I’ve just finished reading an amazing book by Diane Ravitch called The Death and Life of the Great American School System. She is one of my heroes so I even wrote her a fan-letter, which she posted on her personal website. Most of the people who read my blog are current corps members so I know that sometimes the focus is really just doing the best job for your students, and not thinking so much about the big picture, which is how you should be thinking if you’re a new teacher. But, if you get a chance, this book is very fast reading since she destroys all the current fads in education, one by one, as if she’s got a machine gun and is Rambo and the bad guys are the policy makers directing education.
One of her most compelling points is that high-stakes testing which all politicians seem to love, cause people to ‘teach to the test’ so that even if they succeed, we don’t have a student population who is ready to compete in the international work force. She also demonstrates how different schools and districts have found ways to ‘game’ the tests.
For me, though, the most frustrating part of the book was her characterization of charter schools. TFA is very much ‘in bed’ with charters. At the alumni summit, TFA held up many examples of successful charter schools and networks started and staffed by TFA alums to demonstrate how well TFA is doing. The guidebook for the TFA summit had about 100 pages of advertisements for charter school networks. The summit goody bag had a water bottle from a charter school network.
All this attention to charters really has made me uncomfortable. Somehow it seemed contrary to the ultimate vision that ‘One Day ALL children will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education’ (emphases added) Though I had heard all the arguments both for and against charters before, the way that Ravitch laid them out made me finally have a clear idea about what the problem with the charters is.
Even in ‘Waiting For Superman’ they acknowledged that only 17% of charters, according to a study at Stanford, are actually outperforming regular schools. But those 17% are models of what can be done if it is done right. Politicians, including Obama, think that charters are one of the things that will save public education. In the Race To The Top initiative, states that have a charter cap are disqualified from applying for the aid. Politicians claim that charters will help regular public schools in two ways 1) they will force public schools to get better to compete for students with them, and 2) They will serve as places of innovation and the lessons they learn at the charters can be applied to the regular public schools. What’s strange about this is that the people who started the charter schools don’t see this as their mission nor do they see themselves as the saviors of public education. I’m friendly with some of the people who started some of the most famous charter school networks like Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg of KIPP and Chris Barbic of YES and they never make such broad claims.
Ravitch’s argument is that charter schools ‘cream’ the most motivated students from the regular public schools in several ways. First, they have an application process which excludes students whose parents who aren’t able to complete it. So already you’ve got a pool of students with more motivated parents. Then, and this part is not really reported about enough, there’s a pretty large attrition rate for the students that do win the lottery and get in. In one study she cites, 60% of the students who got into a KIPP school in California were not in the school a few years later. So you’ve got a self-selecting group who enter the lottery and then those kids who make it in, but aren’t cutting it are somehow counseled out. Then, miraculously, the charter school has excellent standardized test results while the regular public schools which now have all the charter rejects and have lost their most motivated students get horrible results and get shut down and replaced with a new charter school and the cycle continues.
I wish that the charter leaders would just say “We are not claiming to have the answer to fixing public schools. We have a model that serves the kids who are a good fit for us, and it really helps them change their life trajectory. Our program is not for everyone, but at least we try to give them a chance.” Instead, they mislead the politicians and the philanthropic billionaires by claiming that they do not ‘cream’ the top students thus fueling the charter craze we currently have in this country.
TFA says that successful charters prove that kids from low-income neighborhoods are capable of high levels of achievement. I think only some really racist people would need proof of this. In my opinion, the charter movement proves something else. It proves that if we could somehow eliminate forty percent of our most-difficult-to-educate students in this country, then we could do a really good job educating the other 60%. When I was a struggling new teacher, I’d often think, “If I could only get rid of five kids in this class, I could do my job.” But this isn’t the way our country works. We are supposed to try to educate everyone. So unless TFA is planning to change their slogan to “One Day Sixty Percent of Students Will Have the Opportunity to Attain an Excellent Education,” they need to get off the charter bandwagon and start encouraging successful CMs to work on fixing regular public schools.
My anger in this post is fueled somewhat by something I heard at the summit. I heard this from someone who heard this, so it may have been exaggerated by the time I did, but maybe not. Someone told me that he heard from the head of a charter school that he pays TFA so he can have the first pick at the new CMs who are showing the most teaching talent at the institute. Now, if this is true, it is really disgusting. Public schools already are given the leftover kids, now they’re also getting the lesser quality teaching prospects? And then we celebrate the success of the charter as evidence of what good leadership can do, while the public school fights for its life with one hand tied behind its back.