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Problem: American schools. Scapegoat: Charter schools.

Education Conceptfavicon The school year has just begun, and already, things are getting hot.

Since Motoko Rich’s excellent article, “At Charter Schools, Short Careers By Choice,” appeared last week in The New York Times, the backlash against charter schools has intensified.

According to these traditional public school-only proponents, everything bad in education — flat test scores, the existence of standardized testing, the new Common Core State Standards, the short careers of beginning teachers — is the result of charter schools.

Diane Ravitch, the respected historian and professor, is leading the charge. She has long championed public schools, teachers unions, and public school teachers. I read and enjoyed The Death and Life of the Great American School SystemHow Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. Prof. Ravitch knows what she’s talking about; she doesn’t simplify the situation into tidy soundbites.

Unfortunately, others do. For example, here are a couple articles I’ve read this week:

An Unexpected Charter School Effect: Fewer Experienced Teachers
By Stan Alcorn, Fast Company

Mr. Alcorn refers to Ms. Rich’s article, excoriates a young teacher who may seek a leadership position after just a few years teaching, and argues that the rise of charter schools has led directly to the trend of inexperienced teachers. To be sure, many charter schools do, in fact, employ young teachers who don’t spend their entire careers in the classroom. His statistic — that a charter school teacher averages just four years in the classroom vs. a traditional public school teacher’s 14 — is accurate. But just because two things exist (charter schools, short teacher careers), that doesn’t mean the first causes the second. For many years, teachers in urban schools have faced challenging conditions, and most lifers spend the majority of their careers in suburban schools. By no means am I a diehard proponent of charter schools. But I don’t appreciate it when non-educators dismiss, in four scornful paragraphs, the hard work of teachers trying to make things right among kids of color in urban schools.

American Schools Are Failing Nonconformist Kids
By Elizabeth Weil, New Republic

On the flipside is this long, well-researched, well-written article that unfortunately also places blame in the wrong place. Ms. Weil tells the story of her nonconformist second-grade daughter who does not like to sit still in class. Instead of praising her creativity, her teacher suggests occupational therapy, and Ms. Weil and her partner are not pleased. That’s fine, but instead of finding fault at the classroom or school level, the author challenges several current trends in education, including socio-emotional learning and character development. Both, she argues, restrain children who don’t easily stay in their seats and raise their hands. Both limit students’ natural curiosity. And both, she points out, are taught in charter schools.

The problem with Ms. Weil’s piece is that it’s written well. It’s compelling. Even though charter schools are as diverse as public schools, she can make a universal claim and get away with it. She can casually mention KIPP in just one sentence and gain nods of approval by charter opponents. Just in case you might not think Ms. Weil is blaming charter schools, she quotes Prof. Ravitch and writes, “The motto of the so-called school-reform movement is: No Excuses.” “No Excuses,” of course, is code for charter schools.

Both of these articles — and much of the discourse this week — have been difficult to read. On the one hand, I agree with the authors that something is wrong with American education. It’s problematic, for example, that high-stakes standardized testing, ever since No Child Left Behind, has resulted in teacher bashing, drill-and-kill curriculum, and the demise of project-based learning. And certainly, I do not argue for privatizing education.

But on the other hand, charter schools themselves are not the cause of the problem. Whereas Mr. Alcorn and Ms. Weil — both non-educators — spend their time slamming charter schools, charter school educators are doing their best, after decades of abject inequity, to meet the needs of urban kids of color. And they do all that alongside efforts by similarly hard-working, well-intentioned people in traditional public schools.

Please, I welcome your comments, especially from those who disagree with me! favicon


  1. Mark Isero

    Hey Heidi! I might be totally wrong, but this is what I think is true. Several years ago, KIPP’s leaders were inspired by Rafe Esquith, a national teacher of the year and author of several books. His motto is, “There are no shortcuts.”

    That sentiment was very appealing to KIPP and other charter schools, which aim to disrupt predictable educational outcomes. The “No Excuses” language refers to KIPP’s goal that all students will succeed and that nobody — including teachers — should explain away underperformance because of outside factors like poverty.

    Over the past year or so, charter opponents have called KIPP and other similar East coast charter networks (like Achievement First and Uncommon Schools) “no excuses” schools to lump them together and highlight their similarities.

    If I’m wrong, somebody please tell me! But I’m pretty sure I read about this phenomenon in *Work Hard, Be Nice,* the book about KIPP.

  2. Dave Keller

    To charter or not to charter – is that the question?

    Before charters came to California, 50% of new teachers left the profession before their 4th year and another 50% of those who remained left before their 8th. Teacher attrition has been a problem for a long time. I agree that it is not the fault of charters. Neither is the problem of educational communities failing kids who don’t conform to the rules of communities.

    However, I’m not convinced that charters are contributing to the improvement of the nation’s educational system. Here is my argument:
    a) Many charters have a religious mission that may not contribute to a child’s education in a way that is better than a traditional public school. In addition, there are serious issues regarding public funds going to ideologically biased or proselytizing institutions.
    b) I don’t know of any research that shows a connection between a general improvement in American education and charters. Competition between schools was intended to foster improvement in the field. Is there evidence? I don’t think so but I’d love to be wrong about this.
    c) Charters are a nice way to avoid unions. However, there is a better way to mitigate the problems caused by unions: politicians and school administrators who build schools that focus on serving students. I’m almost certain that the best public schools in the nation do not suffer from the stereotypical “union problems” and it isn’t because the schools don’t have unions. (It is most likely because they have money.)
    d) A lot of money is being spent on charter schools. Is that money well spent? Maybe it is too early to tell but I have concerns. One of the implications of the “no excuses” movement is that a lack of funding cannot be blamed for poor student performance. While this is an attractive slogan, it seems to contradict almost every predictor of academic success that we have.

    Every year the amount of money spent on education is increasing and yet academic results do not seem to be significantly improving. This is a problem. However, in a policy discussion about the role of charters in addressing this problem it is my opinion that we need to focus on the amount of money spent on specific programs within schools (both charter and traditional public). Evaluating programs like character development and determining whether the results are justified by the cost seem to be where our national conversation should focus.

Please share your brilliant insights!