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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

CHARTER SCHOOLS -- A RESPONSE TO ANDREW BLAIS

Andrew Blais [an old friend and former student, whose fine doctoral dissertation I directed], nudges me to post something about charter schools. My familiarity with the subject, which is shallow and quite recent, comes from a session of my doctoral seminar on "Normative Dimensions of Public Policy," which I am teaching this semester in the graduate program of the Public Policy Department at UNC Chapel Hill. The first of what will be six two-hour seminar presentations by pairs of students in the seminar was devoted to the subject of charter schools, and in preparation for the session all of us in the seminar read several essays and chapters from books set us by the two students presenting.


The charter school movement, which now enrolls more than a million students in almost five thousand schools nation-wide, grew out of critiques mounted both from the left and from the right of the traditional public schools in which America's children have been educated for several centuries now. From the left came a demand for community control of what were until then centrally run city school systems, as well as a call from Albert Shanker, the progressive head of the New York City teachers' union, for small-scale experimentation. From the right came calls for privatization, the introduction of market mechanisms via a voucher system, and the breaking of the teachers' unions, as well as for an assortment of religiously based revisions to the curriculum [such as the excision of any mention of evolution, the blanchissement of American history, the enshrining of the Christian God in a position of prominence, and so forth.]


A variety of reforms or experiments have been proposed and tried, among them making classes smaller, making schools smaller, lengthening the school day, and lengthening the school year. The principal impetus for all this churning about is the comparative standing of American school children in international measures of competency in math, science, and language arts. One response to all of this by the federal government has been to mandate testing of school children repeatedly, roughly on the theory that if a patient has a fever, the best medicine is to take the temperature repeatedly. The subject of testing is too large to be discussed here, and is obviously worth a full-scale post of its own.


A large amount of foundation money has been poured into the charter school experiment, including some very large donations by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and several others. I think it is fair to say that driving the movement is a deep-seated hostility to traditional schools and teachers, coupled with the conviction that smart, innovative businessmen and women ought to be able to run schools better than moss-backed career educationists comfortably nestled in tenured sinecures. [Am I too blatantly revealing my sympathies here?]


Charter Schools are privately run schools, "chartered" by the state and supported by funds that would otherwise be spent on educating the same children in public schools. The charter schools are liberated from the supposed tyranny of the teachers' unions, and are free to adopt innovative curricula and teaching methods and any other ideas that the traditional schools are thought to be too hidebound and encrusted with bureaucratic barnacles to try.


The charter schools have certain obvious advantages, the most important of which is that they are not required by law to accept every child in a neighborhood. Nor are charter school entrepreneurs required to maintain schools in every neighborhood in a city. In addition, the children enrolled in charter schools are there because their parents chose to put them there, and that implies a level of concern for education that would, one might suppose, constitute a sort of positive self-selection process resulting in better outcomes for the children.


One of the readings set by Casey Megan and Lisa Spees, the two students responsible for the presentation, was a report by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes [CREDO] located at Stanford University of a 2009 study called "Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States." The structure of the study strikes me as really quite brilliant, and I want to take a little time to explain it as well as I can.


There are two points that we must begin with. First, what really matters is what is called the "value added" effect of charter schools, which is to say how much improvement in student learning they accomplish, as measured by standard state-wide tests, compared to what students would have learned in the traditional public schools, had they stayed there rather than transferring to the charter schools. Now, this is asking a counterfactual question: What would the students have learned if, contrary to fact, they had stayed in the traditional schools. Since it is impossible to rewind history so as to run the students through both kinds of schools, the challenge is to come up with some way of answering the question.


What the CREDO study did was to create a huge number of "virtual twins," by pairing each charter school student whose performance was being monitored with a traditional public school student who matched the charter school student in a number of ways thought to be significant. The match factors included grade-level, gender, race/ethnicity, free or reduced price lunch status [an indicator of family income level], English language learner status, special education status, and prior test score on state achievement tests.


Each pair of students thus consisted of a charter school student and a public school student who with respect to all of these factors were identical. The report says that 1.7 million records were analyzed, but I do not think that means 1.7 million students [although it may have.] The study then took a look at the performance of these pairs on the next year's state achievement tests [can you imagine the computer program required to do this?] Some standard statistical number crunching then ascertained both what the average differences were, state by state, between the charter school students and their paired traditional public school matches, and what statistical significance, if any, the data exhibited. I may just be new to this sort of experimental investigation, but I think this is an extraordinarily imaginative way to try to get at the effect of charter schools on the education of their pupils.


I confess that as I began to read this report, I assumed it would reveal important relative gains by the charter school students. How could it be otherwise? The effect of the self-selection process alone, I thought, was sure to produce some important relative gains, and I was all prepared [given my preliminary bias] to conjure up arguments about equity and the hidden injuries of class [to steal Richard Sennett's fine phrase]. But the results astonished me.


To put it as simply as I can, the study showed that by and large transfer to charter schools made little or no difference at all in the gains of educational gains of students, and where there was a difference, it was a small but statistically significant edge for the traditional public schools! I was astonished by these results.


In the class discussion, which was very interesting and informed by a good deal of hands-on experience and knowledge among the students [not me!], one point was made that merits repeating. Because the study amalgamated such large swaths of data, it was unable to disambiguate the performances of especially successful charter schools. Several students spoke about the Knowledge is Power Program [KIPP] charter schools, which apparently have quite dramatic successes to their credit. The KIPP schools combine a longer school day and school year with heavy homework assignments and a strong emphasis on team performance, all of which seem to be very effective in improving student performance. That sounds right to me, intuitively.


I would be very interested in anecdotal or other reactions from the readers of this blog.

10 comments:

Murfmensch said...

There is tremendous political and social pressure to declare a charter school successful. Anyone who asks too many questions is treated like they farted in church. Potential recipients of grant money have no incentive to rain on a donor's parade. Politicians would rather be seen cutting a ribbon than anger parents with an investigation.

There have been some real disasters here. There have been schools that simply pretend to have standards they don't have.

Charter schools will only work if they are governed thoroughly. In other words, they will have to be like public schools.

Charter schools need to be required to raise funds to pay for the education of each student they deny schooling. This could be done with a formula. If they won't take kids with behavioral problems, compute the percentage of students they would have with those problems and make them fund programs that will school them. No wheelchairs? Here's a bill.

If Gates can afford to pay for watchers and the denied students, let him. Along with anti-teacher sentiment, charter schools are about parents who consider their kids talented and want privileges bestowed.

Scott said...

In a separate post someday I would like to hear your thoughts on non-Prussian educational movements like homeschooling and unschooling. It would be particularly interesting to read a post on the Sudbury Valley and Free School movements.

M said...

I've read similar reports on the success of the KIPP Program. (Unfortunately, they were online and I no longer have the URLs.) It's amazing how making students work hard helps, while trying to massage statistics makes no difference (or, worse, diminishes things).

I use this technique in the classes I teach. A lot of students drop out initially, because they're not used to working hard (or, you know, learning). But other students put in the work, and it's clear that they are better off because of it.

There are a lot of tough issues about how to set up education. This shouldn't have to be one of them.

Thanks very much for your post, Professor Wolff.

Amato said...

This is a very interesting topic and I'm glad you decided to write something on it, professor. I have found the recent work of Diane Ravitch to be pretty insightful on this issue. She wrote a wonderful critique of the documentary "Waiting for Superman"—a fairly mainstream doc that propagated the charter school myth—when it came out.

You can read it yourself (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/11/myth-charter-schools/), briefly some of the points she made:

- Only one out of five charter schools gets results above the average public school. (I think that may have come from the same CREDO study you pointed to)

-A number of charter schools have gone to extreme lengths to make sure they didn’t get scores that would hurt there creditability and their funding—including, one incident of where a principal "fired" a whole 8th grade class.

-Finally, and I think this is the most significant point about the charter school movement, education has become a competition, both in public and charter schools, to maximize production of high test scores. This is in large part due to Joel Klein—the first non-educator to be the New York City schools chancellor—whose philosophy was to implement system of checks and balances in the form of standardized testing. Schools that didn’t make the grade would get shut down and smaller charter schools would take their place. I read in a recent New York Times article (unfortunately a laudatory opinion piece written by my father!), Joel Klein claim, quite proudly, that he was implementing a system of competition against the monopoly of the big city school system (while he was in charge of that very system.)

Of course, this is hugely problematic not only because its a war against teachers unions and its privatizing the public education, but because its sucking out all the value that school has to offer—arts, sciences, English, history—and making it all about test prep. With the way things are going, the educational system won’t even be a tool of capitalism to produce its servants, rather it will literally became a factor of production on of its own.

GTChristie said...

Anecdotal:
In the 1990s, our city established two "special" public high schools on the charter school model. I am not aware of any special source of funds that might resemble an "angel" sponsorship such as Gates' but there might have been some targeted grants involved. The emphasis of the two programs was to identify and select students coming out of middle school who showed above-average ability on two axes: test scores and a fairly informal assessment of personality, the latter mostly concerned with personal "commitment" to learning. The idea was to find kids who would benefit from an "advanced" curriculum -- defined, more or less, as an "AP Honors" program. In short, kids who could be expected to do the work required to succeed in the advanced curriculum. So there was some "self-selection" involved, and it was entirely up to us, as parents, to apply for the spaces available. There were two programs because there were two "tiers" (and curriculum emphases). One was for "gifted" students, whom we might call "fast trackers" in the savant sense: identifiably talented in math or science, for instance, rather than just "above average." Tomorrow's scientists and engineers, more or less. The second program was a more eclectic cross-section of talent, tending a bit more to the humanities but strong enough in math and science to keep up with the AP curriculum.

From the parents' point of view, the motivations to apply were directly tied to a fear of mediocrity in the general school system. As someone pointed out above, we parents thought our kids were talented and we expected a public school education curriculum to match their potential. In the middle schools and high schools, we saw too many factors outside the curriculum that hurt the learning evironment. A cultural milieu, you might say, of marginal students, stragglers, troublemakers, etc, combined with low expectations from both administrators and parents -- just "getting through" school, not learning, as we perceived it. Teachers were getting mugged by students in school. Drugs and guns were rampant. And "smart" kids were targeted for abuse by bullies in an irrational "gotta be dumb to fit in" social structure. What fascinated me most was the fact that both "charter" programs reflected the demographics of the city almost exactly -- 70% AfroAmerican, etc -- apparently showing that scholastic talent has no class or race, and neither does parents' emphasis on achievement. And neither does parents' distaste for the mediocrity and social distractions available in public schools. Ambition is not the exclusive province of the white middle class.

My son was a "worker bee," not a genius. Everything he achieved in school was done by pure force of effort. He was an indifferent speller, but in 4th grade he got to the city spelling bee -- by studying. He got As in maths by working his tail off. He was great at history, sociology, humanities in general, very good in science, etc. And he succeeded in that AP curriculum when he got there by the same method: he did the work. To me, this program was a godsend. I don't think he could have gotten the same quality of education even if the same curriculum were taught in the run-of-the-mill high schools, because the social distractions would have interfered (especially the bullying by under-achievers).

Say what we might about these charter schools, and they are not perfect certainly, they are a much needed complement to the standard schools which are, by necessity, geared to the ordinary, uninspired, disinterested, and mediocre students. We need places where the cream can rise to the top. If that's elitist, so be it. My son graduated from William and Mary with a history degree, works for the Virginia Supreme Court ... actually knows who Thomas Jefferson was, too.

Amato said...

I tried to post this yesterday, hopefully this time will work:

This is a very interesting topic and I'm glad you decided to write something on it, professor. I have found the recent work of Diane Ravitch to be pretty insightful on this issue. She wrote a wonderful critique of the documentary "Waiting for Superman"—a fairly mainstream doc that propagated the charter school myth—when it came out.

You can read it yourself (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/11/myth-charter-schools/), briefly some of the points she made:

- Only one out of five charter schools gets results above the average public school. (I think that may have come from the same CREDO study you pointed to)

-A number of charter schools have gone to extreme lengths to make sure they didn’t get scores that would hurt their creditability and their funding—including, one incident of where a principal "firing" a whole 8th grade class.

-Finally, and I think this is the most significant point about the charter school movement, education has become a competition, both in public and charter schools, to maximize production of high test scores. This is in large part due to Joel Klein—the first non-educator to be the New York City schools chancellor—whose philosophy was to implement a system of checks and balances in the form of standardized testing. Schools that didn’t make the grade would get shut down and smaller charter schools would take their place. I read in a recent New York Times article (unfortunately, a laudatory opinion piece written by my father!), in which Joel Klein claims, quite proudly, that his goal was to create a system of competition against the monopoly the big city school system had (while he was in charge of that very system.)

Of course, this is hugely problematic not only because its a war against teachers unions and its privatizing the public education, but because it sucking out all the value that school has to offer—arts, sciences, English, history—and making it all about test prep. With the way things are going, the educational system won’t even be a tool of capitalism to produce subservient members of society, rather it will literally became a factory of production on its own.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

GT, that is a great story, and one of which you have every reason to be proud. It complements, in a way, the Teachers' College speech I posted today. I suspect you are being a tad too modest about your son's natural gifts, but I have no doubt at all that any normal kid, with that motivation and support and that kind of work, could prepare himself or herself for a first rate job in today's America.

What you say about the anti-studying cyulture of the school population is really important, and not something I have a great deal to add to, exscept to say that paradoxically, the one institution I know of that successfully defeats that culture is the military!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Scott, I am not familiar with the experimental schools you mention [I Googled them to get a little bit of info.] The Teachers Coll;ege speech I posted today speaks somewhat tangentially to some of the issues involved. Perhaps I can attempt some broader comments about the subject, though that would involve my pontificating even more than I usually do about things I know very little about.

Scott said...

A great place to start to learn about the unschooling movement would be the excellent "Freedom to learn" blog from Psychology today. I recommend reading nearly all of the posts from the past two years but this one is the ideal starting point: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/200909/why-don-t-students-school-well-duhhhh

Another great source of information on the subject is John Taylor Gatto, a retired school-teacher of 30 years who, having won the New York City Teacher of the Year award 4 times, quit at the pinnacle of his teaching career because he "didn't want to hurt kids to make a living". He addresses the Sudbury Valley model in his first book (http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/chapters/3d.htm) which you can read from cover to cover for free here: http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/underground/toc1.htm

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

"Say what we might about these charter schools, and they are not perfect certainly, they are a much needed complement to the standard schools which are, by necessity, geared to the ordinary, uninspired, disinterested, and mediocre students. We need places where the cream can rise to the top. If that's elitist, so be it."

Yes, that is elitist. I am very disappointed. There are no "disinterested, and mediocre" students to be found at William and Mary? Who, furthermore, won't glide through life on God knows what unearned privileges? Think rabbit whompers.