Charter Schools as a Petri Dish

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Some charter schools are doing better than others. Some are succeeding at getting at-risk inner city kids into college. Others are failing miserably.

I'm not really sure why this was a front page story in the New York Times. We've known this for ages.

Of course, bad charter schools should be closed and we need to give more attention to the vast majority of American students who do not attend charter schools, but that doesn't mean that we should write off charter schools. Those successful charter schools are an incredible petri dish for education reform.

Thanks to the successful schools, we have solid evidence that schools can make a difference even with hard-core urban kids, when there are longer school hours and a strong commitment from family to support the school. That's huge. Some of the practices of charter schools could be scaled up and expanded to the public schools. 

UPDATE: See Matt Yglesias.

16 thoughts on “Charter Schools as a Petri Dish

  1. I thought the article was interesting, and I think it was there because of the anecdotal story of the two charter schools, one succeeding and one failing. I enjoyed the descriptions of the schools.
    What I came away with is that the charter school argument that says that *choice* itself will be the instrument of change has largely been a failure, that parents of at risk children are not sufficiently astute consumers of schooling that they are able to pick the schools most likely to give their children the best opportunity to learn. This is a significant insight, and undermines a significant part of the charter hope — that choice would allow innovation to develop without the heavy hand of government intervention. Clearly the intervention is necessary.
    Second, I still maintain the belief that much of the success of the minority of individual charters depends on the success of individual workers at those schools, who are committed to make them succeed. Right now, I think that commitment is of the dedicated, eventual burnout variety. The teacher profiled in the article says he works 7-5:30 days. That’s a 10.5 hour day, a long and exhausting day. It’s probably not an unworkable day. But, we can’t demand it without paying more than we do now.
    Finally, I was biased (though I don’t think the article showed any evidence beyond anecdote) that a highly structured form of education might be appropriate for some at risk kids. If this is indeed the case, and I combine this with my belief that it would be wholly inappropriate for my own kids, then we need to have school variety, to serve the needs of multiple populations of kids. I had previously been biased towards believing that the unstructured, children are made to learn, all we have to do is give them opportunity would be appropriate for almost all children. I am willing to be proven wrong about this, though, and further evidence will make me re-think the bias.
    I do think the article is worth reading.

  2. that parents of at risk children are not sufficiently astute consumers of schooling that they are able to pick the schools most likely to give their children the best opportunity to learn.
    That’s kinda like saying that people who drive beaters aren’t “sufficiently astute consumers of cars”. When your options are severely limited, you do the best you can. Most cities don’t have many charter schools (which is why these articles tend to focus on NYC), and there doesn’t seem to be much difference in teaching styles. Or in my city, even hours of operation (charter schools don’t offer longer hours).
    I wholeheartedly agree with this, bj: we need to have school variety, to serve the needs of multiple populations of kids. I wish there was a school option for my daughter like those described in the article—longer hours, refocusing techniques, more drilling (yes, my daughter finds that boring…..but she has memory problems that probably stem from her preemie status, and she needs a certain amount of drilling for retention). Right now, there isn’t. Well, in Chicago, maybe. Four hours away.

  3. then we need to have school variety, to serve the needs of multiple populations of kids.
    Charters in Pittsburgh are starting to serve an entirely different purpose — wealthy parents are choosing them despite the curriculum because they allow for a return to neighborhood schools.
    We were considering a beautiful house in the city. Because of the excessively gerrymandered feeder patterns of Pittsburgh, our kids would have been bussed to a school in the heart of one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in all of southwestern PA. For $700k? No thank you.
    So we entered the lottery for the environmental school just down the block. Like most parents we knew applying there, we thought the curriculum was pretty dopey, but I value neighborhood schools enough that it was worth the trade-off. But we didn’t get in, so off to the suburbs we fled.

  4. Siobhan, I know plenty of people who went into the lottery for the environmental charter school for similar reasons. As for the public school assignments to elementary schools, no one has been able to explain them to me. I suspect this is because nobody understands them and that this uncertainty is part of the reason for the rapid drop in enrollment.

  5. Many of the positive methods that the Boston charter school teacher used are standard in NYC public schools; here, a Do Now and an aim (basically an agenda/goal) must be written on the board at the beginning of class. Of course, there’s great variation in the quality of the Do Nows. Some teachers use them simply as class management techniques, but thoughtful teachers use them (in addition to a way to settle the class) to introduce the day’s topic to kids in a way that will bridge the kids’ own experience with the topic. It sounded to me like the Cleveland teacher had been poorly trained, was completely overwhelmed, or that the school did not encourage or require it.
    But a strong lesson and good methods of delivery are only effective if you have kids who show up consistently, pay attention, and have the requisite background to absorb the lesson. What charter schools have that many public schools don’t is parents and students who’ve committed to education; most charters require that both parents and students sign a contract. If they don’t abide by the contract—with good attendance, behavior, academic habits—they can’t continue in the school.
    One of the best-performing kids in my inclusion class was both an English language learner and a special ed student. But she came, mostly on time, every day. Her aunt worked in one of the administrative offices, collected her niece every day for school, and was one of only four parent/guardians who showed up for conferences. This girl did better on her assignments and on standardized tests than 97% of the class; she did better than native speakers who did not have learning disabilities.
    It’s not surprising that some charters do good things with their students, but it’s not necessarily or at least solely their methods. Yes, we need to raise the quality of schools, so that they are all teaching in the most effective way; I don’t think that’s in dispute. The question is how to deliver a solid education to kids who don’t have the home support/motivation to make use of what school offers them.

  6. this uncertainty is part of the reason for the rapid drop in enrollment.
    Absolutely. It’s utterly depressing. Among the ~20 families we’ve started to socialize in FC, a good two-thirds have expressed a preference to live in the city, if it weren’t for the schools. Even if you find a house you like in what is now the Minandeo/Colfax feeder, who wants to plunk down that much money only to be at the whim of redistricting for another broken, misguided social experiment?
    When all this house-hunting was going down, we were still living in the south hills. I tried to talk to our school board rep about this, but — as you’d expect in Patronage City — she just got her daughter a job as a city teacher and therefore took the implication that every city school is not a shining jewel very, very personally.

  7. Even if you find a house you like in what is now the Minandeo/Colfax feeder…
    You can live a block from Minadeo and not get in for kindergarten. This happened to neighbors of mine.
    …and therefore took the implication that every city school is not a shining jewel very, very personally.
    One day I’ll get punched for one of my off-hand comments about the public works department. Just by the law of averages, I’m bound to say something in front of the wrong person.

  8. “that parents of at risk children are not sufficiently astute consumers of schooling that they are able to pick the schools most likely to give their children the best opportunity to learn.”
    La Lubu — I appreciate your calling me on this. It was sloppy, shorthand asserting (without evidence) that those “parents of at risk children” are different from me (who of course, knows how to pick the school most likely to give my children the best opportunity to learn). Generally, an arrogant opinion without evidence.
    I think what I do believe that parents, in general, and not any specific student are able to be efficient consumers of education (but, then, I also think that about credit, safety, energy efficiency, . . . ). So my point, that the heavy hand of regulation is necessary still stands. But, I shouldn’t have attributed bad choices to a subgroup of parents.
    The article does actually argue that parents make bad choices, and points to a possible problem: parents choose schools that have fewer behavioral issues (in their perception), a more comfortable community, and ones where their children feel comfortable, not necessarily those that teach their children well. I think this is an error that many parents can be prone to making, especially when their children are having difficulty learning.
    (and, of course, there’s also the problem of choosing the best of poor alternatives).

  9. “The article does actually argue that parents make bad choices, and points to a possible problem: parents choose schools that have fewer behavioral issues (in their perception), a more comfortable community, and ones where their children feel comfortable, not necessarily those that teach their children well.”
    All of those things sound highly desirable. Too bad if it’s a question of choosing between those things and actual education.

  10. How about putting together an individualized fact sheet saying what chance of high school graduation, college graduation, etc. a particular child has at each local school? The individualized profile could contain race, ethnicity, gender, particular disability, parent education level, parent income level, family profile (single parent, divorced parents, married parents, SAHM, etc.), child’s academic performance in previous schooling, etc. It probably would not be feasible either practically or politically, but if I were queen for a day, that’s what I’d do.

  11. ” It probably would not be feasible either practically or politically, but if I were queen for a day, that’s what I’d do.”
    I don’t get how this is substantially different from the NCLB requirements, which report test scores based on a number of different variables.
    To what use would you put that information? How would it help you consume schools more effectively?
    And, yes, the NCLB doesn’t break down as many categories as you’re describing, but if it did, what we’d probably discover is what teachers have been saying all along, that every child is a unique individual with unique educational needs.
    I think that education will be uncomfortable for some children, in the same way that appropriate financial management will be uncomfortable for some families. And, in both of those situations, it’s easy to take the short term gain (comfort, the car you really do need) against the the long term loss.

  12. “To what use would you put that information? How would it help you consume schools more effectively?”
    Send out individual reports to families with children, something like NCLB, but with more shading and texture. It might turn out, for instance, that the environmental charter that MH and Siobhan were talking about was doing a lousy job, considering the students they are managing to get.

  13. I have no direct knowledge if that environmental charter school was doing a good job or not, though I suspect it is doing very well at the basics of elementary education. The people who send their kids to it strike me as the type would complain if little Madison wasn’t reading well above grade level.
    I do agree with Siobhan that the curriculum, qua curriculum, sounded dopey. But that’s not the point of it. The curriculum, qua sign that says “Hey, this is the school for the kids of liberal UMC white people,” is very good. In fact, it works better than a sign that says, says “Hey, this is the school for the kids of liberal UMC white people.” If you put up the sign, a portion the union hall crowd would want in and before you know it, your kid is going to a school that has “Black and Gold” days all fall.

  14. I do agree with Siobhan that the curriculum, qua curriculum, sounded dopey. But that’s not the point of it. The curriculum, qua sign that says “Hey, this is the school for the kids of liberal UMC white people,” is very good. In fact, it works better than a sign that says, says “Hey, this is the school for the kids of liberal UMC white people.” If you put up the sign, a portion the union hall crowd would want in and before you know it, your kid is going to a school that has “Black and Gold” days all fall.
    Oh, lord, MH, when are you finally going to start a blog of your own?

  15. Indeed. It could save you the poke in the nose that you are expecting for unguarded remarks about Pittsburgh public works.

  16. I don’t think I’d actually have said anything like that on a Pittsburgh blog. I don’t want to discourage anybody from trying to get into that school since it seems a better use of tax dollars than most of what PPS is doing and because the people that want their kids at that school and the people who buy houses in my neighborhood are two very intersecting sets.

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