Charter Schools — The Cancer Of The American Education System

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.

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13 Responses to Charter Schools — The Cancer Of The American Education System

  1. STL 2005 Alum says:

    “they need to get off the charter bandwagon and start encouraging successful CMs to work on fixing regular public schools.”

    I COULD NOT AGREE MORE!!! There is no way charter schools will be ‘scaled’ up to cover 100% of students therefore we must remain in the public system to fix the public system for the majority that remain behind. That is why I am still in the public school system as well. Evidence shows poverty is not destiny, now we just have to work to make sure all schools provide equal opportunities.

    Keep up the good work on your posts! You are one of my favorite bloggers on this site.

  2. Leigh says:

    Gary – I’m applying for TFA (currently awaiting my interview), and I’ve been reading your blog (including some back-posts) for 5 or 6 months now. I want to thank you for your candid, well reasoned, and reflective discussion of TFA.

    Reading your blog has helped me to have a realistic idea of what may be in store for me should I be offered (and subsequently accept) a position with TFA. I strongly believe that seeing beyond the monolithic front that TFA often presents is incredibly important. Having unrealistic expectations is, in my view, a big part of failure in almost any field.

    Thank you.

    • garyrubinstein says:

      Thanks for the comment, Leigh. Good luck in your interview. (My advice on that: Don’t ‘keep it real’ in the interview. And don’t quote my blog!) I made a ‘Category’ called ‘favorites’ if you want to see the best of my older posts.

  3. Wess says:

    Yes. I think a huge part of Charters’ success comes from management and leadership differences, but you can’t ignore the fact that the first step in most cases has to come from parents.
    Do you think charters, politicians, and TFA just ignore this critique? What do you think Dave/Mike/Chris would say to the “creaming” argument?

    • garyrubinstein says:

      Great question, Wess. (You have a lot of good comments on this site. Do you have a blog too?) I think that the three parties (charters, politicians, and TFA) all have good intentions. It’s one of those things where each is trying to do what seems like the ‘good’ thing to do and it results in a global situation which is bad.
      Politicians are just ignorant of the big picture. TFA needs to talk up charters since it helps TFA to grow which could, in theory, if it grows big enough help many more kids — but it’s very shortsighted since it’s so clear that the charter craze won’t help ‘all children.’ The charters, from their perspective, are doing very meaningful work … and they are are since they are helping thousands of kids, which is a good thing, but it’s like there’s a burning building and rather than figure out a way to save everyone, we save the few we can. Maybe that’s better than saving nobody while trying to save everyone.
      As far as how Dave/Mike/Chris would respond to charges of creaming, they’d cite studies where scores of kids who entered the lottery and lost are compared to kids who entered the lottery and won. The studies show that the kids who lost the lottery have lower scores in the future, despite having the same degree of involved parents who got them into the lottery. But as Ravitch says, this is not a surprising statistic and it might just prove that the riff-raff in the regular schools bring down the kids who would have otherwise done well at the charter.
      The charter is good for the kids who get in and stay in, I know. I’m just thinking nowadays about the really big picture of what it takes to fix the entire system and I fear that the charter fad is, through good intentions, inadvertently giving politicians a false solution while the real one is still out there.

  4. Gary,

    What you heard at the Summit about a head of a charter school paying TFA to have the ability to pick the ‘cream of the crop’ in terms of TFA teachers wouldn’t surprise me at all. When several Detroit TFA teachers at charter schools (myself included) got ‘fired’ or ‘asked to resign’ from various charter schools this year in Detroit, TFA didn’t even try to re-place us in other charter schools (or just let us go from TFA); instead, we all got shipped off to various Detroit Public Schools – so essentially, the ‘second-tier’ TFA teachers who were deemed for different reasons to be not good enough to teach at certain charter schools here got sent off to the public schools! Woo!!! That is obviously a different issue than what you mentioned about the charter school leader and TFA, but it fits right in line with the idea/mentality of public schools getting second-tier educators in regards to TFA…

  5. garyrubinstein says:

    They did you a favor shipping you off to a public school. Now you can help with the original mission of TFA — to help kids who really need it. I hope you and the rag tag bunch of ‘not good enough for Charters’ CMs prove everyone wrong in true Bad News Bears fashion and do a great job in your schools. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help out.

    • Haha, thanks Gary. Unfortunately, I got annihilated in that public school classroom – it was a vicious and out of control class that had already driven off four experienced teachers. I made it about a week teaching in there before I was hospitalized with a complete mental breakdown from the stress/exhaustion of it…oh well – I tried.

  6. Ray says:

    I work at a mediocre charter school. It’s not worse that the local neighborhood schools, but it’s not much of an improvement either. It was originally started to serve as a money making machine for the founder. She appointed herself as principal, and, in addition to giving herself a handsome salary, put her husband on the payroll. It made her wealthy, and would have worked out well for her if she had not gotten so greedy. She finally ended up breaking some laws and was pushed out. What remains amazing to me, is that she could have gotten away with if she hadn’t crossed the line. Charters need stricter financial oversight.

    As far as “creaming” aspect of charter schools, there is another side to this that is rarely mentioned. Children who are troubled are sometimes sent to the local charter school either with the idea that they will get a fresh start or, in more extreme cases, to avoid being expelled from their previous school. Contrary to popular belief, charter schools, at least under Colorado law, are not allowed to refuse to take these kids or to get rid of them if they make trouble. I suspect that this kind of thing is even more common in schools like KIPP which have a “get tough” reputation.

  7. Gary,
    Great post. I haven’t read her latest book but I’m looking forward to picking it up after seeing Diane Ravitch on the Daily Show talking about teachers and education reform. I’m reading your blogs in reverse order but here are my thoughts:

    1) I agree that TFA is overly focused on charters. Remember the phrase “TFA Kool-Aid” that used to refer to corps-member’s blind allegiance to Teach For America (and overall giddy happiness)? It seems to be replaced with “Charter Kool-Aid.” And, as you point out, this is not just a problem with TFA. I remember years ago with both Bush and Gore referred to KIPP as the model of ed reform in the SAME TV debate. Ed reform is hard and it’s easy for politicians and the wealthy to point to one example as The Solution.

    2) Charter schools are public schools. I know you know this but many people in the anti-charter movement compare charter to public schools implying that charter schools are some how private (and carry all the baggage that comes with private schools). You make a good point that creaming is overlooked but I would argue that most charter school teachers, to use your words, “help kids who really need it.”

    3) I personally believe that charter schools are a good thing for the very point you made: “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.”

    This last point justifies their existence and IMO refutes your moniker as the “Cancer Of The American Education System.” When we started in ’91 there were serious problems with public education and this was before NCLB and the mass charter school expansion we see today. I strongly agree that Charter schools are not the “silver bullet” they are made out to be and many have issues that need more scrutiny (like your urban prep blog!!!). I would also argue that Charter Schools are an important component of ed reform and that not doing anything different than the status quo is the real cancer affecting the American education system.
    But then again, I haven’t read her book yet.

    • garyrubinstein says:

      I think status quo is like the emphysema of the education system — causing a slow painful death. The charter thing has the domino effect where a charter opens and it kills of the local school which becomes a charter and kills off another local school and so on!

  8. chris says:

    I am a public school educator, and placed both my daughters in public charter schools. Ray says charter schools in CO can’t pick and choose their kids. The same is true of CA public charter schools. Both schools (one a k-8, one a high school) offered excellent education with qualified, caring teachers, advertised widely to attract diverse student body, and were not run for profit. They offered a different educational perspective from the one offered in traditional public schools, and my children benefitted from it.

  9. Smarty says:

    What this discussion is missing is the most important factor in the current crisis:

    Parents don’t want to send their kids to the local public school.

    Forcing them to continue funding and sending their kids to schools they don’t like isn’t going to work out very long.

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