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Molding Opinion About Schools

One of the more effective propaganda techniques is the half-truth. It works so well because there are just enough facts to appeal to the unsophisticated. A case in point is "Why Charter Schools Work" (The Wall Street Journal, Jun. 25). As readers of this column know, I support parental choice, including charter schools. But in order for choice to work the way it is intended, parents need to know all the facts. So let's take a closer look at the writer's argument to see where she comes up short.

In what seems more like an advertisement than an essay, Deborah Kenny, the founder and CEO of Harlem Village Academies, begins by making bold assertions about charter schools. "Charters succeed because of their two defining characteristics -accountability and freedom. In exchange for being held accountable for student achievement results, charter schools are generally free from bureaucratic and union rules that prevent principals from hiring, firing or evaluating their own teams." Kenny then pays homage to a few of the teachers in her charter network who prove her point.

First, the teaching accomplishments of the few are not evidence of the accomplishments of the many. I'm glad to know that the Harlem Village Academies have good teachers. They deserve recognition for their work. But I'd be interested in knowing how all teachers in her network are performing. Traditional public schools in Los Angeles, for example, are now required to publish the rankings of all teachers. Why didn't Kenny do the same?

Second, accountability has meaning only when it is applied fairly. I found it odd that Kenny made no mention of special education students in her tribute to charter schools. By law, traditional public schools are required to enroll these students. Charter schools do not have to serve students with special needs. In Los Angeles, charter schools are criticized for enrolling a lower percentage of special education students than traditional public schools, particularly students with severe handicaps, for whom the cost of schooling is two to three times as high as for other students ("Charter schools in L.A. Unified to get more special education money," Los Angeles Times, Jan. 5, 2011).

Third, freedom is a two-edged sword. Kenny uses the term to apply only to the leeway granted to teachers in her schools. I understand how refreshing it is for teachers to be given the opportunity to design their own curriculums and instructional practices. But there is another side to freedom. It involves the ability of administrators to push out low-performing students. According to WBEZ in Chicago, more than 2,500 students - or about 11 percent of charter enrollees - in the city fell into this category in 2009. Traditional public schools cannot do this. Not surprisingly, they become the schools of last resort for too many students.

Finally, segregation is given short shrift in the debate. Researchers with the Civil Rights Project at UCLA found that charter schools increase the tendency of black, Hispanic and white students to attend class with students who look like themselves ("Charter schools' growth promoting segregation, studies say," Los Angeles Times, Feb. 4, 2010). Kenny is strangely silent about this disturbing trend.

I've deliberately not addressed what is perhaps the single most important omission in Kenny's essay: the mixed record of charter schools' academic achievement. There has been so much reportage and commentary about it that I felt little more can be said. I still believe parents are entitled to send their children to any school that best meets their needs and interests. But unless they are fully informed, they can hardly be expected to make a wise decision. Kenny's essay does them a disservice.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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