The NYT’s A1 Attack on the Charter Movement

Today the charter school quality debate hit the front page of the New York Times, and I can't imagine charter enthusiasts will be happy. The piece's author, Trip Gabriel, looks at many of the same studies and comes to the many of the same conclusions I have over the past two years in my work for The American Prospect: While some of the best schools in the country at educating poor minority kids are charter schools, on average, charter schools are no better at raising children's academic performance than are typical traditional public schools, which are still the home of 97 percent of public school kids in America, and likely to remain the home to the vast, vast majority of American schoolchildren well into the foreseeable future.

(Since New York City is so often used to counter claims of nationwide charter mediocrity, I'll add a caveat here: Little about the generally high-quality New York charter sector is typical–it's a highly regulated marketplace that educates less than 5 percent of NY school kids, compared to 57 percent charter penetration in New Orleans, 36 percent charter penetration in Washington, D.C., and so on. I explain more here.)

That said, I want to make a few points in defense of charter schools and the deep-pocketed, politically influential movement that fosters their development. The Times article leaves the impression that charter advocates have only recently realized how difficult it is to educate poor children. Gabriel writes:

…with the Obama administration offering the most favorable climate yet for charter schools, the challenge of reproducing high-flying schools is giving even some advocates pause. Academically ambitious leaders of the school choice movement have come to a hard recognition: raising student achievement for poor urban children — what the most fervent call a new civil rights campaign — is enormously difficult and often expensive.

I'm not sure it's fair to paint the entire charter movement in this naive pose. When you read books like Jay Matthews' Work Hard, Be Nice, a biography of the KIPP network of charter schools, or speak to passionate free-market education reformers like Amy Wilkins of Education Trust, it's hard not to be struck by how often they mention that teaching poor kids is very hard work. In part, this explains their antipathy toward the teachers' unions–they don't believe unions are willing to push teachers to work long enough hours, give enough extra attention to struggling kids, or sacrifice enough of their own comfort and stability in order to do what they see as the nearly messianic work of getting poor children of color to college. I've called this stance the "miracle ideology," because some of these education reformers, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, really do seem to believe that great teachers must perform daily miracles of self-sacrifice.

Secondly, Gabriel is pretty critical of a Cleveland charter school he visits, the Arts and Social Science Academy, for producing poor state test results. Yet the atmosphere in the school is clearly warm, safe, and supportive. Though we shouldn't mistake those attributes for academic success, they might be a significant improvement over other schools these children could be attending. Indeed, while there is little evidence to suggest parents are particularly good judges of which schools help their kids succeed academically, parents are good judges of which schools are nurturing toward children–and that's one reason why parents enter lotteries for charters and private school vouchers and keep their kids in those schools, even when the kids repeatedly fail state exams.

These are relatively small critiques, though; in general Gabriel's piece is one of the best-researched works of education journalism I've read in awhile–since Elizabeth Green's Times magazine cover story on good teaching. You should read both. 

8 thoughts on “The NYT’s A1 Attack on the Charter Movement

  1. dporpentine

    Um, in your last paragraph, you call these “one of the best-researched works of education journalism I’ve read in awhile [sic]” but in your headline you call the article a “hit.”

    Wee bit o’ contradiction?

  2. ab

    I’m confused. Your title calls it a ‘hit’ while your conclusion calls it among the ‘best-researched.’ Your main critiques are a straw-man ‘leaves the impression’ (arguing against something the article didn’t say) and anecdotes about some children feeling safer at a single school. The article quote was soft – not only ‘is it difficult’ to raise achievement, the article shows that the schools as a movement have failed.

    The Times article was a pretty measured piece. This was not anecdotes about a few bad schools to color a movement, as so many pro-KIPP articles do in reverse. Are a few good schools but no improvement overall worthwhile?

    Charter schools, like many privatization projects, have costs to the public schools, their students, and the community. If they can’t improve outcomes, why are they doing it? If that article was a hit, is any discussion possible?

  3. Dana

    For those confused by the “hit” terminology, I was using it the way journalists do–as shorthand for “hit piece,” which means “attack on.” In other words, the Times article was critical of the charter movement. In my opinion, it was a well-researched piece generally critical of the charter movement.

  4. Stuart Buck

    “While some of the best schools in the country at educating poor minority kids are charter schools, on average, charter schools are no better at raising children’s academic performance than are typical traditional public schools.”

    But like Andy Rotherham points out, the CREDO study that all the charter opponents like to cite actually showed that the longer kids stayed in charter schools, the better off they were compared to their public school counterparts. In other words, the CREDO study actually suggests that if we get more kids to stay in charters longer, they’ll be better off — which completely contradicts the anti-charter spin.

  5. Anon

    Apples and oranges, Stuart. Literally. The studies seem to indicate that for most of the schools, its the kids and the parents, not the charter schools, that are making the difference. In other words, if you took the kids currently in charter schools and put them back in the public schools, and put the kids in public schools and put them in the charter schools, you’d see the same effects, except in reverse, and perhaps amplified.

    But then, who knows? The next round o’ studies may show the exact opposite.

  6. Stuart Buck

    No, I’m pretty sure that’s not what the studies show, and in fact students who enter charter schools tend to arrive with lower test scores than their public school peers (as last year’s RAND study found). Perhaps you could explain what you’re thinking of?

  7. alexander

    love your work, dana, but no need to spend time laying claim to conclusions or observations that the times came to in its piece. there was little new or original there, and many many others know and have written about the things you’ve written.

  8. Stan Risdon

    If all public school students were white, middle class, and their students were convinced of the value of education, there would be no Charter School movement. On the other hand, if the Charter school movement were designed to appeal to white middle class students, and in fact had student populations that were reflective of the population at large in the manner of Boston Latin, there would be no controversy.

    There are a myriad of reasons to assert that “no child left behind” test scores do not give any indication of potential college success, but not every student is ready for college at the same time. I’ve spent the last year teaching Latin at a 90/90 public middle charter school (90% poor/90% African American). Based on that experience I can assert the following:

    1. As an antique first year teacher, I had no skills at classroom management, and 25/30% of our students saw no value in the Latin. I was punished for the first (RIF’D), and the students were punished for the latter. Very few came through Latin as a first step toward a admission to a level one college. But our “positioning” was as a college prep. Latin’s positioning was as a “connections class.”

    2. We were “officially” very proud of the fact that 90% of our students met standards. And, we were by and large among the top 3 schools in the district. But it should be remembered that a) meeting standards only established basic literacy and b) we were arguably the worst district in the state.

    3. Absent real diversity, we will never be able to model the classic prep school.

    All of the popular charters are based on assorted formulae that involve rote learning. Literally, they are based on the false notion that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” The reality is that if can measure it, you don’t need to manage it.

    There are serious studies from the 70′s that offer a clear demonstration that no matter what the level of a student’s skills, Latin is a magic bullet. Said another way (and with apologies to Ogden Nash) AP is dandy, but Latin is quicker.


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