What charters teach us

Charter schools were conceived as places for innovation so the lessons learned from these experiments can be shared with all schools to help them improve.

After twenty years of such experimentation, there is finally one very clear strategy charters have cultivated to narrow the achievement gap for their students.  The strategy, unfortunately, is not very profound or legal.  It is a strategy that I figured out myself after only one month of teaching.

Put very simply, the strategy that charters have proved effective is:  Keep the bottom 15% of the kids away from the top 50% of the kids.

I remember thinking this during my first year of teaching.  In each class there were five or six kids who I was unable to control for various reasons.  I could only send a few to the office, but when a few were absent and I could send the remaining ones to the office, I was able to accomplish a lot more that period.  Now of course it was my own incompetence that made me unable to teach those five or six kids, but under the circumstances there was a real dilemma.  Should five or six kids be denied the opportunity to learn or should all thirty-four kids be denied the opportunity to learn?  From a strictly utilitarian point of view, denying the bottom five or six kids was ‘good’ for the group, on average.

After my first book, Reluctant Disciplinarian, came out, I was working as a software engineer and I showed the book to one of my co-workers, who had just moved to the United States from India.  He said he was fascinated by the book, but was in disbelief that such a book should be necessary.  Most of the book is about how to be better at classroom management.  And the book certainly conveys that it is hard, part art, part science.  My co-worker’s reaction was based on his experience growing up in India where classroom management was not, apparently, an issue that teachers had to worry about.  Students behaved or they were kicked out of school.  Teachers would never have to spend a large percent of their energy manipulating kids into listening.

‘No Excuses’ charter schools sometimes get higher test scores than their non-charter neighbors.  When you ask their leaders what their secret is, they generally say that they have great teachers who they offer flexibility to in exchange for accountability.  I think that the charters really think that this is the cause of their increased test scores.  But I think that it is because, as a result of their strict discipline they manage to keep the bottom 15% of the kids away from the top 50% of the kids.

That this ‘works,’ and helps test scores increase incrementally, is not surprising to me.  But once we realize that this is what the source of their success is, we have to ask whether 1) this is ethical?, and 2) is this the most efficient way of accomplishing the strategy of keeping the bottom 15% of the kids away from the top 50% of the kids?

I’d argue ‘no’ on both questions, but I can certainly see why many people might think that it is ethical.  After all, is it fair that a small group of kids get to ‘rob’ education from their classmates?  Certainly this isn’t what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he wrote about free public education.  If he could look ahead 200 years and see teachers needing to read books about classroom management, he would surely say that this wasn’t what he had in mind.

But if it is ethical to deprive the bottom 15% of their education for the benefit of the top 50%, and since charter schools are doing it, at least, in effect, then let’s think about how this might be accomplished more efficiently.  Right now the process of keeping the bottom 15% away from the top 50% is like one of those unnecessarily complicated Rube Goldberg contraptions.

Uninformed Parent (A), fails to fill out ‘choice’ application.  Informed Parent (B) is told after student ‘wins’ lottery that the school does not have services for the special needs of her child.  Other informed parent (C) is told that if the student is late too many times, the student will get expelled.  Since informed parent (C) does not have a reliable car, she ‘chooses’ not to enroll her child at that school.  Struggling student (D) is told that since the school has extra ‘high expectations’ that he has to ‘choose’ between being left back or transferring to a different school.  Within three years of this, most of the bottom 15% have been eliminated.

Since we’re doing this anyway, maybe the lesson we learn from charters is that we should simply not allow the bottom 15% to come to school in the first place.  This would save a lot of time and energy.  I’d rather they do it this way, so at least we’d all be admitting it, and we’d have to really decide if this is a just system.

Rather than end here with an obviously satirical view, I do think there there is something to the fundamental problem that a small group of kids can ‘ruin it’ for the majority of kids.  Why do teachers have to be so talented at classroom management?  Classroom management issues are why teachers quit and why they leave ‘bad’ schools to go to ‘good’ ones.  Rather than deny the bottom 15% an education, maybe we should have a much more strict discipline code where teachers don’t have to spend so much energy with classroom management.  In New York City, there is not even such thing as ‘at home suspension.’  Kids get suspended to different schools that have detention centers.  I think power has shifted a bit too far to the kids.  More discipline at an administrative level would help prevent a few kids from preventing the majority of kids from learning.  Maybe we don’t need to eliminate the bottom 15%, just keep them in line.

Of course it isn’t that simple.  There is something good about management being the almost full responsibility of the teacher.  The best way to manage is to prevent discipline problems.  And the best way to prevent discipline problems is to teach well, not confuse the kids, and keep them engaged in work that is an appropriate level.  If you don’t do those things, you will have discipline problems.  Discipline problems, then, offer a sort of ‘feedback loop’ that helps teachers become better.  If it was too easy to discipline, teachers might not know if they are confusing their kids.

Still, though, I think that it is pretty crazy that teachers have to spend time thinking about, and practicing, things like the ‘teacher look.’  I don’t know what the right amount of strict discipline there should be, but it should be more than there is now.

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23 Responses to What charters teach us

  1. Askteacherz says:

    As always, a wonderful piece. The true essence of a great educator is, exactly as you indicate, being able to educate the student that is the most difficult to reach. Bad teaching can easily be hidden when educating the motivated, high level learner because these students will attain quality results regardless. Great teaching comes from those that can motivate the gifted learner to move beyond their comfort zone while also inspiring the unmotivated learner to find the joy of being a student. Denying ANY student education whether due to discipline issues, special needs, etc. is the course taken by the teacher and/or school that is INCAPABLE of mastery teaching. Charter Schools will never yield MASTERY if they do not educate all of our nations students; ultimately even the high achievers will be held back from their true potential.

  2. Pingback: What charters have taught me | Learning to the Max

  3. Katie says:

    Hi Gary,
    I wrote an extended response here

    I’m a charter school teacher myself. I know they are not the answer, and they will not solve the issue of providing quality education for all students. I know there are some good ones and bad ones. I have preferred working at a charter over a traditional school, and would like to add my perspective to your post.

    You might have learned this lesson (keep the low 15 from the top 50) from charters – but it’s a lesson repeated in selective enrollment/magnet schools as well, right? I can think of many other ways our society keeps the “haves” from the “have nots.” I think you have a valid point that some charters perpetuate this but it did not start with charters.

    You touch on something I struggle with a lot. How do I best teach all students when a few are distracting and suck up a large amount of my energy? That’s not a charter issue, but a general teacher issue. In every school I’ve taught in (two, one traditional, one charter,) they have not been separated in my classroom.

    I also disagree that classroom management issues are not why teachers quit ‘bad’ schools to go to ‘good’ ones, in my experience it’s been administrative issues.

    I think there are a lot more lessons we could learn from charters, and lessons charters could learn from traditional schools, if we would collaborate more. Many people are so upset about the existence of charters and feel everything they are doing is wrong, and they blame them (and sometimes the teachers who work in them) for the lack of resources in districts/current educational climate. We are seen as the enemy. Most teachers are just trying to provide the best education we can for those students who are in front of us.

    • Jbfreem says:

      I agree with Katie that screened/magnet schools play a similar role as charters. Why then do our nation’s leaders keep saying that charters are THE answer to our nation’s educational problems? That underlying hypocrisy is in large part what is so objectionable about the charter “debate.” If charters themselves, politicians, and others admitted that charters are screened specialty schools, the conversation could be much more reality-based.

  4. Tom Forbes says:

    Gary, Nice piece, but too many holes for a teacher who has spent 20 years in the difficult schools. The teaching well part, is not enough to get those disinterested kids to cooperate when you are without real support. These students have to “like” you before they will put effort toward the class. Some teachers go into the classroom with an, “I am going to kick some a…. type look on their face which can work. Not for me. The issue of demanding and maintaining a proper tone in the school must, and I would like to repeat, must start with administration. When the kids feel it is appropriate to challenge some or most of the teachers each and every day about simple clearly stated expectations, you have little to no energy left to teacher, grade student work, or lesson plan. Besides, the classroom environment becomes stale and boring.

    When we present what each student must accomplish to pass the class and if we stuck to it, you would see 20-25% passing rates at most of the difficult schools. Of course a 50% passing rate is about as low as you will see due to red flags going up if more students do not pass.

    Yes, I do think the 5-15% of the students in a school who refuse to come into the building and work with staff and other students need to be separated. This is so the other 85-95% of the others can learn. Not sure what is happening with the other 35% of your students still in the room. The 15% need severe counseling, boot camp, hypnotism, nutritional counseling and/or other interventions to help them comply and hopefully succeed. What NYC has done is to develop screening mechanisms and transfers in high schools to cause the racial/economic segregation and to keep your 15% away from the rest who are in the “good” schools.

    • Tee says:

      I think the larger point that Gary is trying to make is that charter schools have the ability to exclude a vast number of students, while traditional public schools do not, but charter schools attribute their success to factors that would be theoretically replicable (if only those pesky teachers unions wouldn’t object), like hiring “high-quality” teachers and offering teachers incentives.

  5. Jennifer I. Smith says:

    All I can say is…100% on point. This is what I’ve been saying all along. You skim the cream, you weed out the kids who can’t or won’t abide by stricter rules (these are the kids causing problems in regular public schools to begin with, and usually the ones dragging down those end-all be-all test scores that now determine EVERYTHING about who works where, how much money the schools get, all the way down to how much property is worth in the area and which businesses want to locate in that area, etc.)…and voila, you have a high-achieving school, almost regardless of the actual quality of the teachers and administrators. Solutions to the underlying problem are, as you correctly said, more complicated…do you exclude? do you “institutionalize” these kids in separate schools? (where they kind of feed off each other)…very hard to answer. Indeed in many countries (perhaps most) these kids ARE simply excluded, end up marginalized in society…but then perhaps it’s better for the kids who remain in regular schools…so hard to know.

  6. Tom Forbes says:

    I agree 100% with the general point about charter schools. I have a great deal of respect for Gary and his work. Also, I had a chance to met Gary this year on my ATR rotation. I need to read his book on classroom management but I have found that working harder as an individual teacher has very little to no results when the administration has decided they are not going to enforce the discipline code and hold students accountable to unacceptable behavior. When you have to hear the F word 50 times a day as a teacher, phones are constantly out, notebooks and pens are not brought by the students, male underwear is being exposed everywhere; all the write ups, phone calls home and other measures a teacher may use, are worthless without the lead and support from the administration. This kind of tone in the school impacts all teachers, and the borderline students will sway the wrong direction when this is tolerated. You can spend every waking moment developing better lessons, locating interesting and relevant work materials and get student work graded with good feedback and it did not work for me or the other teachers I worked with in the building. When students are in the main office with a hat on and phone out, and nothing is said or done, this is a first sign there is a problem. Yet you walk in the door of the school and posting all over the school state no headgear, phones and other rules which are ignored. I have found the signs are not for the students, but for network people and superintendents to see when the visit or do a quality review.

  7. KatieO says:

    Thanks again Gary for another thoughtful piece. Just a note on that handful of disruptive kids in too many schools–as someone who teaches on a psychiatric hospital inpatient unit, I work almost exclusively with these tougher-to-educate kids. I agree with you about charters not serving the most difficult children. In my experience, kids coming from the charters have significantly fewer serious behavior issues and tend to be hospitalized for problems like depression or anxiety, not outward aggression.

    But more importantly, I want to speak to the connection of poverty and lack of social supports with significant behavior problems. Too many of my students develop negative behaviors as a result of the trauma, neglect, or abuse they experience from growing up in poverty. That “fight or flight” response many students bring with them is an appropriate response on the unpredictable and sometimes violent streets, but absolutely devastating to a classroom environment. While the kids themselves certainly bear some personal responsibility, I want people to remember the larger systemic impact of nearly one in four children growing up in poverty as well as the legacy of institutional racism in housing, health cares systems, and the criminal justice system. I wish our country would focus on ending the root causes to behavior problems instead of expecting teachers and schools to just deal with them. Wouldn’t it be far better to do everything in our power to prevent these traumas in the first place? Some of the kids I work with are too sick for school, and yet most of the time they are coming to me directly from somebody’s classroom.

    Unfortunately, poverty does matter. And the more people claim it doesn’t, that “poverty is not destiny”, the more time and resources we waste on secondary issues like “teacher quality” and school “accountability”. I wish I could show the ed reformers of the world what I see everyday. I wish they could talk to my kids and hear their heart-breaking stories. Then maybe we’d start the hard work of actually improving the lives of children.

    • E. Rat says:

      I agree, and I’d add that some classrooms aren’t safe places for children with trauma. “Fight or flight” is not an out of line reaction in schools that are unwilling to adapt to serve students’ needs. The shape-up-or-ship-out management system favored by many charter chains inflicts harm on students, who act up more at the charter, are pushed out, and arrive more traumatized and more oppositional back at the local public school.

    • Lori Walton says:

      Thank you KatieO. The fallacy of teacher education programs across the board is the failure to parse out the antecedents and the cultural influences of that thing we casually call “behaviors” that need to “managed” in the “classroom”. Even teachers who have “managed” well after first years of turmoil may or may not be supporting our democracy by facilitating the development of a critical citizenry – within and outside the context of the subject matter (sic-standards) taught.

      The separation of children based on some hegemonic paradigm of who will and who won’t (can/can’t) that Gary is reflecting on only touches the surface of a larger problem. Choice has created the willful disregard of the other for the betterment of the self. I know that is what I fight against, but as self interests (ego) are fed, the need to be concerned about others woefully diminishes – as does communal social activism. It is not an accident that so many have turned a blind eye to the failure of this country to be an equally safe place for all children to thrive.

      And sure, there are teachers whose “teaching quality” as reflected in “student engagement” appears to be lacking. But if BOTH teacher and student are in flight, fight, or freeze (as is typical across the country now) how does anyone imagine the outcomes, in ANY type of school, will improve. Or, is it possible, that improvement for all was never the intention? Just saying…

  8. Steve McFadden (LAUSD teacher) says:

    I have taught for 18 years in Los Angeles Unified (fourteen in the inner city and four in the suburbs) and agree 100% with what Gary has stated here. The only difference is that what Gary calls the bottom 15%, we call a “critical mass” of disruptive students. If you have an unusual number of that 15% absent on a particular day, then your lessons will flow nicely. If the critical mass is present, then you will probably get through only about half of your intended lesson. As Gary says, there are no magic fixes for our educational system, and it seems that all charter schools are doing is removing that critical mass from their student bodies through various mechanisms.

    During the last ten years LAUSD has given over 20% of its students to affiliated charters, with absolutely no oversight. And, the handover continues year after year, despite the majority of charters being noncompliant regarding their Special Ed, ELD and racial percentages. What is even more galling is that the charters have not demonstrated they produce superior gains even though the district administration admits that, on a case by case basis, the charters are costing MORE money than similar traditional schools.

    This handover has been slowly destroying our teachers’ union, as students are leaving traditional public schools and moving to non-unionized charters. The union has dropped from about 37,000 teachers down to around 30,000 during the last ten years, and that trend will continue in the foreseeable future.

    In Los Angeles, charter operators are politically active and connected, and they now swing school board elections…thus no oversight is done, despite the district having an entire office dedicated to charter operations. The scale of what is taking place is unimaginable, and unfortunately, United Teachers Los Angeles has really been doing nothing in response to this threat. This is sad, because if it can happen in our city’s political environment, then it can happen anywhere.

  9. yoteach says:

    I absolutely agree with the classroom side of this: The extent to which the disruptiveness of the bottom 15% (or I would say the disruptive 15% because behavior and performance are not always directly related) either through suspensions, absences, or effective management was one of the most important factors in how successful I viewed my day. I also agree that administrations that do not come down tough on the most disruptive students can dramatically impact the achievement of the class. I had a very disruptive student who was harshly admonished by another teacher for her behavior. The girl got upset, her mom came in and complained, and the teacher had to apologize to the student in front of the class. Lo and behold, the girl’s behavior got exponentially worse as she realized in the end she had very little to lose (and eventually drove the permanent teacher to a different grade). The fourth season of The Wire deals with this issue in an interesting way: a ex-captain helps create a pull-out socialization program for the disruptive 15%. He argues it helps improve the classrooms from which they are pulled and the bottom 15% weren’t learning anything anyways, but eventually the program gets labeled “tracking” and is shut down. Clearly we need to tread in morally precarious water, but certainly it is worth exploring new ways of dealing with behavior management on school-wide level.

    That being said, I think your claims about charter schools could use some serious empirical support. Of course all the barriers you mentioned to applying for and transporting students to charter schools exist and self-selects to some degree, but I think its flimsy to claim that this is the primary reason high performing charter schools are high performing. I would like to see a study measuring performance of charter schools as a function of suspensions/expulsions and time spent in a pull-out behavioral space (or maybe a qualitative study of the 20 highest performing charter schools). The charter school I work for would never expel a student (perhaps to their own detriment) even though it is connected with many of those high performing charter networks (our superintendent used to work for Achievement First). We also don’t have great results, so my anecdote mainly points to the heterogeneity of charter schools, rather than the importance of some other variable in predicting student achievement.

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  11. tfamom says:

    Thank you for this post
    As a mom with a child with special needs I think I need to add that charter schools are open to kids with special needs and they will be sure and let you know that you can enroll your child and they will read off some law. But then the conversation goes something like this:
    Parent: Do you have a psychologist on site?
    Charter: No
    Do you have a speech therapist?
    Charter: No
    Do you have an occupational or physical therapist?
    Charter: No

    So there is “choice” but in effect “no choice” but the local public school for kids with special needs. I worry that the public schools will soon be the dumping grounds for special ed, the 15 percent and the parents who didn’t sit through the lottery for one reason or other.

    • Lori Walton says:

      In my opinion you should more than worry about that. In what ways can teachers, parents, and students partner to avoid such a catastrophe?

  12. Meg says:

    As a teacher at a “no excuses” charter there are a few things mentioned that have not been true in my experience. Out of 300 students in my school, only 3 were asked to leave – all for serious offenses that would lead to similar consequences in public schools (like physical violence against a staff member). While there is the expectation that students are at school on time and daily, the staff bends over backwards to help – each administrator drives at least three kids home personally daily, we’ve even had little siblings come and sit in the office on days city schools are out (so their brothers/sisters don’t need to miss school to babysit.

    The criticism I really want to push back on though is when you mention charter schools retaining students as if this is a fault of the charter. There are students who enter my school in 7th grade completely illiterate. I think it’s completely reasonable for the school to require the student to repeat 6th grade. You’re right that more often than not the parent will decide to pull the child, but the problem is really that the city schools are passing along children that are illiterate.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Meg, Thanks for the comment. I appreciate your honesty. Most ‘no excuses’ charters claim that all their students progress 1.5 years each year so over a period of 4 years they catch up the two years they are behind. Your comment goes against that. So you have students who you decide to leave back and then they choose instead to transfer out.

      But what I want to know is, how does that go? I mean, is the decision made (and final) that the kid IS being left back, and then when they transfer out they are still left back, or is the kid told that if he/she stays at your school he/she will have to repeat the grade, but if he/she chooses to transfer then the school will promote him/her?

      Also, would you be willing to let me know the name of your school so I can run an ‘attrition check’ on it?


      • Meg says:

        The example I was using was actually referencing incoming students – so a student that would be entering my 6-8 school in the 7th grade for the first time, being told that he/she cannot enter in 7th, but would need to enter as a 6th grader. We do retain our returning students as well, though, and in my experience parents that have been with us for the year are a lot more likely to keep their child with us (even if they’re being retained) than a new parent would. Our lowest performing students do often grow 2+ years in reading throughout the academic year, but if you have a child coming in to 6th grade at a Kindergarten level, even if they grow three years they’re still way behind. The hope is that if we have them for 4 years instead of three, if they grow 2 or more years each year they’re with us they’ll be caught up by the time they finish 8th grade.

        For our returning students that are told they’re being retained, if they choose to leave our school and transfer to a city school, they have the option of enrolling in summer school (as do all city school children recommended for retention). If they pass summer school they can enter the city school in the next grade. They couldn’t, though, pass city summer school and come back to us in the next grade.

        In terms of general attrition, I can tell you it’s higher than we’d like it. It’s almost impossible to fail students in city schools, and for us it’s very simple – you have below a 70 and you fail. We lose at least 5 students per grade throughout the year – usually after they receive their first report card; many parents know their child would pass in a city school so they send them there. I would say we lose another 5-10 students that choose not to return after their first year, some because they move or get into an optional program, but a fair amount whose families just decide their child is either getting in trouble too much or that the school is not a good fit. It’s something we’re working on, but we do backfill our 7th grade class so the size of the class that graduates is usually within 10 students of the size of the class that enters.

  13. Frederika says:

    “The best way to manage is to prevent discipline problems. And the best way to prevent discipline problems is to teach well, not confuse the kids, and keep them engaged in work that is an appropriate level. If you don’t do those things, you will have discipline problems.”

    If I was young and inexperienced, I would buy into this. However, I am a veteran. Engagement and teacher effectiveness are critical. BUT there are a handful of kids who can be virtually unmanageable even by the most talented teachers. It ain’t me, Babe. Sometimes it is the kid, the situation, the lack of parental and adminintrative support and the lack of an overall plan for schoolwide discipline. Suspension is not working; there must be another way.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      I don’t mean to oversimplify management here. I just meant that there is a downside if there is too much discipline, teachers might not realize when they are teaching poorly.

  14. Pingback: What charters teach us | Gary Rubinsteins Blog | The Paper Graders

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