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Debate over charter schools gets going

It looks like the debate over charter schools is picking up. Last Sunday, the New York Times published a front-page feature on charter schools. It is the first major article I can think of that was critical of charter schools.

The article noted that the charter school “movement” has the support of philanthropists (Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton family) and celebrities (the singers John Legend and Sting had recently “performed at a fund-raiser for Harlem charter schools at Lincoln Center”). It also has the backing of President Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan. And yet...

But for all their support and cultural cachet, the majority of the 5,000 or so charter schools nationwide appear to be no better, and in many cases worse, than local public schools when measured by achievement on standardized tests, according to experts citing years of research.

With all the money, technology, facilities, and other advantages charter schools have over public schools (while at the same time receiving public funding), plus the self-selection by motivated parents and students, I would have guessed that performance would be better among the charter schools, but that’s not the case.

It is probably Diane Ravitch’s critique of the school-choice movement (contained in her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System) that is prompting more critical coverage, like the Times piece. Given the wide consensus in support charter schools – from conservatives to the Obama administration – I expected to start to see some responses in defense of charter schools. And sure enough, in today’s Times, there is one, in the form of an op-ed by Charles Murray.

Murray takes an interesting tack. He argues that “standardized test scores are a terrible way to decide whether one school is better than another”. Instead, the ability for parents to choose should be considered a benefit in itself:

If my fellow supporters of charter schools and vouchers can finally be pushed off their obsession with test scores, maybe we can focus on the real reason school choice is a good idea. Schools differ in what they teach and how they teach it, and parents care deeply about both, regardless of whether test scores rise....

Let’s use the money we are already spending on education in a way that gives those parents the same kind of choice that wealthy people, liberal and conservative alike, exercise right now. That should be the beginning and the end of the argument for school choice.

I would agree that test scores do not fully encompass the quality of education. But Murray’s argument that performance doesn’t matter is hard to accept: if charter schools are no better or worse in terms of quality, then why go to all the effort? Would parents participate in the school-choice programs if they didn’t think the educational quality was higher?

School choice is an interesting debate, but leave it to Diane Ravitch to put it in perspective. As she says in the Times article, “Charters enroll 3 percent of the kids. The system that educates 97 percent, no one’s paying any attention to.” Don’t expect John Legend and Sting to hold a concert at Lincoln Center for these 97 percent (they'll have make do with bake sales and auctions).

7 Responses to “Debate over charter schools gets going” Leave a reply ›

  • If the charter school movement has garnered only 3 percent of all students after decades of trying, it hardly seems everybody is paying attention to them.

    Ravitch is coming from the perspective of a center-right conservative interested in fostering civic virtue, so that would explain why choice itself wouldn't impress her much. If the students at charter schools are doing no better on test scores but generally feel more comfortable - because it's a school for artsy types, for example - then that seems positive to me. My cousin attended such a school after finding traditional public school pretty alienating.

    In any case, here is Neal Mcluskey's critique of Ravitch:

    He states that the choice movement's (including charters) positive effects have been small, but I'm not sure if this means they've been large for that small portion of the student population who take part, or small for the same portion. I'm going to assume the latter.

  • This is a typical oversimplification of the issue. The reality is that most, if not all, charter schools nationally are funded anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of dollars LESS than traditional schools. However much I would love to have John Legend and Sting perform for our schools, not likely to happen anytime soon. Not all charters (nor the states in which they are found) have access to R2T monies--sort of a east and west of the Mississippi divide if you look at round one.

    I choose charters for my kids, like many parents of all socioeconomic and ethnic levels I know, because our children known by name and needs. They are not warehoused with thousands of other kids. I want EVERY child in America to have that personalized approach for them, regardless of test scores. However, we seem determined to protect the status quo.

    To all "experts" and charter critics out there, Charter Schools ARE public schools! I think Dr. Ravitch (and those who agree with her without having read the book closely enough) missed some valuable and key points in the debate about charter schools. Her book seems like a huge and unnecessary explanation of her major about face until the end. Many of the recommendations she made at the end of her book are outstanding and can be done anywhere! Truth is, they are being done in many charter schools and even in traditional public schools nationally. Sadly, east and west coast intellectuals alike seem to forget that there is a vast middle to this nation they overlook at regular intervals.

    The real issue is that EVERY student in America, regardless of where, deserves an education tailored to their needs, their learning style, their socioeconomic level and so forth. This is not asking too much of us as a nation. This is simply about an honest and full investment in the future of the greatest nation on earth. That is well worth the debate and more than worth the effort regardless of a school or system being charter or traditional.

  • Dain and Darren - Sorry it's taken me awhile to respond, it's been crazy. Thank you both for your intelligent comments, you both make points I had not considered, and need to think about some more.

    My main concern is that we provide the best education possible, for all. On an individual level, I think it makes perfect sense for parents to find the best school for their kids. My wife and I wonder if we are doing the right thing for our kids all the time. I just wish that public schools were great, so that parents would not feel the need to look elsewhere. And my concern is not really with what the charter schools themselves are doing, but whether policy is simply about supporting charter schools at the expense of not taking the steps to improve (non-charter) public schools. I'd hate to think that the public schools could say, we don't need to provide the arts and other aspects of a well-rounded education program, because families can always go to a charter school or a private school if they really want that.

    The choice vs. civic responsibility issue is an interesting one that I need to think more about. I am generally in favor of choice. But my overriding concern is that we recognize that we have a responsibility to pass along our civilization and culture to the next generation. I wouldn't want "choice" to be used as an excuse to abdicate that responsibility.

    Thanks again.

  • Stuart Buck has written a bunch of stuff on Ravitch

  • There are many different angles to the discussion of charter schools and the wider reforms of standards, testing, choice, and accountability, which sometimes make it difficult to see the wood for the trees. There are also some contradictory trends at work, at least from an ideological perspective (such as market-based choice and competition at the same time as more centralized control over teaching at the district or citywide levels). And, I think Sean Collins is right to make a distinction between what happens at the level of individual families seeking a good school for their kids or individual charter schools that can breathe new life into depressed urban areas and a wider discussion of education policy.
    Although data on testing and funding is useful, I don’t think it is helpful to focus on who gets more money or the test scores of charters versus public schools. What is most important to recognize is that none of these reforms were ever going to improve education because they do not discuss education on its own terms. Charter schools, national testing, choice, performance-related pay are political gimmicks, designed to give the impression that something is being done to improve schools, when in fact they have the contrary outcome in all but a few cases because they diminishes the control and authority of those trained for the task: teachers.
    This is where Diane Ravitch’s book is excellent. She shows the harmful effects of interference by politicians, policy-makers and philanthropists in the workings of schools. What does Bill Gates, or other non-pedagogues, know about education such that they can lecture governors on what is wrong with schools? All that entrepreneurs can do is apply their business practices to schools, an approach which undermines public education, as Ravitch illustrates.
    Actually, I think Ravitch’s about face on educational policy shows that she is less tied to ideology than most, including many of her critics. True her analysis is based on ideals and a vision of what good education looks like, but at the heart of the problem with American education is precisely such an absence of vision based upon education as a valuable in its own right. Since the 1980s and the publication of A Nation at Risk, education has become measured by its contribution to the economy, to the promotion of diversity, to raising self-esteem and reducing social problems. Rarely is education discussed as something that is inherently valuable to every human being (tests focused entirely on basic mathematics and language skills don’t count). Schools have had three decades, if not more, of being told to fix social, economic and political problems and we wonder why they are not educating!
    Public, private, charter; what matters most is that teachers and principals are given the freedom to focus on the job of educating children in a demanding and broad subject-based curriculum. The job of government is to support them to the best of their ability. Charters schools, choice and evidenced-based research are precisely the opposite of a visionary education policy. It is passing responsibility for schooling on to others.

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