Charter Schools And Their Enemies — My Review

Thomas Sowell is an economist and senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. His lengthy career has spanned six decades and he is a well respected conservative scholar.

He has recently published a thin volume called ‘Charter Schools And Their Enemies’ (Basic Books 2020)

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Though charter schools have been around for about 30 years, they started getting a lot of attention with the release of the documentary ‘Waiting For Superman’ in 2010. The premise of that movie was that American schools are failing and producing mainly illiterate students and that the blame falls on teacher’s unions. The remedy, according to the movie, is non-unionized charter schools. Charter schools, it claims, prove that in-school factors can overcome out-of-school factors as long as teachers are not protected by their unions.

Waiting For Superman coincided with the rise of education celebrities like Michelle Rhee who was featured on the cover of Time Magazine in 2008. The pro-charter / teacher union bashing movement helped fuel the Obama-Duncan Race To The Top agenda which continues to be influential today.
But Waiting For Superman is not taken seriously anymore. The premises in that movie have been dissected and debunked over and over. American schools were not producing mainly illiterate students as it claimed (mainly based on NAEP ‘proficiency’ benchmarks), charter schools were not getting significantly better test results (once you account for factors to make the comparisons more fair), and it appears that even the five children that the movie was about have not had spectacular success in life ten years later (there has never been a ‘where are they now?’ follow up for obvious reasons).

The teacher-bashing movement seems to have hit its peak around 2014 and then, as charter schools failed to deliver on their promises over and over (see the Tennessee Achievement School District for the ultimate example), most education ‘reformers’ began to abandon the hard core anti-teacher’s union line. Whether they did this because they had epiphanies or if it was just a calculation to take on a kinder and gentler tone, there was a welcome shift away from cartoonish scapegoating of teacher’s unions. While there is still some teacher bashing in places like The74 and Education Post, even there they have toned it down a bit.

This is what makes this new book ‘Charter Schools And Their Enemies’ interesting to me. This is mainly a book that starts with the Waiting For Superman premises and follows them through into today’s education landscape.

In the first chapter, ‘Comparisons And Comparability’, Sowell writes about the methodology he uses in order to get an ‘apples to apples’ comparison between charter and non-charter schools. He uses New York City data and finds charter schools that have similar demographics to schools that they share a building with. This is something that is often done when pro-reform journalists want to set a scene and they describe a charter school and then contrast it with the non-charter ‘down the hall.’ But there is nothing special about the building itself that causes students to be more comparable just because they go to schools in the same one. In New York City, especially with regard to charter schools, there is not a ‘neighborhood school’ anymore. Students will travel to go to charter schools and there are often several schools within a few blocks of one another. It would be one thing if you took an existing public school and randomly split the student body into two parts and a charter school taught one of the groups in the same building. Sowell would have us believe that his metric produces the same kind of random sampling that would be needed for an accurate comparison of outcomes. Still, Sowell sets his rules up and shows in chapter two, ‘Charter School Results,’ that in the five charter networks (KIPP, Success Academy, Explore, Uncommon, and Achievement First) that meet his criteria, they all outperform their co-located non-charters in terms of math and ELA standardized tests.

Similar to Waiting For Superman, there is no discussion here about why these might not be ‘apples-to-apples’ comparisons. Nothing about how charter schools experience more attrition than the non-charter schools. Nothing about other types of demographics that can be measures, like whether or not the children live in two-parent homes or whether the hoops that the families have to jump through can produce a group of students more likely to do well on standardized tests.

Like Waiting For Superman, chapters 1 and 2 set up his methodology for getting a ‘fair’ comparison of charter schools and non-charter schools that share buildings. Chapter 3, ‘Hostility’, begins with the question “What reason can there be to be hostile to successful charter schools? Actually, there are millions of reasons — namely millions of dollars.” Here he mentions the oft repeated and highly dubious statistic that there are 50,000 students in New York City on waiting lists to get into charter schools. If you read Robert Pondiscio’s ‘How The Other Half Learns,’ in which he concludes that Success Academy is a net good for students, even he shows the farce of the Success Academy waiting list. So many lottery winners are discouraged from enrolling that motivated families regularly get in off the waiting list.

Sowell argues that since the city pays $20,000 for each student, this represents one billion dollars. Greedy teacher’s unions and schools of education will do anything they can to slow the growth of charter schools so they don’t have to share that one billion dollars.

The first ‘enemy’ of charter schools is mentioned here, Mayor Bill de Blasio. I always find it ironic when de Blasio is cast as such a charter school critic. In his own Department Of Education he allows charter schools to get mailing lists of prospective students each year. Also he and his department surely have access to enough data to uncover so many issues with charter schools with their attrition but, for whatever reasons, he never chooses to reveal such data.

Sowell writes about how de Blasio does not want to pay rent for Success Academy charters. This began an interesting section where Sowell cites different cities in which school districts have denied space to charter schools, even having rules where a shuttered school can be sold to anyone except a charter school. This section could be read side-by-side with the chapter from Diane Ravitch’s recent ‘Slaying Goliath’ where she outlines so many stories of how charter schools capitalize by paying rent to themselves and other double dealings with real estate.

He says that there is no basis for critics who say that charters don’t get results better than non-charters, yet he is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution so he must be aware of the Stanford CREDO reports that frequently conclude that charter school quality is very inconsistent and how even in Waiting For Superman they quietly slipped in the CREDO conclusion that only 1 in 6 charter schools outperformed non-charter schools in one of their studies.

In chapter 4, ‘Accountability’, Sowell reverts back to Waiting For Superman arguments from 2010. The teacher contracts are hundreds of pages long, as if there is some perfect number of pages in a union contract for optimal learning. He revisits the famed ‘rubber rooms’ part of Waiting For Superman where teachers who are awaiting fair hearings go to wait for weeks or months. He describes them as “teachers who did no teaching, nor anything else, because education officials did not want them in the classrooms for various reasons, ranging from incompetence to misconduct. And yet these teachers could not be simply fired, under the highly restrictive provisions of the schools’ contracts with the teachers unions.” No mention of how the teachers in the rubber rooms did not set their own fair hearing schedules. He also mischaracterizes the NYC Absent Teacher Reserve program. Part of an agreement that former chancellor Joel Klein negotiated was that if a school was closed down by the Department of Education for low test scores, the teachers who were displaced did not have to accept a placement that they did not want. They became part of the ATR pool. I have mixed feelings about this policy, but Joel Klein negotiated it and, consequently, some ATRs are working as pricey substitute teachers. But Sowell describes them as “teachers who get full pay to perform substitute or administrative duties because no principal wants to hire them full-time.” This is just another example of an intentional, or maybe just misinformed, explanation of a detail in this book.

Like Waiting For Superman, Sowell says it is almost impossible to fire a unionized teacher, but in charter schools you can be fired for incompetence, no questions asked.

Diane Ravitch is first mentioned as one of the ‘enemies’ of charter schools on page 72. Without any mention of how she was once assistant Secretary Of Education under George H. Bush or about how she was once a supporter of charter schools, his first mention of her says “To Professor Diane Ravitch of New York University — long a critic of charter schools and defender of traditional public schools — ‘tenure means due process’.” He continues absurdly “But if ‘due process’ has any definable meaning, and hence boundaries, then there must also be undue process beyond those boundaries.”

He quotes Ravitch in ‘Reign of Error’ about the impact of out-of-school factors on test scores “If we are unwilling to change the root causes, we are unlikely ever to close the gaps.” He then claims to refute this by referring to his data from chapter 2 where he claims to fairly compare charters to non-charters.

In this ‘accountability’ chapter he defends standardized tests and this is one of his more convincing passages. Basically that life is full of tests in one form another, which is true. But in response to the criticism that standardized tests have caused schools to focus solely on them at the expense of other pursuits, he quotes a D.C. principal who says “I’m not going to put my kids in art when they can’t read.” Sowell then writes “For low-income minority students, a mastery of mathematics and English is a ticket out of poverty.”

The book is just six chapters and so far in the first four we get a pseudo-scientific way of finding comparable schools which leads to pretty much Waiting For Superman — Teacher’s Unions are evil, charter schools are the solution. But then in chapter 5, ‘Student Differences,’ Sowell tries to answer some of the criticisms of charters and in doing so, undermines the point he tried to make in the first four chapters.

One common criticism of charters is that they are highly segregated. In answering this charge, Sowell goes into a lengthy explanation about how some students are more intelligent and motivated than other students for a variety of reasons. “To assume that they [students] all want to be there, and are all striving to achieve success there, is to ignore the most blatant realities.” This is odd since all the reformers I know AND all the reform critics I know would say that students do want to succeed. Maybe they don’t always act like they do — they act out because they are frustrated that they are not successful.

One example of student differences, he says, is that the first born child often has a higher IQ than a younger sibling because they get more parental attention. He also writes about how “nutritional differences among pregnant women have produced IQ differences when their children were old enough to be tested.” He writes that some cultures emphasize education more than others, and then writes”

“The taboo against discussing such things openly in the United States works to the disadvantage of the very people that taboo is supposedly protecting. Those black or Hispanic youngsters who are motivated to learn can pay a social penalty, at least, from classmates of their own ethnic background in some schools.”

So in chapter 2 he claims that his process for finding schools with comparable students shows that charter schools are superior to non-charters. But here in this chapter he says something quite different as he discusses whether it is a bad thing that charter schools are highly segregated. He writes:
“what critics call ‘segregated’ charter schools are schools in predominantly minority communities, where motivated minority students are educated among other motivated minority students. In these settings, such students can freely pursue academic achievement without the negative social pressures that can be acute in some racially integrated schools.”

In the next section of chapter 5, Sowell addresses the common criticism that charter schools have more motivated families. In ‘How The Other Half Learns,’ Pondiscio is pretty clear that this charge is true but says it isn’t a bad thing. Mike Petrilli, a few years ago, made a similar argument, calling the most motivated families and students ‘strivers.’ But Sowell just spent four chapters about how charters have the ‘same kids’ especially when they are learning in the exact same buildings.

But here he writes:

“When there is a charter school in a Harlem neighborhood, for example, there is no need to assume that parents who try to get their children into that charter school have the same cultural values and personal priorities as parents who do not. While some critics of charter schools may depict these schools as cherry-picking the students they admit — despite the widespread use of lotteries for admissions purposes — there is no need to overlook the possibility that highly motivated parents may be more common among the parents of children in charter schools.”

“While those parents who enter their children’s names in the lotteries for admission in charter schools may well be more motivated to promote their children’s education, and to cooperate with schools in doing so …”

Then after basically conceding to one of the biggest criticisms of charter schools and invalidating his first four chapters of the Waiting For Superman rehash, he makes an interesting, but invalid, argument that goes like this: Families who enter the lottery are highly motivated and have children who are students who are highly motivated. But since there are these huge waitlists that must mean that the vast majority of these highly motivated families and children go to non-charter schools. So the non-charter schools have nothing to complain about since they get most of the motivated families who weren’t able to get into the charter school. And it would be a good argument if those waitlists were not as large as he believes them to be and if those waitlists, as described aptly in ‘How The Other Half Learns’ are not just a way for charters to weed out the lottery winners who are not up for the hazing period that charter schools put them through. Basically, Sowell’s entire argument crumbles with the inflated wait-lists and he gives up the original argument that charter school kids are an apples-to-apples comparison with non-charters as long as they are in the same building.

Sowell continues alienating himself in chapter 5, next trying to answer the criticism that charter schools have harsh discipline policies. He is in favor of the harsh discipline since the opposite, no discipline at all (which nobody I’ve ever met is in favor of), is even worse.
He writes: “charter schools would lose more than they would gain by following the same lax discipline policies as traditional public schools. Moreover, anti-charter school ‘reforms’ that force charter schools to accept more disruptive and violent student behavior reduce the charter schools’ attraction for parents seeking both safety and better education for their children. Like most such ‘reforms,’ the real beneficiaries are adults with vested interests in traditional unionized public schools, when the competitive attractions of charter schools are reduced.”

Chapter 6, the final chapter, is called ‘Dangers’ and it is about other ways that politicians and teacher’s unions undermine charter school growth. There are unfair charter caps. There are people who want charters to teach social justice to their students which he calls ‘indoctrination.’ He also does not like charters having to teach ‘sex education’ or ‘ethnic studies.’ Finally, he resents that some charter critics want the charters to have their meetings open to the public and to have their records open to public scrutiny. He says that this will make the board members targets of smear campaigns and have their homes vandalized.

All in all, this was quite a strange read. I don’t imagine that many reformers want to be identified with his arguments from the last two chapters and since the first four chapters have already been done in 2010 with Waiting For Superman, this book is not one that I imagine will be remembered for being very relevant.

Still it is interesting to see how little is left in the reform defender’s arsenal.

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3 Responses to Charter Schools And Their Enemies — My Review

  1. Your review is very insightful, Gary. I learned a lot by reading it — thanks!

    A personal anecdote: As someone whose “home school” was a rough place and attended a magnet school to escape it, I understand the anxiety he describes that some families face when choosing a school and not wanting their kid in the public. There actually are places where the local public school is dangerous and needs reform, and one doesn’t want to suffer at said school while the powers that be clean up the mess. Sometimes you want to be able to apply to a magnet program, or many families just up “getting an address” to choose a slightly better public school in their area.

    But Sowell’s arguments seem bunk and outdated. It seems like mostly WFS rehashing with his academic sheen to legitimize that dying “movement.”

  2. Pingback: Gary Rubinstein Reviews Thomas Sowell’s Book About Charter Schools | Diane Ravitch's blog

  3. mstegeorge says:

    Thank you for reading this and writing about it, so I don’t have to. 🙂

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