Monday, November 5, 2012

Charter School Strike-Out

In her recent Seattle Times op-ed, Katie Baird attempts to justify the addition of charter schools to Washington. She strikes out in three significant ways.

She begins by painting charters as a possible answer to the dream that someday, somehow, schools will be better. This premise is based on a faulty assumption--that schools as a whole are failing, which is questionable, as we’ll see in a bit.

And, what happens when charters don’t deliver? The experience of other states testifies to the hardship and costs associated with closing them. It’s not easy.

But to say charters are the path to the dream of better schools is like saying politics is the way to a balanced budget. No matter who’s in charge, the debt keeps climbing. Charters will not solve the education problem, because the primary sources of the problem do not lie with the schools.  The best teachers in the world could not fix what ails many schools.  It is not what happens in these buildings, but what happens outside of them.

I know some people disregard this argument and say we should focus what’s “within our control.”  The problem is, we already are. I make no claim that schools can’t improve. But I claim that if they improved in every possible way within their control, you would still have dropouts, students failing state tests, and kids getting expelled for various reasons. Baird’s dream of better schools is fine. Her solution misses the target. This is strike one.

Baird's main argument centers on the idea of beating the averages. If only 17% of charter schools are ‘better’ than traditional public schools, then we must find a way to replicate only those.

The problem with this is that the same argument can be made in reverse. Why don't we find which public schools are performing best, and try to replicate them? The truth is, it just isn't that easy. If it were, don't you think at least one of the 41 states with charter schools would have figured it out by now?

Baird treats each charter school as a soloist emerging from the choir of traditional schools. But isn't there a range of performance among public schools as well? The idea that all traditional schools are static and uniform, but that individual charters are capable of rising above them all, defies basic logic.

Furthermore, why do so many people believe public schools are failing?  What is this based on?

The usual answer is test scores. But, what tests? My high school passed in the 30% range on the math HSPE/WASL for several years. The year we switched to EOC math tests, our passing rates doubled. This year, they surpassed 70%. In just two years, we went from the 30's to the 70's.

Are our teachers really that good?

The truth is, we're the same school we were before. The staff, the curriculum, the student population--all of these have minimally changed over the last five years. What changed? The test. That's it. We had a great staff the whole time. The new tests just caught up with reality.

Don't be so cowed by claims that schools are improving, or failing, or "innovating," the current buzzword. This whole discussion is based on questionable data that changes drastically if we just alter the format of the test. Strike two.

Finally, Baird uses the tired bromide that "other countries," always unnamed, are outperforming U.S. schools. This claim is factually inaccurate and meaningless.

First, are those countries using the same tests we are? I haven't heard of a single Washington school that takes an international test. Is there such a thing? If so, which students take it? Are they an accurate sample of all American schools? We're never told.

Even if there were such a test, the same problems I just described about the HSPE/WASL/EOC apply here too.

But the biggest problem is that other countries do not have equivalent educational systems as us. In Germany, for example, they start tracking students--for life!--after 4th grade.

Students are tested and put into either a college track or a vocational track. Similar systems are in place in most European countries. Do you think they test the kids in the vocational track with these international tests the U.S. supposedly lags behind on?

No way. They only test the college track. So of course they have better scores than us! You think China tests the kids in the rural mountains of Tibet? No way. They test their best and brightest. Strike three.

The entire argument in favor of charters is based on invalid and questionable data, faulty comparisons, and misguided dreams about schools somehow needing to save our culture, when really, it needs to be the other way around.

(If you haven’t voted yet, please vote against charters in Washington (No on 1240), because they will not solve any of the real problems, and will draw money away from the work already being done. It should also bother everyone that the vast majority of funding in favor of I-1240 came from five or six ultra wealthy people, some of whom don't even live in this state.)

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