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Churn for Charters is No Solution

The latest report from the research team at CREDO could be seen as solace to some critics of charter schools. This editorial from the New York Times summarizes the report's message:

Despite a growing number of studies showing that charter schools are generally no better -- and often are worse -- than their traditional counterparts, the state and local agencies and organizations that grant the charters have been increasingly hesitant to shut down schools, even those that continue to perform abysmally for years on end.

If the [charter] movement is to maintain its credibility, the charter authorizers must shut down failed schools quickly and limit new charters to the most credible applicants, including operators who have a demonstrated record of success.

The "charter movement" has recently recognized that they are vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy if they demand that traditional public schools be closed for poor performance, but fail to enforce the same standards on charters. This report proposes that we spread the churn that currently plagues public schools into the charter sector. This may be more "fair," but is not, from my perspective, likely to make things much better for students.

Sharp-eyed parent activist Darcie Cimarusti has done some digging to uncover the hidden messages here. The lead author of this study is Margaret Raymond. Her background is in the study of the "emergence of markets in fields dominated by monopolies." While the 2009 CREDO study showed little evidence that charters offer much value, Dr. Raymond is apparently acting as a shadow advocate for the sector.

Cimarusti dug up the following statement from Dr. Raymond, as a panelist at a 2005 conference of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools:

"...if chartering is to win the political and policy battle, it must demonstrate that it can either produce much better results or much greater efficiency (same results with lower costs). Charter schools haven't done either yet."

So when we review this latest report from CREDO, it has to be seen in the context of a long-running campaign to break the "government monopoly" on public education.

Charter schools have not proven to be better than public schools. Therefore, charter supporters are now advocating that charter schools that are not producing results must be closed with the same ruthlessness as traditional public schools. As Ms. Cimarusti points out, this dovetails with the "One Million Lives" campaign recently launched by the National Association of Charter School Operators.

This is how markets function. And this is what is hidden within the latest CREDO report. The report emphasizes that we don't need to wait long to find out if schools are "good" or "bad." These judgments should be made fast, and acted upon immediately. The report states:

For the majority of schools, poor first year performance will give way to poor second year performance. Once this has happened, the future is predictable and extremely bleak. For the students enrolled in these schools, this is a tragedy that must not be dismissed.

Looking under the surface, there are some big assumptions carried here. We do not question the accuracy of standardized test scores as a tool for judging school quality. We do not raise the need to address the effects of poverty on our students. We are implicitly asked to focus blame on the school for these effects. Arbitrary performance standards are set for all schools, and those that do not meet them must be unceremoniously closed. This has been federal policy for the past decade for public schools, and this report seeks to share the misery with the charter sector.

We end up with a very simplistic way to judge, condemn and execute schools. As a result, schools are quickly declared "good" or "bad" primarily on the basis of test scores. This results in some quite possibly very good schools being declared bad, and possibly not so good test-prep-focused schools being declared good.

This whole strategy of school reform is having devastating results.

First, and most tragically, neighborhood schools, especially those in African American and Latino communities, are being closed rapidly and without recourse. We were reminded of the impact of these closures by the hearings this week in Washington, where activists charged that the closures violate their civil rights. From Chicago this week we learned that school district hearings on the school closing issue were led by professional facilitators paid for by the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation.

Second, worthwhile charter schools such as ACE Leadership High School in Albuquerque, which actively recruits drop-outs and struggling students, are likely to fall under the club, because they may not produce the rapid test score gains this burn and churn reform strategy demands.

Third, schools that pursue test score gains at all costs -- including the use of harsh codes of discipline, screening out special ed and English learners, and instruction focused on test prep -- will be judged to be good, and will expand, driving down real standards of quality.

And lastly, we will continue to ignore the underlying reasons for inequitable outcomes, the poverty and violence that afflicts many of these communities.

Last March I attended a seminar sponsored by the Education Writiers Association focused on school "turnarounds." I shared my thoughts here:

There is another way. As we learned at my school, setting a goal to retain everyone and building a supportive collaborative community can create the conditions we need in order to grow as teachers, and improve outcomes for students. Others are having success with similar approaches. The National Education Association has a project called the Priority Schools Campaign, which is working with 39 schools in 17 states across the country. They are emphasizing family community partnerships, and building on the strengths each school has. The American Federation of Teachers has an interesting project in one of the most economically challenged communities in the nation. Reconnecting McDowell is working in West Virginia to make school improvement the linchpin for a revitalization of the whole community. The California Teachers Association has also been active in leading reform by helping lower class size and provide time for teacher collaboration through the Quality Education Investment Act, which they helped sponsor. This has yielded strong results in high poverty schools. And as I shared yesterday, many of Chicago's democratically controlled neighborhood schools are doing better than turnarounds that have received millions of extra dollars over the past few years. 


It would be tempting to welcome the CREDO report with a sort of "what's good for the goose is good for the gander" spirit. However, the entire churning strategy is poisonous for our schools, and I would prefer that none of them be subject to this sort of test-score blackmail.

What do you think? Should we welcome harsher accountability for charter schools? Or is this a bad strategy all around?

Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

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