ourselves that teachers can be trained in a college classroom how to navigate them.
How does Harlem do it? Quite simply, they have enormous financial resources, and they use them to target the core problems. Check out their website for the details: .www.hcz.org According to a Washington Post article (Robin Shulman, 8/2/09), the Harlem Children’s Zone employs over 1500 staff members in 20 programs reaching 8200 out of 11,300 children in the area defined as the Zone. It has a $70 million (yes, million) budget, raised mostly privately.
This money doesn’t pay teachers. It funds programs that do everything you could imagine to help prepare kids to succeed in school. It addresses almost every possible variable outside of school that prevents kids from doing well in school. Its programs get started when a child is conceived. Yes, pregnant women can enroll in Baby College, a nine-week program which teaches them all kinds of things about raising children. Other programs provide help for asthma prevention, “fresh produce deliveries, dental, medical and psychiatric care, after-school arts and music, tenant-ownership schemes and early childhood education, tae kwan do and dance, weight training and sports.” Further, there are programs for 3-year olds, pre-kindergarten, and all kinds of after-school opportunities.
What do all these programs accomplish? They address the core problem in education: the home lives of the children. Poor parenting (or, the absence of parenting) very often leads to ill-prepared students. Notice that very little of the HCZ efforts address the actual school day. Why? Because if we can somehow address all the problems in the homes of these children, their school performance will naturally rise.
So is this program successful? By all means, yes. But it’s got nothing at all to do with the school buildings or the teachers. It also costs an enormous amount of money. Can we duplicate this in other major cities? It will take billions of dollars. Maybe it’s worth it. But the bottom line is, this program is basically attempting to raise the kids of parents who don’t know how to do it themselves, and that is the crux of the education issue.
This is why teachers such as me oppose charters. Because charters are not the answer. It’s about the home lives of the children. That’s where success in school begins and ends. Harlem’s students would succeed in almost any classroom if they had all the benefits of the multitude of programs on their side.
I have taught in extremely challenging classrooms. I’m far from an expert on how to do it well. I’ve had some successes, some conflicts and struggles, and some hard learning experiences. But what I’ve learned will be corroborated by any other teacher who has been in a similar classroom. Those hard classes are the very reason some schools are labeled “failures” by oppressive, cold measures such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
A school filled with challenging classrooms, more often located in urban or rural school districts, is guaranteed to have a higher dropout rate, as well as all the other signs of failure that plague many schools today. Why is this true, and how does it relate to charter schools?
First, if we accomplished every one of Stritikus’ goals for every new teacher that graduates, very little would change in most of these challenging schools because the teacher is not the primary determiner of student success. I don’t care how many studies, news reports, experts, or statistics you hear to the contrary–they aren’t accurate. They don’t know what it’s like to work in a classroom like this. So many variables are outside the control of the teacher that even the best teachers struggle to get a majority of their students to pass, let alone master the concepts of the class. Address those variables, as in Harlem, and only then will you see achievement grow.
Second, the only reason some charters succeed is because they avoid the problems of these challenging classrooms. They do this primarily through a strict admission system. You have to apply. Or, you have to win a lottery, as in the documentary. Either way, you have to show initiative, have the ability to write coherently on an application form, and get it in on time (it also helps to have a correct home address and a working telephone). Right there you have eliminated many of the most challenging students, because those are the very reasons many of them fail in school.
And once you’re in, you can be kicked out much faster than in a public school. Fear of having to return to those horrible public schools helps keep the students behaving well. This single issue is what separates most charter schools from public ones. As I argue in my own proposal at the top of the blog (see the link at the very top: My Proposal), the ability to remove students from a school should be made much easier in every school. If we had the same ability as charter schools to remove misbehaving students, without the complications of all the bureaucracy, paperwork, lawyers, documentation, and other annoyances, we too could instill a greater respect in our students for the education they are receiving.
Arizona state law, for example, has the following admissions provision: “A charter school may refuse to admit any pupil who has been expelled from another educational institution or who is in the process of being expelled from another educational institution.” www.azleg.state.az.us/ars/15/00184.htm
Well isn’t that nice? I wish we could avoid the worst cast-offs from other schools. Boy that would make things easier. I argue that all schools should have this right. Again, see my proposal at the top of the page. School, especially at the high school level, should no longer be considered a right until the age of 18. It’s a privilege.
Voice Charter School in New York State, as another example, requires its students to wear uniforms. It also has an attendance policy stating that students who miss more than nine days in a year–excused or unexcused–can be held back a grade at the principal’s discretion!
We as public school teachers cannot imagine having such a luxury. What if all my students were here every day in every class? What if I actually had a real policy in place that would force them to come to school or be held back? Some would argue this to be a reason for charters, because they can set their own rules. I would argue, why can’t we do stuff like this in all schools? Why should charters be unique? A good idea is a good idea. Then we can finally stop blaming teachers for things outside of their control. But it is this pervasive notion of free education being a “right” that prevents all schools from adopting rules like this. Some students would inevitably be excluded for life after a certain point, and that’s unfair. But, is it? And, unfair to whom?
These schools aren’t filled with super-teachers. They aren’t miracle workers. And they don’t have answers to the hardest questions. How do you handle the hardest students, on a massive scale, as some public schools are forced to do?
Just think it through for a second. Suppose there is a high school that has been labeled a failure. So, like Michelle Rhee, let’s fire all the teachers. Then, as per NCLB, let’s close the failing school and force all the great charter schools in the area to accept the students. We’ll send a fifth of them here, a fourth there, and so on.
Do you think the students are going to leave all their problems at their old school, which is now closed? Or, like in the real world we all live in, will they bring those problems with them to their new spiffy charter schools? If a student reads at the third grade level, can’t divide 21 by 7 without a calculator, swears at teachers when they tell him to hand over his cell phone, comes late twice a week, skips school after lunch once a week, never does homework, doesn’t come prepared with pencils, pens, materials, or a work ethic, and can’t sit and focus on a task for more than 30 seconds, is that student going to magically have all these problems fixed when he goes to a charter school?
What Will They Do?
What, pray tell, are the magicians and supermen at the charter school going to do that all the public school teachers from kindergarten through high school have for some reason failed to do for this student (and the hundreds of others like him)?
This is the question the charter school fanatics never answer. What will they do when they have three hundred students like this? How will they handle having 25 level-4 behavioral-disorder special education students? What will they do when one classroom has eight ELL (English Language Learners) students, three of whom speak Spanish, two Vietnamese, one Amharic, one Somali, and one Chinese? How will they teach all their juniors to do algebra and trigonometry when half of them can’t multiply one third by six without having a panic attack? What will they do to make their students do homework, when half of them have never opened a book at home in their lives, and don’t know how to learn for themselves because they’ve either had everything hand-fed to them all their lives, or they’ve had no help at all outside of school?
What will they do????
Until I hear a clear-cut set of strategies for what these great charter schools will do to address these and a host of other problems that plague all these “failing” schools, I will continue to vociferously argue against them.
The only reason ANY charter school has EVER succeeded is because they don’t have to accept all these kinds of students. They can take who they want, keep who they want, and expel who they want. Just like a private school. They get to avoid all the problems the public schools have no choice but to try and deal with.
If you still aren’t buying this, re-read the paragraph that asks about all the problems charter schools never have to face. They do not have an answer to those questions, because those questions do not have an answer that resides inside the school building. We face those problems the best we can. Some face them better than others. But even the best teachers, who possess all the skills the Dean of Education at UW wants us to have, cannot overcome those and the many other complicated social problems present in their challenging classrooms.
Private schools don’t have better teachers. Charter schools don’t have better teachers. In fact, I would argue (no studies like this have been done, to my knowledge) that public schools probably have a greater concentration of the best teachers in education. I bet there are more great teachers per classroom at most public schools than most private ones.
The College Comparison
What’s my evidence? It’s twofold and simple: First, most private school teachers make less money. Second and more importantly, look at the quality of instruction at most colleges. It’s terrible. Most college professors, if they even teach their classes (as opposed to a TA), just get up and lecture for an hour. It is the exception, as any college student will tell you, when you have a teacher that actually gets you intellectually and actively involved in a classroom learning objective by virtue of their lesson plan. Unless the college student wills himself or herself to pay attention and try to learn the concepts being lectured, very little long-term advancement of knowledge takes place. This is why most students have to cram before finals. Because they didn’t get anything out of the lectures. Some of this is their fault because they should try to actively listen and ponder what the lecture is about, but some is because lecturing for an hour is a poor way to teach if that’s the only method you ever use.
Yet, colleges continue to churn out graduates who are able to succeed in jobs ranging from medicine to law to education to engineering to business. How can this be? How can so many terrible instructors still manage to produce competent graduates? Most high school teachers are many magnitudes greater in their instructional and pedagogical skills that most college professors, many of whom are (understandably) more invested in their research than the classes they are told to teach. In fact, most college professors receive zero training in instructional methods. Zero.
Think about that.
How can so many teachers in the K-12 system, who have received all this training, be worse than college professors who’ve had none? The obvious answer is, they can’t. The biggest difference, clearly, is the majority of college students are motivated. Most are paying for their education, and most understand the value of a degree after they graduate (except for the frat guys who think college is about parties and alcohol).
On the contrary, a good portion of high school students are not motivated. In addition, they lack some basic skills without which success in ANY high school classroom becomes next to impossible. Such as having a notebook, and opening it when the teacher tells you to.
Now, when I say a “good portion,” this varies from school to school, classroom to classroom. I teach an AP chemistry class that, shockingly, has zero students like this. They all show up almost every day (all 35 of them, part of the 164 I teach every day). They do their homework on time. They study for tests, ask questions of each other and the teacher in class; they want to learn; they respect the teacher and each other. I have zero discipline problems, zero behavior problems, and zero motivation problems (though some of them lagged a bit by March and April).
Then, after lunch, I teach a class for students who don’t have the math skills to take chemistry. These classes vary greatly semester to semester in the type of students who take them. But I have students who miss three to five days a week. Some of them argue with me about whether they were late or not. Some do no work, and get angry when I try to get them to start it. They don’t take notes. Some can’t work unless I am next to them, because they can’t focus, or don’t know how to utilize their previous work and resources to figure things out for themselves. I ask a question that has no right answer, just to get a discussion going, and it’s silent, because everyone is afraid of being wrong. I give them papers to take home and get signed. Less than half of them come back. I have to give a second copy to several students two weeks later because they lost it. I give a homework assignment that takes ten minutes to do, and only 6 out of 30 of them have it the next day. I have students who struggle to add -12 and 11 (these are juniors, same age as many of the AP kids). It takes a very, very long time to make progress with these students sometimes. We make progress though, as long as they keep coming to class and trying.
But if anyone of you came and observed me, such as the UW observer I had this year, you would immediately (and I mean on the first day) notice a stark difference between these two classes. His words after one day: "Quite a different group."
My AP class has zero failures and zero D’s after four weeks. In fact, the lowest grade is a C+, and we’ve already had four tests. The class after lunch has 10 out of 30 students failing.
Are we as a society so analytically inept that we think I am the problem in this class after lunch? Even though apparently I am knocking the lights out in the AP class? The same people who laud these great private schools and even the public schools that have an array of AP classes, honors students, and all the accolades that go with them will nevertheless continue to argue that those schools are good because of the teachers.
“The AP teachers are so good at our school,” they’ll say. “My son and daughter love their classes.” “I’m so glad they don’t go to that other school with a 30% dropout rate. They must have bad teachers.”
If you think stupid thoughts like this, I’ve got a newsflash for you: I’m the same person you are lauding on one hand and criticizing on the other. Put all your great AP teachers at the other school, and magically, they won’t be so great any more. Likewise, put all those teachers at the school with all the “honors” students, and look how well those teachers seem to be doing all of a sudden! It’s incredible!
Conclusion - The Delusion
The same is true with charter schools. Good students make teachers look good. Bad students make teachers look bad. Or, if I put it more accurately, well-prepared students do well in school, and ill-prepared students struggle. Preparation doesn’t happen in school for most students; it happens in the home.
If you close all the failing schools, you’ll just be sending the same struggling students to the other schools, and soon they’ll be exhibiting the same problems of the closed school. In the process, you’ll have wasted time, thrown out some qualified and motivated teachers, confused parents, disoriented students, and will see little to no improvement in student achievement.
Charter schools are a ruse, advocated by people who don’t understand what makes a school function or how students learn. By people who think a new building will somehow erase the social, emotional, and educational depravity so many public school students have grown up living in since birth.
But, if some charters do succeed, why do I oppose them? Because they take money away from the other schools, making it that much harder to do what is already an enormously difficult task that no one as yet has figured out how to do without an infusion of millions of dollars from private sources.