Thursday, February 17, 2011

Are charter schools the solution for urban schooling?

That is a question that Andrew Sullivan asks. And the answer is... no. And yes.

I got to see how charter schools work first-hand when I lived in Arizona. Basically in Arizona if you can afford to hire a certified principal (or are a teacher willing to take the courses for administrator certification) and have a pulse, you can start a charter school. The only regulation is that you a) accurately tell the state how many pupils you have so they send you the right per-pupil monies, and b) actually spend that money educating kids, rather than embezzling it for yourself.

So did it work? The answer is... well, mixed. The horrible things the liberal doomsayers said about charter schools didn't happen -- charter schools did not become modern "segregation academies" for white children, charter schools didn't cherry-pick only the best students and leave the worst for the public schools, etc., what happened was that a lot of teachers of "at-risk" children decided that they could do a better job outside the public schools and started charter schools focused specifically at kids at the lower end of the scale, so there was a wide variety of charter schools formed, not just the segregated academies. The doomsayers also said that charter schools would suck money out of the public schools. That happened, but because the charter schools get less per-pupil monies than the public schools, it turned out that the money taken away was less than what it would have taken to educate the kid in the public schools. Given that the public schools in Arizona were overcrowded because growth had outpaced school construction for years, the net effect was minimal on public school budgets -- they just let the lease lapse on some of their temporary classrooms and the normal turnover of teachers handled the rest.

The problem is, few of the great things that advocates of charter schools promised happened, either. Charter schools in Arizona, on the whole, turn out to educate children no better than the public schools did. And while there were thoughts that large educational companies would come in and start for-profit charter schools even though Arizona has one of the lowest per-pupil funding ratios in the nation and charter schools get even less than that, because "private enterprise is more efficient than public", that turned out to not be true. A couple tested the water, couldn't make money on the per-pupil funding provided by Arizona, and closed up shop in Arizona within a couple of years.

So why didn't charter schools provide a better education in Arizona? Part of the problem is churn. Charter schools proved very prone to "founder burnout". Charter schools were largely formed by master teachers who wanted to teach a specific group of children (say, homeless kids). Handling all the aspects of running a charter school *and* teaching simply sucked the life out of them over the years, and after they burned out and went back to teaching in public schools, the charter schools they founded largely fell apart and disintegrated by the end of the next school year. A bigger part of the problem, however, is institutional. Charter schools don't have the institutional memory of public schools. That's the point, that they would be able to do things better because they were starting out fresh and new without all that baggage. But it turns out that the institutional memory of public schools is important. Those teachers who've been there 28 years turn out to have something to contribute after all, not to mention the decades of textbooks, teaching materials, lab equipment, classroom buildings, sports facilities, etc. that public schools have accumulated over the years. All of which turn out to be more important than public school detractors thought.

The experience issue is especially important here. A teacher with a lot of experience in the public schools is not going to leave for a charter school because he or she is putting in the years for retirement. That means most charter schools are going to be staffed with new teachers either fresh out of college or only a few years on the job. But I'll tell you a secret that's not really a secret: Most new teachers suck. I know. I was one, once. New teachers go into the classrooms and haven't a clue as to how to teach. Our schools of education don't have a clue as to how to teach teachers to teach, and most of a teacher's training in how to manage kids and get kids to understand material happens on the job as he or she tests various techniques and finds out, after a number of years pass, what works based on his personality and the abilities of the children he's teaching. We have studies on this -- basically if you look at student achievement gains and adjust for the socio-economic status of the students, on average experienced teachers simply show more gains than inexperienced teachers.

But by their nature charter schools are churn. The chance of any specific charter school being there 30 years from now is basically nil. The founders will get tired and fold up the school, or it'll lose its lease on its building and fold, or so forth. So at least in Arizona, they're being used by young teachers as their "tryouts" for better public school districts than the one they got a job with just out of college. Sick of teaching inner city kids in South Phoenix? Want to teach rich kids in North Scottsdale but you don't have the years yet to do that? Well, a charter school might just be the place for you!

So what *is* the solution for inner city schools? Well, they have to be institutional changes in how schooling is organized there, which is why charter schools have failed to do any better there -- charter schools have no institutional memory and thus by their nature cannot foster institutional changes. Furthermore, any changes will take *money*. Poor kids come to school lacking a lot of the background of rich kids. The culture shock of being a poor kid in a rich school was pretty dramatic on my part, here's these kids talking about their vacation to Aruba and their psychiatrists and stuff, while in our neighborhood vacation was piling the kids in the rusty third-hand station wagon and taking them to visit relatives who lived 50 miles away and psychiatric help was a belt across the mouth and a "quit talking crazy, fool". We can't take poor kids to Aruba to give them the same experiences as rich kids, but we definitely need to widen their horizons beyond the circumscribed world of no money that they live in.

But in the end, any such changes aren't going to happen as long as the United States continues its current war on the poor. Which means, if you were born to a poor family today, tough luck, kid. You're going to be spat upon, kicked, and treated like shit for the rest of your life, so just get used to it. I was lucky to be part of the last generation of poor kids to come up before Reaganism got a full hold on things, I got an education courtesy of Uncle Sam and the taxpayers and as a result now pay a large amount of taxes every year that I don't mind paying because if it wasn't for other people paying their taxes, I wouldn't be in a position to pay taxes. But the poor kids coming up today... they don't get that. They instead get the opportunity for permanent debt bondage with "student loans", which are actually slavery contracts today because they are non-dischargeable in bankruptcy and the banks and government tack on fees forever that make them unpayable if you are currently unable to pay. And poor kids might be poor, but that doesn't make them stupid enough to sign slavery contracts in large numbers... which means they stay poor, which means the U.S. stays poorer because poor kids as smart as me choose other professions like, say, drug dealer, instead, and we're all the worse for it. But hey, kicking the poor when they're down and making sure that not one dime of white people's money goes to them is more important than a strong United States where all smart kids, rich and poor, have a chance at the education needed to contribute to the nation's economy, so...

WASF. And if you're poor, you're doubly-fucked. And we're all the poorer for it.

-- Badtux the Education Penguin


  1. Best posting on this issue... EVER. I have friends in Arizona who come right out and say it -- they don't want their hard-earned tax dollars going to education or abortion or health care for Brown and/or poor folks. 'Screw them' is what they say.

    How in the world did so many people get so stupid so fast? Mind boggling. Thanks for the really fine essay. You RULE.

  2. Count me as a doomsayer. I have not seen one good thing come out of charter schools in Texas. You'd think they would at least teach fundamentals better, but the standardized tests used in Texas to measure basic academic performance consistently show charter schools here to be dismal. And the taxpayers' money they drain is sorely needed by public schools. In some cases, charter schools are (illegally) religion-based, and thus serve as a way of funneling tax money to religious instruction. (I think I heard Thomas Jefferson turn in his grave.) Charter schools have been so consistently a failure here that I grieve for each and every ethnic minority student ripped from at least adequate public schools and subjected to the meager fare the charters have to offer.

    Full disclosure: I am the son of two public school teachers, and myself the product of the Houston public schools.

  3. Thanks for this very lucid post. I didn't know you were once a teacher.

    In my province we don't have charter schools, we have "independent schools" that receive up to 50% of their funding from the provincial Ministry of Education. Maybe 10-12% of the kids in the K-12 population are enrolled in these schools, at a cost of about half of what it would cost to educated them in the public system.

    Most but not all of the schools have some kind of explicit religious affiliation (mostly Christian but we have some Sikh and Muslim schools). They are required to employ only teachers who are certified to teach in the province, and teach what is in the approved provincial curriculum (though material can be added to what's taught, and often is). They get an inspection visit at least once a year from the Ministry as well.

    I'm not sure what the outcomes are like for these students. Some of these schools are the best in Canada, and their students go on to brilliant academic futures. Some are attended by the unfortunate spawn of God-fearing troglodytes, for just as long as the law requires until they can legally leave and be married off to Uncle Nasty. But it's all done in service of the idea that parents should be able to choose what their children is learning, there (snicker).

  4. Steve, the data on charter schools in Arizona shows they're no better than public schools, once you adjust for family income, parental educational level, and race, but on the other hand not the dismal results you report for Texas.

    It would be interesting to see the difference between the Arizona and Texas charter school setups. In Arizona charter schools get less money than public schools because the notion is that "private enterprise can make do with less" (the actual result is that volunteers, students, and teachers end up overworked and overstressed doing the jobs that central office support workers would do in a public school district, and it contributes to "charter school burnout"), and because of the number of temporary classrooms on school grounds, one fewer classroom results in actual reduced expenses for public schools (one less lease payment on a temporary classroom, one less room to heat, etc.). Capital funding -- the bonds for the school buildings etc. -- is from dedicated property tax funding sources, not per-pupil funding, so redirecting per-pupil funding doesn't mean student funds have to be redirected to pay off the school buildings. Apparently Texas made their setup more corporate-friendly to extract more money from the school districts?

    In any event, the data is clear: Charter schools are *not* the solution to our education problems. They simply lack the institutional capability to do so. Even the best charter schools don't last long enough to make a significant impact, because "charter school burnout" swiftly takes its toll on the founders, who end up folding within four or five years because they're just completely exhausted. Unless we can somehow clone those people and give them the support they need, there's no way for charter schools to be the solution -- and we already have a mechanism for giving them the support they need, it's called "public school districts", no need to invent a new one.

    - Badtux the Practical Penguin

  5. BadTux, I can understand the desire of parents in Texas to form charter schools. There have been times and particular regions in Texas where funding for public schools in minority-majority areas was demonstrably inequitable. If I were such a parent, I'd be doing something... Dog knows what... to see to it that my kid got the education s/he deserved. The problem, as you point out, is that charter schools lack the institutional structure to do the job they need to do, even if those who charter the schools have adequate training in education. And yes, most charter schools here last a few years and close up shop. OTOH, my public elementary school was up and running continuously from the days in which Walter Cronkite attended all the way to the present day. Anyone who thinks that education happens in a vacuum isn't thinking clearly. HISD, for all its flaws (and there are many), has the depth of experience and the personnel to do what any educational environment must do. Charter schools simply don't.

  6. Excellent analysis Tux.....!

  7. Dear Penguin, You make some interesting points but I have to say, the snarkiness gets in the way. I have just a couple thoughts to share with you about factors that can make a difference.

    First, I disagree that new teachers cannot teach. Some of the best teachers I have ever seen are new teachers. Their skill very much depends upon the Education program they attended (surprise!)

    I have seen some fabulous thirty year vets and some that need desperately to retire. The difference in attitude and enthusiasm for teaching and learning is very much influenced by "institutional memory" and school climate.

    The best model for supporting teachers and preventing burn out is to bring new and experienced teachers together for focused professional development that is supported by the institutional administrators on student success.

    I am pleased to report that my son's state wide test results improved with one year of Charter Schooling. (Already a high achiever mind you...) I also love that he attends a school with a very diverse population and a staff that takes the time to get to know every student. (They have the time because of the very small class size.)

    Now the Charter school concept may not be the answer to all of this countries educational woes, however on a small scale perhaps it can influence how our public institutions operate. I have seen a principal in a public school setting adopt the philosophy of a nearby Charter school yielding wonderful results both on the school climate and student achievement.

    What I leave you with is a simple thought: Be open to the possibility that if we challenge the powers that be (however imperfect the attempt) there might be change (although perhaps small) that can make a difference in teaching practices and more importantly student learning...ultimately, should that not be our goal?

    Sincerely, A dedicated educator of sixteen years

  8. Elizabeth, my guess is that you're not a high school math teacher. I was of course talking about average teachers, not the rare "born teacher" that occasionally pops up. But even in the latter case, the research is clear -- she's a better teacher after 5 or 6 years of experience than she was out of college.

    Regarding schools of education, mentoring, etc., all of those are valuable in improving teacher retention, but don't seem to have a lot of effect upon student outcomes when you look at the research. What does seem to affect student outcomes are curricular choices and methodology choices, which are driven by instructional leadership at the school or district level. Even there, the experienced teachers *still* get better outcomes than the new teachers.

    Similarly, regarding schools, there are good schools and there are bad schools, regardless of whether they are charter schools or not. My point was that it just doesn't make any difference whether it's a charter school or not -- on average, the outcomes are the same as for public schools.

    You mention your child preferring a smaller environment and thus liking his charter school better. "Liking" is not an educational outcome, it is a social outcome, but anyhow. One of the interesting experiments, now that Steve Bates has brought HISD into this, is the HISD magnet school system. Basically this creates "schools within schools", giving kids the small environment that you mention (these "schools within schools" are deliberately set up to avoid interactions with the larger surrounding school -- their own lunch period, playground period, etc.), without the overhead of needing a separate building and facilities management and etc. It does sound like the sort of solution that would provide the environment that your child prefers, without the overhead and churn of charter schools -- for example, HISD Dodson Elementary's Montessori school-within-a-school has been quite popular and successful for over 20 years now, but at far less cost than having a separate charter school, and probably has better outcomes than a separate Montessori charter school would have because it has the institutional support and institutional memory of having existed for decades with the resources of a larger organization behind it (HISD's inservice and instructional materials support is world-class, important for something like Montessori where you need a variety of materials that do not exist in an off-the-shelf capacity).

    But once again, not a solution for the poor academic performance of inner city kids. The academic problems of inner city kids are due to issues that *no* current school, whether public, private, or charter, has had much sustained luck addressing. There have been short-term successes due to talented instructional leaders, but those leaders burn out and the kids go on to not have much better terminal outcomes than the kids who never were in those schools. And we haven't been able to *replicate* those leaders. My guess is that this is because there are institutional changes in how we think of education as a whole that would be required -- and all of society resists that, because everybody knows that schools are "supposed to be" the way they're organized, and any attempt to change their institutional organization in any major way meets major resistance from all segments of society -- parents, students, teachers, administration, the works.

    So anyhow, enough nattering. Have a nice President's Day weekend. I'm sure you need it, after the exhaustion of getting the kids back on track after their long Christmas vacation where they seemingly forgot everything about how to be successful in school...

    - Badtux the Former Teacher Penguin


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