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Exacerbating the Problem

The Future of Charter Schools

by DANNY WEIL

This is the conclusion ofa three part series on Charter schools and Obama’s education policy. Click here for part one  and here for part two.

Amy Wells, perhaps the most notable writer on the subject ends her book, Where Charter School Policy Fails, commenting that:

“…the only remaining hope for charter school reform to have any lasting positive impacts on the public educational system would be for more progressive members of this diverse and complex movement to recapture the language and symbols of what constitutes a good charter school law.  Until that happens, the hopes and dreams of thousands of social justice educators and families engaged in this reform will be marginalized and reliant on powerful and private market agents who have never served the most disadvantaged students well.” (Wells, 2002.)

From the point of view of this author, comparing and contrasting laboratories of learning for purposes of defining deficiencies or inefficiencies in educational settings, be they charter schools or traditional public schools, when those comparisons are based on inauthentic standardized testing is an exercise in futility and more than simply futile, it could be a capitulation or acceptance of NCLB and standardized testing as inevitable.  Corwin and Schneider agree with the in-authenticity of the testing, noting:

Comparing the test scores of charter schools with regular schools in Arizona is nonsense if not fraudulent.  Rather than perpetuating the nation’s warped obsession with tests, researchers should be cautioning the public about the pitfalls and calling for alternative forms of assessment.  But until they arrive, we are stuck with standardized tests to measure academic achievement (Corwin and Schneider, 2005))

They go on to note, that in the beginning of the charter school movement success was based on such things as whether charter schools had waiting lists, whether they were fiscally solvent, whether they met various local and state building codes and whether they could attract students, however as the two authors write:

“But then the rules changed dramatically when charter schools and schools that accepted federal vouchers were caught up in the No Child Left Behind legislation.  Suddenly, they too had to test their students and show adequate yearly progress.  And the choice schools had to use the same tests that the states developed for all the other public schools in the state.  Now for the first time, policy makers, legislatures and parents alike could make comparisons across schools, something that hadn’t been possible before.  The hoax of the superiority of choice schools was about to be exposed.”

However, surprisingly, even Corwin and Schneider resign themselves to the testing regime.  Commenting on the charter school versus traditional public school performance argument, they comment:

“Rather than perpetuate the nation’s warped obsession with tests, researchers should be cautioning the public about the pitfalls and calling for alternative forms of assessment.  But until they arrived, we are stuck with standardized test to measure academic achievement.”

From here, they then go on to argue:

“In any case, not withstanding the criticisms, NCLB has become a fact of life that everyone will have to live with.”

These comments seem not only odd in light of the affirmation that the tests are not authentic but they also represent a capitulation to resignation and despair.  For if the tests are inauthentic and if the testing regime is hurting kids and not allowing us to develop best teaching practices for our children, then isn’t resistance to the notion of standardized testing and NCLB what is needed?  If charter schools are to be the laboratories of change they disguise themselves as, then won’t these innovative changes be based on more authentic forms of assessment and won’t this require political organization among and between community groups, parents, teachers and all educational stakeholders?  If it does, then Corwin and Schneider’s comments above are hardly motivating for those who are working diligently to change NCLB or do away with it in entirety.
    
However, even if one accepts the underlying assumptions that standardized tests somehow aid and abet student learning and facilitates assessment and better teaching practices, when we compare the standardized testing scores from traditional public school students to student test performance at charter schools, charter schools still come up short.  This point was recently brought home by the study done by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), at Stanford University.  The scope of the study entitled, Multiple Choice:  Charter School Performance in 16 States, released in June 2009, is an exhaustive study of charter schools, the first national assessment of charter school impacts of its kind.  The findings from the Stanford researchers must be disheartening to charter school advocates, including the Obama administration, for they conclude from their research that:

“The Quality Curve results are sobering:

Of the 2,403 charter schools reflected on the curve, 46 percent of charter schools have math gains that are statistically indistinguishable from the average growth among their TPS comparisons. Charters whose math growth exceeded their TPS equivalent growth by a significant amount account for 17 percent of the total. The remaining group, 37 percent of charter schools, posted math gains that were significantly below what their students would have seen if they enrolled in local traditional public schools instead.

The national pooled analysis of charter school impacts showed the following results:

• Charter school students on average see a decrease in their academic growth in reading of .01 standard deviations compared to their traditional school peers. In math, their learning lags by .03 standard deviations on average. While the magnitude of these effects is small, they are both statistically significant.

• The effects for charter school students are consistent across the spectrum of starting positions. In reading, charter school learning gains are smaller for all students but those whose starting scores are in the lowest or highest deciles. For math, the effect is consistent across the entire range.

• Charter students in elementary and middle school grades have significantly higher rates of learning than their peers in traditional public schools, but students in charter high schools and charter multi-level schools have significantly worse results.

• Charter schools have different impacts on students based on their family backgrounds. For Blacks and Hispanics, their learning gains are significantly worse than that of their traditional school twins. However, charter schools are found to have better academic growth results for students in poverty. English Language Learners realize significantly better learning gains in charter schools. Students in Special Education programs have about the same outcomes.

• Students do better in charter schools over time. First year charter students on average experience a decline in learning, which may reflect a combination of mobility effects and the experience of a charter school in its early years.  Second and third years in charter schools see a significant reversal to positive gains.” (Credo, 2009).

These findings are hardly anything to get excited about, especially after close to 20 years of experimenting with charter schools and they act both as an indictment of charter schools and NCLB, as well as evidence against their hollow claims.
        
When I think of the Neighborhood Charter School in Massachusetts or the Freire Charter School in Philadelphia, both of which we spoke about in chapter four, I ask: ‘Why can’t all children have this rich, educational experience?’  ‘Why can’t we offer substantial educational experiences to all children, no matter where and how they might live?’  Realistically, although the Neighborhood Charter School and the Freire Charter School along with countless others of similar depth allow us to see what hope, community building, collaborative problem solving, innovation and educational democracy can bring, reality tells us they are really just boutique schools, elite enclaves available only to a privileged or select few.

Rarely are charters schools viewed under any moral lens other than competition, individualism and choice and for this reason it is necessary to spell out what I feel are four primary moral issues that many progressive educators would argue should be used to determine the efficacy and efficiency of charter schools.  From here, we can then ask if charter schools, as they are currently developing, meet the moral criteria.  The morals I speak of here are solidarity, diversity, equity and equal opportunity, and participation in power and decision making.  Let’s look at these morals one by one as they relate to charter schools.

Solidarity

To begin with, take the moral issue that calls for solidarity among school staff, workers, teachers, parents, students, community and administration.  Without unity at a school sites, it is argued, democratic governance is simply not attainable nor is authentic student learning possible.  Educational stakeholders, from teachers, staff, parents, students, community members and administration must know that they are part of a unified effort to create educational opportunities for all students and they must have opportunities among themselves to discuss their common struggle for human dignity and the problems, dilemmas and successes they face at school sites.  The notion that “we are all in this together” is essential if any educational institution wishes to operate democratically and survive; horizontal arrangements among stakeholders at school sites is essential for democratic decision making.  Do charter schools meet the moral criteria under the lens of solidarity and unity?

For some charters, like the Neighborhood Charter School and other excellent enclaves of learning the answer is, yes.  There are many wonderful charter schools doing wonderful things, this is certainly not arguable.  However we have seen how the development of retail franchise chains of charter schools run by for-profit and non-profit EMO’s and independent operators do little to encourage solidarity and unity among educational stakeholders; in fact many of them do the opposite, employing a divide and conquer strategy among and between teachers, parents, community and administrators while centralizing autocratic decision making power in the hands of a small elite group of ‘providers’ and their publicly funded cronies. This hardly promotes the idea that “we are all in this together” and therefore morally fails to create solidarity or communities of democracy and excellence.  As Lipman and Hursh note:

“Because charter school employees do not have union protections, they are subject to the same labor abuses, system of favoritism and cronyism, and lack of job security as non-union workers in other sectors.  For example at one Renaissance 2010 charter school, teachers negotiate their salaries individually, are not allowed to leave the building during the working day, and have no job security from year to year.” (Lipman and Hursh, 2007).

Promoting such ideas as competition among teachers for merit pay also does little to encourage a learning organization with shared decision making; it pits teachers against each other, as opposed to allowing for collaboration and opportunities to share the best instructional practices and innovations teachers have developed.  In fact, the whole notion of competition itself, as expressed by the market fundamentalism of NCLB is arguably antithetical to school governance, effective teaching and student learning.  Teaching and learning are cooperative activities, not ‘go it alone’ segregated pursuits that are solely based on ‘measureable outcomes’.  What is sorely needed at educational learning sites is the development of collaborative problem solving opportunities for all educational stakeholders and competition certainly does not provide for cohesive collaborative learning, either among teaches or students. 

Add to this already volatile equation of educational despair, the explosion of virtual charter schools with for-profit curriculum kits, whereby students and their parents can ‘opt out’ of the public square to pursue their individualized learning at home, and we can begin to see the visible signs of the erosion of civic responsibility and common struggles for human dignity.  Ethnic-theme charter schools and gender based charter schools, two other current phenomena that are witnessing huge growth today, also serve to undermine solidarity and like virtual charter schools, are disenfranchising.  The return to “separate but equal” surely cannot hope to encourage unity among educational stakeholders in the interest of forging democracy in schools, or society at large.  In fact, it can be argued that many charter schools are atomistic forces of disunity and threaten to undermine any common struggle for solidarity and human dignity. 

Diversity

Secondly, we look at the issue of diversity appreciation among educational workers, students and the communities they serve.  An appreciation of diversity of thought, race, class, gender, sexual orientation and culture are all important if we are to work together to make democratic decisions regarding the education of our nation’s children; this is true among and between students, parents, administrators, and staff as well as the public in general.  Under the moral lens of diversity appreciation, do charter schools make the grade?  The answer is generally, no.  Harnessed to NCLB and state testing, charter schools do not account for the enormous difference in student circumstances for testing purposes.  Furthermore, as we noted earlier, the movement to re-segregate schools, either by race, gender or class through many current charter school designs we discussed is disturbing and threatens a return to the “separate but equal” approaches to education we saw before the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.  This can hardly be said to be good policy for democratic forms of school decision making or civic commitments to excellence.  Understanding the common struggle for human dignity requires an appreciation of the diversity of thought and “difference” among all educational stakeholders and opportunities to work with and learn about those differences.

Equity

The third moral pillar I would argue that is required for successful democratic institutions such as schools is the provision of equity or equitable opportunities for all teachers and children to learn regardless of race, class, ethnicity, gender, gender preference or culture.  Without educational equity and the provision of equal opportunities for learning, no educational reform stands any chance of success.  Yet as we saw earlier, the burgeoning market in charter schools rests on a high volume business model of garnishing more and more of the ‘subprime’ kids, those on the lower rung of the economic ladder who usually live in highly populated urban centers.  In a highly stratified class society such as ours, children who are fortunate enough to attend the Lusher Charter School or the Freire Charter School, just to use two examples, will get a champagne education, while those less fortunate due to class discrimination, gender discrimination and racism will most likely receive a subprime education.  Charter schools also restrict enrollment, due to size, preference, burdensome parental contracts and costs.  We have to ask ourselves, ‘Do we want lotteries funding our schools and then turn around and use lotteries to decide who gets access to quality public education?’

For teachers, it is also important that they too receive equitable opportunities to enhance their skills, talents and teaching practices.  However, with the development of privatized curriculum and the “best practices” model of education the role of teachers is more and more defined as technicians, dispensaries of information for memorization purposes in accordance with the testing regime of NCLB.   Peter McLaren and Ramin Farahmandpur ask us to consider the return of the current neo-functionalist organizational model in urban schools:

“Today urban schools are adroitly organized around the same principles as factory production lines. According to [Jonathan] Kozol “rising test scores,” “social promotion,” “outcome-based objectives,” “time management,” “success for all,” “authentic writing,” “accountable talk,” “active listening,” and “zero noise” constitute part of the dominant discourse in public schools. Most urban public schools have adopted business and market “work related themes” and managerial concepts that have become part of the vocabulary used in classroom lessons and instruction. In the “market-driven classrooms,” students “negotiate,” “sign contracts,” and take “ownership” of their own learning. In many classrooms, students can volunteer as the “pencil manager,” “soap manager,” “door manager,” “line manager,” “time manager,” and “coat room manager.” In some fourth-grade classrooms, teachers record student assignments and homework using “earning charts”….[Jonathan] Kozol writes that in the market-driven model of public education, teachers are viewed as “floor managers” in public schools, “whose job it is to pump some ‘added-value’ into undervalued children.” (McClaren and Farahmandpur, 2006).

This description is hardly a characterization of equity in education and charter schools that view and devise education in this light can never qualify as moral leaders, centers of innovation or sites for meaningful reform and student learning.

Participation

Finally, any democracy and democratic institution must rest on the moral principle that demands that educational stakeholders be accorded opportunities for participation in issues of power that affect them.  Teachers, students, staff, community and parents must have opportunities that allow them to be able to participate in the day to day governance of their schools and in order to effectively do this they need access to information, rules and regulations that allow for democratic decision making, and collaborative problem solving to manage the day to day affairs of schools.  Yet charter schools far too often lack transparency, fail to disclose their decision making processes nor provide financial accountability when working with educational workers and their communities.  Under such corporate models as Renaissance 2010 in Chicago and elsewhere, neoliberal policies express a preference for the governance of schools by elites and experts, outside the purview of the communities they purportedly serve and without full disclosure, accountability and transparency; with the growth of private charter school providers and EMO’s of all stripes, this can only threaten to worsen, causing morale problems among educational workers, and creating hazards and disharmony among all educational stakeholders. 

The Obama administration seeks to encourage the expansion of the charter school market through government legislation and fiscal reform.  What this will mean for education is now partially becoming visible, though the outlines are still vague.  It could mean the growth of a new national and state-wide school system as we see in New Orleans – a system more and more reliant on a network of charter schools managed by for-profit and non-profit providers subsidized by public funds.  This then in turn could mean less fiscal and political attention being paid to traditional public schools, a form of fiscal starvation.

We live in a society highly segregated by social class and race and this is becoming increasingly evident as inequality continues to rise in America, as it has over the last thirty five years.  Can charter schools really work to educate students to think critically in light of the tremendous inequality and social breakdown evident in American life, or are they, as author Jonathan Kozol argue “desperation strategies that have come out of the acceptance of inequality” (Kozol, 2005)? 

The answer for many progressive educators is, no, the charter school movement cannot hope to cure our nation’s ills and in fact can work to compound them.  Charter schools, as their advocates admit, are based on a moral ethic of ‘go it alone individualism’, market fundamentalism, atomization and private choice.  These moral values blur the distinctions between public and private efforts at school reform and in doing so charter schools as an educational reform movement create a constriction of democracy that deligitimizes democratic decision making in schools; it does not enhance it.  This can hardly be said to be good for democracy, education or the future of our children.  If it is really true that the moral importance of solidarity and unity, diversity appreciation, equity and equal opportunity along with opportunities for participation in power are important to building educational sites of quality learning and community, then charter schools may not only not be the answer, they may actually exacerbate the problem of social dissolution.

Our challenge now is a formidable one.  In light of the fiscal disemboweling of public schools throughout the nation, the massive teacher lay-offs, the furloughs, and the savage cuts in public educational services the debate over charter schools needs to be seated within a much larger moral consideration regarding educational purpose tied to democratically inspired ethical values, authentic assessment, cooperation among and between all public schools and the notion of democratic decision making itself.  Therefore, moral philosophical thinking about education, as Dewey argued, must be relevant in our efforts to reform public education in a way that creates more meaningful and enriched lives by providing real innovative opportunities for public educational centers of excellence.  We as a nation must ask ourselves what the goals of education really are in a democracy.  For then, and only then, can we begin to develop the morally based educational centers that can foster students’ learning to think critically about the problems that face us individually, as a nation and as a global community.

DANNY WEIL is soon to publish "Charter Schools", dissecting neo-liberalism’s plan for reforming education in America. He can be reached at WeilUnion@aol.com