Thursday, February 2, 2012

Charter or Traditional: Making Kids Play Musical Schools Is Wrong

Here's a composite of conversations I've had with other education folks (and myself) about charter schools:

Q: Are you in favor of or against charter schools?

A: Well, I'd rather we didn't feel the need to have them in the first place. I have what I think are valid concerns about segregation, isolation, inequity, and denying appropriate and accessible education to special needs and ELL students.

Q: Okay, but they're here. Would you rather have them all closed and go back to the structure we had?

A: No, no. I acknowledge they're here to stay, for the foreseeable future at least. But if their existence is a reality, I'd rather they be community and educator-initiated, under the umbrella of and accountable to the districts and communities where they're located with no profit motive (as Chad Sansing describes here).

Q: Well, charters sometimes form because the home district is too rigid and too dysfunctional. Look at DC. Charters formed their own system entirely apart from DCPS precisely because they were fleeing the dysfunction of DCPS. Then charters grew in part because people got even more turned off by Rhee-form.

A: Yes, yes, I understand that. And I understand it's much easier to say, well, make the traditional district better, more responsive, than it is for that to actually happen any time soon. How long must families wait for that to occur? Now I get to ask a question: What happens when charter schools are largely unsuccessful according to the current accountability schemes with the same population the traditional, home district seemed to fail with?

I'll answer my own question. If we're just going to judge schools' success or necessity according to (in many cases poorly conceived) standardized test scores then it doesn't matter, if they're charter or traditional, we're not going to know how successful or unsuccessful any school is in improving the quality and meaning of the education for the students they are supposed to serve.

This is why I am against closing charter schools based on test scores, just as I am against closing neighborhood based on test scores. There is so much else to consider. The IDEA Public Charter School in DC serves students at-risk for dropping out. It faces closure. The school has been around for ten years. I've never stepped foot in the school, so I don't know what or how much those students are learning. I don't know if they're getting the best and most appropriate and meaningful education possible under the circumstances. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't. Maybe it should be closed, maybe it shouldn't. But test scores alone most certainly don't tell me that either.

Just as when a neighborhood school closes, when a charter school that has become a fixture in a community, that the community is largely satisfied with, that fills a need that other schools don't, is closed, it will have a very negative effect on the student population and the community it serves. And what will then replace it?

Disruption as a goal is not a positive one for education. I don't care what kind of school they're in, kids and their families, especially those with enough disruption, crisis, and loss in their lives already, shouldn't be forced to play musical schools to the tune of "Get Those Test Scores Up." If that's our idea of reforming education, we're in big trouble.


  1. Good points! Many public charter schools exist to provide an alternative to traditional public schools for distinct populations; while many are sited where traditional public schools are struggling to get student performance up, others are some targeted specifically to serve runaways, the homeless, children in foster care, and other at-risk groups, for example. It simply isn't reasonable to suggest closing such a school because its test scores are behind a state average. Similarly, an urban school with 90% FARM students is going to have challenges a suburban school won't. Standardized tests in both cases are needed to measure some sort of baseline, but they are not the be-all and end-all of public education.

    Jason R.

  2. While it's not news to anyone that I am vehemently opposed to privately managed charter schools, I too share the sentiment that schools (even charters) shouldn't be arbitrarily shut down, especially because of scores on standardized tests. I even argued to keep the schools of the corporate Crescendo charter chain open:

    LAUSD Creates Calamity for Crescendo Corporate Charters

    but to convert them to public schools. Your essay opens with the corporate reformers' old standby that charters are here to stay. That unfortunate situation could be solved by an immediate moratorium on the granting of charters, and a slow transition to bring those schools back into the public fold. It wouldn't happen overnight, but eventually communities would get their schools back from the lucrative CMOs and EMOs that are feeding from the public trough.

  3. Something I've wondered about: would it be feasible to phase schools out rather than close them outright, so that students can continue to attend a school if they so choose but new students can't enroll? There are obviously things that make that difficult - it would probably raise costs and tie up facilities inefficiently, for example - but it's not terribly unusual for schools to phase *in* gradually as they're starting up, so I feel like it can't be totally impossible to phase them *out* gradually.

  4. @Jason R.: Yes, it's easy to forget that at least some charters serve to fill niches that traditional public schools don't.

    @Robert Skeels: Yes, it would be ideal to put a moratorium on the granting of charters and to gradually return the schools to the public fold. In the meantime, though. . . .

    @Paul Bruno: I've had the same thought. It seems like if a community has to close a school, it should do so in the least disruptive way possible.