With Charters, Everyone Wins. Almost.

We now have a Secretary of Education who believes charter and private schools are the solution to “failing” public schools. Despite plenty of data, from her home state and elsewhere, demonstrating that’s pretty much crap. And the fact that many, if not most, public schools are

Propublica logo

doing a good job with completing their somewhat outdated mission.1

A great investigation by ProPublica provides a great deal of evidence of just how bad charters can be by looking at “alternative” charter schools in Florida, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. They found that many of these schools are simply being used to improve the accountability ratings of public schools, and the bottom line of charter corporations.

The Orlando schools illustrate a national pattern. Alternative schools have long served as placements for students who violated disciplinary codes. But since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 refashioned the yardstick for judging schools, alternative education has taken on another role: A silent release valve for high schools like Olympia that are straining under the pressure of accountability reform.

As a result, alternative schools at times become warehouses where regular schools stow poor performers to avoid being held accountable. Traditional high schools in many states are free to use alternative programs to rid themselves of weak students whose test scores, truancy and risk of dropping out threaten their standing, a ProPublica survey of state policies found.

In the case of the Florida charter schools, students who dropped out were coded as “leaving for adult education”, which means that the public school they were transferred from did not have to count them on their dropout records. Their score remains high, the charter gets paid for the enrollment, and everybody wins.

Except the student, of course, most of whom are minority children, often with limited English skills or disabilities.

No Child Left Behind was supposed to improve educational outcomes for students long overlooked — including those who were black, Hispanic and low-income. Yet as the pressure ramped up, ProPublica’s analysis found, those students were precisely the ones overrepresented in alternative classrooms — where many found a second-tier education awaiting them.

Barbara Fedders, a law professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said alternative schools too frequently fail to halt students’ downward trajectory, simply isolating them, instead.

“They create little islands of segregation,” Fedders said. “If they aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do, it’s unclear why we have them at all.”

Actually it’s very clear. They are supposed to warehouse students who likely will not pass the standardized tests. And to earn a profit for the companies who run them.

While the ProPublica researchers focus their story on Florida, take a look at the map of Michigan, where the new Secretary of Education has invested a lot of her money and time into charter corporations. It shows a “steep rise in the alternative school population”, largely due to charter schools. Something being repeated in other states, and that the Secretary would like to expand nationwide.

Although the whole piece is rather long, it’s well worth your time. In addition to lots of data, they also include some compelling data stories about victims of these “alternative” programs, which are little more than holding cells for students who don’t fit into the narrow “accountability” culture that’s been forced on American public schools over the past almost two decades.

Our Information Stinks

As a guest writer in the Post’s Answer Sheet blog points out, a good deal of the debate over education reform in the past two decades has centered around two concepts: choice and accountability.

Choice, of course, usually comes back to charter schools and vouchers, and accountability may as well be a synonym for standardized test since almost no other ideas of what it means to assess student learning seems to be considered.

Neither has done much to improve American education and probably have done a great deal of harm by narrowing the discussion of what public schools are and should be. But why have choice and accountability not lived up to their claimed potential?

Critics have a whole host of explanations, some of which are quite compelling, and some of which are burdened by political agendas. But the simplest answer, which also happens to be true, is that both movements are dependent on good information about school quality. And, frankly, our information stinks.

Both of these models, of course, are dependent on accurate information about school quality.  Whether parents have the power or accountability officers do, the central assumption is the same: that we can measure school quality precisely enough to make high-stakes decisions.

As the writer correctly points out “standardized test scores provide a very narrow picture of what happens inside schools”. As for charter schools and most private schools, they aren’t doing much if anything different from the public schools. They are working with a selected group of students whose parents are very motivated.

He concludes with a list of five criteria for rating schools that, while certainly not perfect, would be a much better alternative to test scores.

I especially love number one, how much time do students spend on art, music and other creative activities?, and number 5, which asks how well did the education they received help students five to ten years later.

However, back here in our real world, this is the unfortunate bottom line of our current education policy in this country.

Test scores, as many parents and policymakers already know, are misleading.  But they aren’t going away.  They aren’t going away in state or federal decision-making.  And they aren’t going away in the role they play in parental decisions about school choice.  In fact, the opposite is happening: test scores are insidiously taking hold in policy discourse and among the public as a perfectly acceptable measure of quality.  They aren’t.  And, as such, it is our job not only to resist narrow and simplistic measures of educational quality, but to demand access to the data we really need–information that allows us to make thoughtful decisions about our schools.

Thoughtful decisions about our schools. Wouldn’t that be a nice change?