The False Promise of Charters

When it comes to charter schools, you would be hard pressed to find a bigger cheerleader in the press than Jay Mathews. Especially if the school has the letters KIPP on the front door.

After all, Mathews has visited “more than 50 great charters” (out of about 7,000 in the US), and, based on his observations, declares the concept to be good.

Ignoring, of course, the financial and management problems, not to mention outright fraud, found in many of the companies running charters (especially the online variety), along with study after study showing that most charter schools provide no better learning outcomes than the public schools in the same area. 

In his Post column today, Mathews tries to find common ground on the topic with education writer, historian, and vocal charter critic Diane Ravitch. Someone who actually understands that very few charters have lived up to their glowing promises and should be reigned in.

“I would call a moratorium for all new charters,” Ravitch said. “All charters would be required to be financially and academically transparent.” She would ban for-profit charters. Charters would have to fill all empty seats each year, she said, so average test scores would not rise just because low-performing students had left. Charters would have to have the same demographics as regular schools in their neighborhoods, she said, with the same portion of students with disabilities and students learning English.

Ravitch also would require characteristics that the best charters already have: collaboration with public schools, charter boards made of local community members and racially diverse student bodies.

Imagine that. Charter schools, which use public money, should be required to serve all of their communities and students first, rather than simply providing profits for their investors.

Mathews, condescending as always, deems Ravitch’s ideas “worth discussing”. He’s worried that those “great charters” (aka KIPP) will also have to fall under the same requirements.

Although the theory of charter schools – innovative educators finding new and better ways to help students independent of state and district bureaucracy – is a compelling one. Here in the real world, it just hasn’t worked.

Going beyond the incompetence and corruptions most often in the news, there is little new about the vast majority of charters. Most use very traditional curriculum and standard teacher-directed pedagogy – adding “innovations” like extended class time, “personalized” learning systems, and student regimentation. And being very selective about which students they will accept and retain.

Unfortunately, too many people leading this country are anxious to privatize public education, and make some money on the deal. As a result, Mathews will likely get his way and charters will continue to expand, likely in the same current ratio of “great” to poor. And continuing to exclude those children most in need of a great public education.

There Must Be a Better Way

Here in the US it’s testing season, following weeks, often months of test prep in most schools. Diane Ravitch wants to know Are Test Scores the Point? and her answer gets it exactly right.

So, I am left with the view that we need a far better way to describe successful schools. Test scores alone are not the way. They may define a school where students spend every day engaged in test prep. They may describe a school producing complaint student-robots.

When we rely on standardized tests as the only, or even the most important, tool for assessing student learning, schools become test prep academies so administrators can avoid the dreaded “failure” label.

 

It Sounds Good, So Spare Me The Details

On the Bridging Differences blog, Diane Ravitch addresses the idea of merit pay plans in education and makes this simple point on why they consistently fail.

Note that they assume that most people–in this case, teachers–are lazy and need a promise of dollars to be incentivized to get higher scores for their students. It never seems to occur to them that many people are doing their best (think people who play sports, always striving to do their best without any expectation of payment) and continue to do so because of intrinsic rewards or because of an innate desire to serve others.

Over the past eight years, No Child Left Behind has clearly demonstrated that the carrot-and-stick-approach (NCLB is 90% stick) did nothing to improve American education.

Now the carrot side is popular, despite studies showing “performance incentives” don’t work (outside of education as well), and not a few trial runs that crapped out.

Merit pay, like charter schools and standardized testing, is popular with many politicians and other education “experts” because it’s simple, relatively cheap, and easy to implement.

It starts with a premise that is easy to sound bite and seems logical.  Or it seems logical if you don’t think about the concept for more than a minute or so.

In other words, these are education reform proposals tailor made for our shoot from the gut, short attention span, simplistic approach to governing this country.

Winning the Race

On the Washington Post web site, Diane Ravitch recommends three books that offer “some dissenting views” on the administration’s current education reform plans.

I haven’t read the books and can’t verify their quality, but this observation by Ravitch in her introduction is right on target.

Now that the Obama administration has invited the states to compete for $5 billion in stimulus funds, the winners will not be those that come up with the best reform ideas, but those that agree to do what the administration wants: create privately managed charter schools, evaluate teachers by their students’ test scores, and close low-performing schools.

Money + power = do it our way.

Just Say No to RTTT

In her Education Week blog this week, Diane Ravitch offers ten reasons why states should decline to participate in the DOEs big money game show, Race to the Top.

I can’t speak to the validity of all ten, but I suspect most her predictions of what will happen to American education as a result of this most recent attempt at “reform” are far too accurate.

Especially number five.

By raising the stakes for tests even higher, Race to the Top will predictably produce more teaching to bad tests, more narrowing of the curriculum, more cheating, and more gaming the system. If scores rise, it will be the illusion of progress, rather than better education. By ratcheting up the consequences of test scores, education will be corrupted and cheapened. There will be even less time for history, geography, civics, foreign languages, literature, and other important subjects.

All of that applied to No Child Left Behind, of course, except for the part about rising scores.

Supporters of NCLB simply made claims of major progress without even minimal statistical evidence.