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The Great Charter Debate: Part Four

This is part four of a debate between myself and a colleague who believes I have been too critical of charter schools. In Part One, he shared his perspective on the value of charter schools. I responded with my own views on the limitations of charters as a force for reform, and this week he offered his rebuttal to that. Here is my response to that one, Part Four of the great charter debate.

I appreciate you beginning with where we can agree. So I will start by stating that I agree that there are indeed charter schools doing good work. I have visited charter schools, and know that some of them are working well to engage their students in learning, and using innovative strategies like Project-Based Learning.

I am also glad you agree that it is a problem when authorizers of charters allow anyone to apply, tack up their shingle and declare themselves a school. If we can agree on this, I actually think most of our argument vanishes. Because the main reason I am raising concerns about charters is the apparent determination of the Duncan administration to remove all barriers to the expansion of charter schools. This was one of the primary determinants of who would receive Race to the Top grants, and states which have what seem to be entirely reasonable restrictions on the expansion of charter schools lost out when finalists were named in this competition. So I am glad you agree that we should be cautious in expanding charter schools.

Researchers at CREDO have suggested that it may be that charters in New York are better than elsewhere - perhaps because of the more stringent requirements imposed on them there.

The real problem with our debate is that it has been poisoned by the starvation of public schools, and the idea that public schools in general are failing and must make room for the superior charter schools.
That forces those of us who work in public schools into a place of being a bit defensive when we are criticized and compared negatively to charter schools that are supposedly proving us to be ineffective. We have to scrutinize these comparisons closely, because they are not always fair. And the stakes are very high, because our entire public education system is in jeopardy.

So let's look at the evidence. You claim that Hoxby's work asserting the success of New York charters is solid. I am not so sure. The most significant argument against Hoxby's research that I have seen is that she has not controlled for classroom peer effects.

Jonathan Gyurko writes in EdWize:

...it's not clear that Hoxby's methodology takes into account peer effects -- the straightforward concept that students not only learn from their teachers but are also influenced by their peers. Charter schools benefit from the fact that 100 percent of their students hail from motivated families; as a result, a charter student is surrounded by peers who are there by choice -- rather than by attendance zone. In contrast, the "lotteried-out" students may not benefit from such an intensive peer effect.

This adds up to a real advantage over traditional schools. It is absolutely an advantage to be able to require parents to sign a pledge stating they will do specific things to partner with the school, and to require that they show up for detention on a Saturday if their child is persistently tardy. Regular public schools cannot set such requirements and must take all comers. Some schools in Oakland have large numbers of students who are living in foster homes or group homes. These students will not be likely to apply for a charter, or to have parents available to sign such pledges. And I can tell you that these students offer significant academic and behavior challenges.

This is not just a "belief." I have 18 years of experience in an Oakland middle school where I witnessed the problems we had with such students firsthand. And I have seen students arrive to register at my regular public school after they were unable to handle the rules and rigor of a KIPP-style charter, and were asked to leave. The public schools cannot turn away anyone, unless that student is a violent threat to others - and even then there must be hearings, and students are often transferred from one school to another within the District.

That doesn't mean the charters do not take on some challenging students. And I am sure some charters are much more open to all comers than are others. But nonetheless, this difference makes it difficult to make straight comparisons across the board.

Lower proportions of ELLs and special education students raise similar concerns about the fairness of comparing results given that these groups are likely to have lower test scores.

I agree with your philosophical statement that traditional schools and charters should learn from one another. As I said at the outset, I did not come to teaching thinking the public schools were great. I think there is a lot of room for improvement, and we need creative enterprises that push us to try new approaches. But it is tough to foster cooperation in an environment of competition, and that is what has been created. And if that competition is not judged fairly, and our schools continue to be starved for funding, we have some real concerns about the survival of public schools.

My main concern about charter schools remains the following:
Comparisons between schools are very tricky, and in spite of what I have seen of Hoxby's research, I am not convinced that the populations of students are entirely comparable. Even granting that some charters are highly effective (as are some traditional schools) the national data do not suggest that charters, on the whole are superior, and thus I do not believe they warrant the kind of large-scale expansion apparently envisioned by the Secretary Duncan.

What do you think? Are comparisons between charters and regular public schools fair? Do charters warrant the strong support they are getting from Race to the Top?

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