Schooling Anonymous Kids

by Tedra Osell on December 15, 2011

Commenter MS asked what I think about charter schools, which as it happens is something I have opinions on. (I know, go figure.)

I am a die-hard pro-public-schools liberal, in a nutshell. I wasn’t real keen on charter schools from the beginning: while I’m all for the idea that educators and schools ought to be allowed, dammit, to try innovative or new approaches, it was clear that demanding that “regular” public schools conform to the one-test-fits-all-and-here-is-THE-mandated-curriculum approach while setting up alternative schools that were magically freed of that bullshit while still being the financial responsibility of the school district was pretty much a recipe for trying to further siphon money out of public schools while beating teachers up for failing to educate 30-40 kids in a class with the change they could find at home in their couch cushions.

Funnily enough, that concern was founded on an expectation that charter schools, freed from some of the regulations that public schools have to adhere to, would, in fact, manage to offer better educations. It turns out that that’s not actually the case, though; by now we all know that the results comparing charters to public schools are mixed; there is no clear advantage to charter schools. My guess is that founding schools based on half-baked theories and ideologically driven philosophies, or as for-profit institutions, rather than oh, say, based on actual evidence about what works in education, isn’t the way to go.

The problem, of course, is that most of us aren’t experts in educational research; I’m highly interested in pedagogy, and know a lot more about what works and what doesn’t than most people, but it isn’t a field I’m trained in, I don’t read education journals regularly, and I would not claim to be an expert on this stuff. So we can’t, honestly, expect parents to pick schools based on their knowledge of what’s educationally beneficial.

That said, obviously parents in general can be trusted to know their own personal kid pretty well, and I think there’s a decent case to be made that parents ought to have the ability to send their kid to, say, a school with a heavy focus on the social aspect of learning, where there’s a fair bit of noise and chaos and no individual desks and lots of moving around the classroom; or to recognize that their kid is easily distracted and kinda likes the pen-and-paper model of learning and finds it easier to get stuff done while sitting in one of several rows all facing the teacher. (I have sent my kid to both kinds of schools, just fyi.)

There’s an even better case to be made that individual teachers should have the ability to try new ideas in their classrooms. After all, teachers, unlike parents, are actually trained in education, and they have a lot more experience than parents do of how things actually go in a classroom (and of what their own strengths and weaknesses are, and how much patience they have to deal with, say, a socratic approach where kids are encouraged to argue, or to put up with building materials all over the classroom for weeks while the kids construct some awesome physics experiment).

But right now the focus is entirely on parent choice, which, if nothing else means that the children of parents who are motivated to seek out schools that fit their kid or their beliefs about education are going to benefit, if there are benefits to be had, while kids whose parents are either less motivated or less financially able to move to a different neighborhood or afford the gas and time to transport their kids back and forth every day or research and follow up on what’s going on at school, are going to have to deal with what’s left over.

Which basically is my own personal bottom line, as well as—as we’ve seen over and over—the bottom line. The children of people who read academicish blogs are going to be fine no matter what. If my kid is going to a school that doesn’t have a librarian (which he did from grades 2-5), well, he has three six-foot bookshelves at home plus piles of books on his bedside table and floor. If his teacher isn’t super patient with his temper, he has a mother who is going to schedule meetings with the teacher to advocate for his emotional needs and then come home and figure out how to explain to him, in a way that he can sign on to, why he needs to manage his frustration and how we’re going to help him do that. If his school doesn’t offer music or art or science classes, and he is interested in those things or I think they’re important, I can arrange for those things privately.

Meanwhile, I’m highly aware that any system that’s set up to siphon money and ideas away from the base option is going to end up impoverishing the base option, right? If the problem is that the base option isn’t good enough or flexible enough, then we need to address that, not create some kind of parallel system. Especially if that parallel system functions as an implicit “alternative” to a default that “isn’t good enough.” If it isn’t good enough for my kid, it isn’t good enough for anyone’s kid. And if my kid is in a public school, then let’s be honest: I’m going to be far, far more proactive than I otherwise would about improving that school, and public schools in general (for example, I created a bit of a curriculum library at his last school, and at his current one I’ve been highly proactive in pushing the administration to deal with bullying).

And finally, the other really major reason for the kids of educated white folks like me to stay in public schools is that we are still a highly segregated society. As my own kid said the other day, “the easiest way to realize that poor people are not lazy or stupid is to have friends that are poor.” Substitute any group and stereotype that you want into that sentence (He also recently commented that he’s always had classes with kids who had “some kind of disability that makes them shout or act out or be really distracting in class” which led us to a conversation about how common learning/behavior/mental disorders are.) I think in our cultural push to “raise standards,” we’ve overfocused on traditional academic standards. Yet one of the things our society suffers most from—and the way we’ve approached academic standards echoes it—is the worship of extreme individualism. We need to keep in mind that our kids are not just my kid or your kid or the anonymous kids of “those” people over there: they are all our kids, and we have a collective duty and responsibility to model public citizenship to them. One of the best ways to do that is to participate in public institutions.

{ 85 comments }

1

Alex 12.15.11 at 5:09 pm

May I make my ritual call for even a tenth of the effort that goes into yelling about charters and teachers’ unions and whatnot to be redirected into demanding more research into pedagogy?

2

SamChevre 12.15.11 at 5:14 pm

I’m highly aware that any system that’s set up to siphon money and ideas away from the base option is going to end up impoverishing the base option, right?

This, I think, would be a key point with which I disagree.

Tomorrow I’m cooking for a 20-person Christmas party, with the following constraints. Two vegetarians; one person who is gluten-intolerant; one person who is allergic to pineapple; one person who is allergic to eggs; and one person who has blood sugar stability issues and has to be very careful about carbs.

Having a variety of options enhances the base option; if I had to only serve dishes everyone could eat, no one would get a good meal. (Given my knowledge of cooking.) If I make some non-vegetarian dishes, and some rice-based dishes, and some tarts, and some meringues, EVERYONE will get a better meal.

I think schools are similar. Children’s needs differ enough that any one-size-fits-all option will be impoverished relative to a base-and-alternatives structure.

3

Daniel 12.15.11 at 5:18 pm

The problem is that although it is entirely possible to provide everyone with “good” schools, it isn’t possible for everyone to send their kids to “the best” schools, and so this turns into a positional competition game.

4

john b 12.15.11 at 5:25 pm

Given that English is an international language and this is an international blog, “I am a die-hard pro-public-schools liberal” is about one of the most terrible cultural-imperialist blase statements I can think of. I’m always in awe at quite hard parochial US commentators – even well-meaning left-wing (this is what you mean when you say ‘liberal’) ones – fail at cross-cultural comprehension.

5

ajay 12.15.11 at 5:25 pm

3 rests on the assumption that there is such a thing as an objectively “best” school at which any kid will do better than she would at any other school, rather than just a “school that is best for my particular kid” – which the OP is questioning.

6

Daniel 12.15.11 at 5:27 pm

#5 I don’t think it does; I can get away with a really quite weak ordering criterion.

7

LizardBreath 12.15.11 at 5:27 pm

Children’s needs differ enough that any one-size-fits-all option will be impoverished relative to a base-and-alternatives structure.

That would make sense in a policy environment where the identified problem was that the public schools were well-functioning for most children, but poor at serving specific unusual children or groups of children. That’s not what school reform advocates are complaining about, though — they’re saying that the public schools are, in many areas, not serving anyone well.

8

Tim Worstall 12.15.11 at 5:29 pm

I think there’s a decent case to be made that parents ought to have the ability to send their kid to, say, a school with…a, b, c, d…..

OK,

There’s an even better case to be made that individual teachers should have the ability to try new ideas in their classrooms……which might be a, b, c or d……

So the teachers should be experimenting and the parents choosing between the experiments perhaps? This sounds awfully like a market you know, producers experimenting with products and production methods to attempt to gain the custom of the decision makers.

But you then go on to say that it shouldn’t really be a market, it should still all be public schools.

OK, fine, you’ve just outlined the Swedish system. With a couple of caveats any two trained teachers can open a school. They get the same cash from the local authority that every other school does on a per pupil basis times how ever many parents send their kids there.

Public schools, teachers experimenting, parents choosing. Sounds OK to me: but you should hear the screams of anger in the UK as they try to bring in the same system there.

9

Steve LaBonne 12.15.11 at 5:54 pm

Wake me up when charter schools are actually delivering on their supposed promise. Same for other popular “education reform” nostrums, for that matter.

10

Freddie deBoer 12.15.11 at 6:08 pm

A lot of my fellow pedagogy researchers, as well as people politically interested in ed reform, have been arguing about the Finland/South Korea divide, where both produce consistently high results on educational metrics but in very different ways. Finland is highly unionized, resistant to standardized testing and “accountability measures,” rote memorization, etc., whereas South Korea embraces all of those. People argue about what it means.

To me, the more interesting data point is the consistent and healthy advantage that students who immigrated in their infancy from high-performing countries like South Korea to the United States enjoy over their peers back in their country of origin. This tends to get dismissed due to the obvious confounding variable of motivated, economically and professionally mobile parents. But to me that’s precisely what’s of interest, and something you allude to above: the parental influence is more determinative of success on conventional academic metrics than the perceived quality of education.

11

Goldcap 12.15.11 at 6:18 pm

It would seem, (by pure conjecture and with no obvious statistical metric :)) that in countries where parents had more time, freedom, and security, that kids would benefit from a more productive family influence.

So poor parents, who were able to get affordable health care, have a safety net, and decent housing options, would be perhaps more able to help their kids than in a society such as ours?

OR

You just browbeat your kids into better study habits, and they grow like grapes in a vineyard, bad terrior makes a stronger grape.

12

Barry 12.15.11 at 6:22 pm

john b 12.15.11 at 5:25 pm

” Given that English is an international language and this is an international blog, “I am a die-hard pro-public-schools liberal” is about one of the most terrible cultural-imperialist blase statements I can think of. I’m always in awe at quite hard parochial US commentators – even well-meaning left-wing (this is what you mean when you say ‘liberal’) ones – fail at cross-cultural comprehension.”

Then you must not read too many English-Language blogs :)

13

Watson Ladd 12.15.11 at 6:23 pm

The problem isn’t the students of people who read academic blogs, as you noted. Its the students whose experience of poverty is living in a town that cannot pay to maintain its building while the towns around it spend far more money then the national average, or in a city where politics leads to the shifting of the worst teachers to those who cannot complain.

I went to a magnet school, you probably could learn which one. Some of my friends were from wealthy towns and really didn’t need to go to my school to get a good education. But others were from Abbot districts, and going to this magnet school was the only alternative for them. (Abbot is a long running series of cases about a clause in our state’s constitution that demands equalization of education spending. Needless to say it doesn’t work) I don’t see how closing the school I went to would lead to more socioeconomic diversity in the student bodies of either the rich schools or the poor ones.

Then there is the sad case of Boston. Sending your kid to public school in the Boston area is participating in what was a successful attempt to violate the spirit of Brown v. Board of Ed by dividing up districts. The result is a public school system strangled of funding that has as its official motto working with only those with nowhere else to turn. School choice would mean letting children cross the tracks to go to better schools.

What you’re arguing for works in gentrifying neighborhoods in urban areas. But that’s not where a lot of people live. Most Americans live in areas with people like them.

14

Western Dave 12.15.11 at 6:32 pm

@1. B/c there isn’t a ton of research on pedagogy already? Which tells you that a) there is no silver bullet to teach all kids. b) different kids learn differently so you great teachers keep changing it up to reach different kids c) if all teachers teach the same, kids tune it out no matter how good it is – they need variety in their day. Anything else is an invitation to merely shift the totally unhelpful whole language vs. phonics wars and math curriculum wars into every classroom.

Pedagogical research attracts true believers and the last thing that any school needs is true believers proselytizing their approach and telling everyone else they’re doing it wrong. I work in a school that’s on the technological cutting edge but, ironically, is filled not with technofuturists but technoskeptics. The technology we adopt tends to follow the model of 1) teacher goes to tech team and says “I want my kids to do x.” 2) Tech team figures out if that’s possible. If yes, than 3) tech team teaches teacher how to do x so teacher can teach kids to do it. In most schools, it’s the other way, teachers are told to use technology x, are never taught how to do it themselves, students never learn to use it properly. (So you can blame the system the next time you see a crappy Powerpoint. )

I work in a private school in the US. I am not certified. I have a PhD in the field I teach. What I do is not scalable to a public school system. And even in the humanities there aren’t enough PhDs kicking around (nor would you want most of them in a HS classroom). So I’ll sit the rest of this out.

15

L2P 12.15.11 at 6:33 pm

“That’s not what school reform advocates are complaining about, though—they’re saying that the public schools are, in many areas, not serving anyone well.”

They’re saying that, yes. I’m not sure that they’ve done much work showing that the current “one test to rule them all” method is better. AFAICT it looks like they’ve spent a lot of time trying to show that that they’re better at getting good results on the specific tests that they measure in the short run under some circumstances. I’m putting my money on 2020 bringing us a “Testing is the root of all evil” reform movement.

16

Steve LaBonne 12.15.11 at 6:36 pm

I’m putting my money on 2020 bringing us a “Testing is the root of all evil” reform movement.

I’ll take that bet. There’s no money or power in that for the members of the 1% who are behind the “reformers”.

17

John Quiggin 12.15.11 at 6:38 pm

I was going to write something on this issue, but more on the point of how long it has taken for the research evidence that charter schools don’t produce better outcomes (in fact, the weight of evidence is that they produce worse outcomes) than ordinary public schools. The recent negative article about for-profit charters in the NYT, along with Diane Ravitch’s reversal on the issue suggest things might finally be changing.

Going way back, the push for charter schools and such was a response to negative evidence, suggesting that reducing class sizes and adding extra resources didn’t do much for outcomes. But that evidence (which is now part of the conventional wisdom) turned out to be based on poor statistical methods. When modern meta-analysis techniques were applied they showed that more resources did improve outcomes. The key paper is Hedges et al

http://edr.sagepub.com/content/23/3/5.short

18

Sebastian (2) 12.15.11 at 6:39 pm

john b (@4) – I think it’s the idea of telling people that they aren’t allowed to express themselves in their native language (in this case American English) that is commonly associated with imperialism. The terms “public school” and “liberal” have very specific meanings in American English, that do not translate easily into the political and educational culture of other English speaking countries. (E.g. “liberal” does not mean the same as “on the left” – many of my friends on the left would never refer to themselves as liberals.)
The same applies to people talking about UK (and Australian, Canadian, Irish etc.) politics and education – they should use the terms as they’re employed in the relevant debate. If there’s a reasonable expectation that people will misunderstand, you can insert qualifiers (as in “liberal in the US/European sense”), but that hardly appears necessary given the amount of context provided in the post.

19

bemused 12.15.11 at 6:44 pm

You live in California, but you seem to think that charter school students don’t need to take the mandated high stakes tests. This is not the case. You say that the students in charter schools are the financial responsibility of the school district. Not so. In California, school funding comes through a rococo funding formula from the state and is attached to the pupil’s school attendance. Thus, it is incorrect to somehow tie this funding to the school district rather than the child and the school he/she attends. You try to compare results in non-charter public schools to charter public schools, when in fact the basis for founding a charter school in California is a vision statement and proposed metrics set forth by the organisers. School visions range from basic skills to constructivism, and these different modes of organization and philosophy hardly form a sound basis for lumping the results together. Not enough time to fisk the rest of this ill-informed post, or the similar posts elsewhere that conflate the charter schools in different states founded under different rules.

It is dispiriting to read such a post on a site allegedly operated by social scientists and researchers.

20

Steve LaBonne 12.15.11 at 6:53 pm

Who cares? Charter schools in California, as a sector, have no more demonstrated a clear advantage over traditional public schools than charter schools elsewhere in the country.

21

AcademicLurker 12.15.11 at 6:54 pm

Until recently I lived in Ohio, poster child for the failure of charter schools.

My unscientific impression is that charter schools affiliated with large institutions that have already been in the education business for a while (which mostly but not exclusively ends up being those associated with one of the major religions) do OK.

The others tend to be fly by night scams.

22

Barry 12.15.11 at 7:09 pm

“The others tend to be fly by night scams.”

Which is the big problem – the corpocracy has figured out that there’s a lot of money in the flat-out looting and destruction of public education, so the elites are behind ‘reform’.
The religious right likes it, because (a) they’ll get money and (b) worse public schools means less competition for religious schooling. The rest of the GOP base will like it because they’ll take it to mean that they won’t have to spend money on black and hispanic children [until it comes time to destroy their own school district].

23

bemused 12.15.11 at 7:09 pm

@20: It is inappropriate to compare all charter public schools to all regular public schools, even within a state. They are not all run the same way. The stated purpose for charter schools in California is to permit different approaches to education to be tried, with success metrics agreed to up front and used to decide whether the school may stay open. This process is in addition to the requirement that charter students must take the STAR tests and the high school graduation exam.

24

Evil is evil 12.15.11 at 7:10 pm

Just how much time and treasure can be wasted on Americans trying to decide how to educate? This is total nonsense. Don’t reinvent the wheel.

There are real genuine countries that have excellent education systems. Just copy them down to the pay the teachers there get.

25

bemused 12.15.11 at 7:15 pm

@24: I’ll be organising for that when the results for Finnish and Korean inner city schools are published.

26

Steve LaBonne 12.15.11 at 7:23 pm

It is inappropriate to compare all charter public schools to all regular public schools, even within a state.

Bullshit. If they’re not serving kids better on average (and after correcting for the effects of things like being able to cherrypick students), and if the ones that perform much worse than traditional public schools aren’t quickly eliminated (neither of which is the case), the charter school sector has no good reason to exist. Kids aren’t experimental animals. (And the implication that regular public school teachers all teach the same way is idiotic- though the “reformers” would like to force them into just such a straitjacket.)

People like you are, wittingly or unwittingly, just carrying water for interests that actually care about things other than education and kids. That’s what “bemuses” me.

27

CJColucci 12.15.11 at 7:31 pm

The last time I looked at the research, which was a long time ago, I got the impression that the median or modal American public school (that is to say, for non-Americans, a tax-supported school operated by the government and open to all students in the school district, as opposed to a tuition-charging school operated by the private sector with competitive enrollment) was actually pretty good. (One can make arguments that, say, the Scarsdale public schools aren’t good enough, but we’re talking about reality here.) The mean, however, is dragged down by abysmally-performing puiblic schools in poor areas. Is this wrong?

28

Freddie deBoer 12.15.11 at 7:34 pm

@27 that’s largely the story, yes. “Pretty good” is of course relative, but yeah. We don’t have an education crisis. We have a decently performing majority and then a set of terrible outliers which come almost without exception from districts that suffer from a variety of deep social problems, such as drugs, crime, and family breakdown.

29

Sebastian (2) 12.15.11 at 7:36 pm

There are real genuine countries that have excellent education systems. Just copy them down to the pay the teachers there get.

that’s total nonsense, as anyone from those countries will tell you (read e.g. the NYTs article on the Finnish system here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/13/education/from-finland-an-intriguing-school-reform-model.html ). Blueprints don’t work for complex policy questions. (If you really can’t come up with a list of 10 differences between the US and Finnland/South Korea etc. that are likely to affect how educational institutions work I can help you out. But I trust you can.)

It is inappropriate to compare all charter public schools to all regular public schools, even within a state.

What’s your alternative suggestion, then? Public schools are not all the same, either, so if you’re throwing all of them, judged by the same measure, in, the only fair comparison is all charter schools on the same measure.

30

bemused 12.15.11 at 7:48 pm

My suggestion is to look at high performing schools and try to replicate what works. Here is a paper about a careful effort to do that:

http://www.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/fryer/files/no_ex_pub_schools.pdf

31

Steve LaBonne 12.15.11 at 7:52 pm

My suggestion is to look at high performing schools and try to replicate what works.

Much easier said than done, as “what works” on a small scale, and with cherrypicked students and families, is rarely scalable. (This fallacy is akin to the bullshit about Finland and South Korea.) And by the way, economists are about the last people I would consult on the subject.

32

bemused 12.15.11 at 7:57 pm

Perhaps you might read the paper I cited before making such a statement. Let’s hear critiques of what this project did instead of bluster.

33

Steve LaBonne 12.15.11 at 8:00 pm

I’m familiar with other work on the kinds of schools they cite, and my comment stands.

34

Steve LaBonne 12.15.11 at 8:02 pm

By the way, your arguments and sources in general are far less novel than you seem to think. Perhaps you could try a right-wing website where people are more easily impressed with such stuff.

35

Watson Ladd 12.15.11 at 8:07 pm

Steve, they do have a big advantage: racial mixing. In the LA area neighborhood schools will be racially segregated because of housing patterns. This is going to result in injustices because some schools are not going to get the opportunities others will. Furthermore, cherrypicking is a good thing: it enables talented students to benefit more efficiently from resources such as specialized instruction.

36

Steve LaBonne 12.15.11 at 8:11 pm

Demonstrate that these things are actually happening, Watson. Also tell me how we will even know that the latter is happening since these students will outperform others in almost any school.

37

Watson Ladd 12.15.11 at 8:22 pm

That the LA area is racially segregated in housing patterns? Do you want me to get Frank Zappa to tell you, or Ice Cube? Or that letting students cross neighborhood boundaries leads to racial mixing if the boundaries follow racial lines? My high school reflected the racial makeup of the county rather then the town I was from: it was much more diverse, with a high population of first generation immigrants.

As for cherrypicking being good for those cherrypicked, my high school had students who had gone to various programs for math and science kids who were able to tell me about them. I simply wouldn’t have known of particular opportunities if it wasn’t for them. My high school math teachers were able to have a class on vector calculus, because enough students could do math at that level to make it worthwhile. Having a very nice CNC mill was a worthwhile resource for us (we used to be a vocational school, i think it was inherited) because it got a lot of use for various projects. Same with the incubator for bacteria.

38

John Quiggin 12.15.11 at 8:24 pm

@bemused You start off with a tricksy attempt to make the post look silly (translating “one-test-fits-all-and-here-is-THE-mandated-curriculum” into “charter schools are exempt from testing requirements”), follow up with a quibble about the precise way in which charter schools siphon money away from public schools and go downhill from there with cherrypicking arguments that have been repeatedly refuted (the NYT for example, cites someone pushing your line then points out the problem). As Steve says, this kind of thing might fly at the sites you usually visit, but not here.

39

Steve LaBonne 12.15.11 at 8:25 pm

That the LA area is racially segregated in housing patterns?

That charter schools are significantly increasing integration. On your second point, anecdote != data.

40

Marc 12.15.11 at 8:37 pm

The charter school movement is quite broad and the people involved have a diversity of motives. There is a tendency to polarize and simplify in online discussions. For example, let’s say that I could show that private schools (on average) had better outcomes than public ones. Would it follow that all public schools should be closed? Or is the diversity of outcomes in both relevant? Is residential segregation in public schools relevant?

There is a real need for schools that conform to different learning styles, and some charters can serve that role. Others are scams (there was a recent scathing article on online education) or represent corporate looting of the commons. I’d come done in favor of banning for-profits. Charters or magnets (inside or outside of the formal public school system) can then fit their proper niche roles, and we can focus on improving education for the large majority of students in the more traditional system.

The charter school movement itself came out of real problems in public schools, and dismissing all of them on ideological grounds isn’t tenable. Is “parents moving to a suburb” a radical improvement over “parents stay in the city and their kids go to charter schools?”

Finally, some of us have had kids in charter schools; my daughter went to public school and my son to a charter. Theses were the right choices for both of them, and the charter in particular was an absolute lifeline for my son. Having people dismiss our experiences as nonexistent is, at minimum, exasperating.

41

Josh G. 12.15.11 at 8:41 pm

Evil is evil @ 24: “There are real genuine countries that have excellent education systems. Just copy them down to the pay the teachers there get.

Much easier said than done. For instance, Finland has the best public schools in the world. They also have virtually no child poverty. These two facts, I think, are not unconnected. But good luck wiping out poverty in the United States when one of the major political parties thinks it’s ordained by God and Ayn Rand.

Also, in the case of teacher pay, it’s not even clear what it would mean to “copy” foreign systems. Are we copying the pay in absolute or in relative terms? Finnish teachers get paid about the same amount as American teachers, but in Finland this is about 13% less than the average college graduate earns, while in the US is is a whopping 40% less (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/16/education/16teachers.html). Would equalizing pay mean leaving things as they are? Or does it mean increasing US teacher pay to match the (higher) relative socioeconomic position of Finnish teachers?

42

Antonio Conselheiro 12.15.11 at 9:00 pm

I’ve said this elsewhere, but:

1. A high proportion of American wealth, especially the wealth of the lower 80% or so of the population, is home equity

2. Home loans are important enough to bring down the world economy if a bubble collapse

3. In general, kids from better schools go to better colleges , get better jobs, and earn more money

4. Schooling is important because of general knowledge taught, because of specific skills taught, and as a marker of class,

5. People buy homes as an investment, but also in order to give their kids better economic chances

6. In the US education is mostly locally financed, with rich neighborhoods having well-financed schools and poor neighborhoods having badly-financed schools.

7. Schools, along with the media, compete with the family as socializing influences.

8. Every ideologue in the country has his eye on the schools, to say nothing of the fly-by-night education entrepreneurs.

If you try to calculate all those interrelationships you go crazy. Schools are the focus of world financial system, the American class system, and personal identity, and secondarily they also have several significant educational functions which are not necessarily in complete harmony.

Thus we can conclude that, that America’s educational problems, like all of the other problems, are too complicated to solve.

43

bemused 12.15.11 at 9:00 pm

@40: Exactly. Our family was a founding family of CA charter school #1. Many of the kids that went to that school were quirky kids who had been labelled at their schools of origin. The founding of our school was about pursuing constructivist learning and integration of in-school and after-school environments, as well as using technology in the classroom and having parent participation. Because we are in an affluent area, the goals had nothing to do with issues of race and class, but did have to do with making a school culture in which families had input into school decision making and weren’t treated as uppity factory input by the administration (and to a much lesser degree, teachers) in the regular public schools.

As to accusations that I am a right wing shill, you don’t know me and don’t know my politics or preferences. I am a lifelong Democrat, member of the ACLU, always a supporter of unions (though the blanket attacks by the teachers’ unions on charter schools have sorely tried my commitment at times.) I think “charter school” is a label with too many referrents, including efforts to try to kill unions and bring in for-profit schools in many states, but it is simply not the case that every state is the same, or that all charter schools reflect this philosophy.

44

Marc 12.15.11 at 9:03 pm

It’s also worth noting that the US system is heavily local on educational matters. As a result, suburbs can solely educate the children of their affluent inhabitants. When you combine local funding with strong residential segregation by income you create pathologies even in a purely public school setting.

One interesting feature of charters is that they can accept students without regard to town boundaries. This has driven a substantial change in the number of families with small children who stay in cities, as opposed to moving to more homogeneous suburbs. If you want to keep this aspect it’s difficult to do so within the traditional framework of public schools.

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Steve LaBonne 12.15.11 at 9:28 pm

Having people dismiss our experiences as nonexistent is, at minimum, exasperating.

Know what’s really exasperating? Having privileged people defend an entire parallel resource-siphoning system (that’s sold politically principally as a way to help disadvantaged kids) because they (who have other options) got value out of it themselves. “Short-sighted” is one of the kinder descriptions I can think of for that position.

an adult’s reading recommendation is heartily seconded.

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Matt 12.15.11 at 9:36 pm

If you want to fix the USA’s terrible health care system an easy-to-articulate (if not achieve) fix is “single payer.” The American public already spends more than enough money on health care, directly and indirectly, to do much better under a sane system. Is there a corresponding obvious improvement to American public schools, easily understandable but politically blocked by the influence of money? Maybe there is a collection of improvements that experts agree on but it doesn’t have a convenient label like “single payer?” Or is it more a case that experts (even those not paid for by moneyed interests) can’t agree what would bring improvement?

I am curious how much improvement is justifiably anticipated if schools themselves can be altered without limit but problems outside the school doors (poverty, inequality, malnutrition, victimization…) aren’t touched.

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bianca steele 12.15.11 at 9:41 pm

Charter schools appear to be the only alternative to a public school system that many believe[1] to be ridiculously inadequate. So the discussion, here, too, seems to have degenerated into whether it’s worth trying anything new, or alternately, whether it’s worth objecting to something when it’s the only possible new thing that could be tried. But charter schools, at least until very recently, seemed to have more to do with the idea that business-oriented corporations can always do things better (just as vouchers, have always seemed to have more to do with the idea that the major religions, especially all those that have nationwide networks of subsidized, thus very inexpensive schools that, at least until very recently, had a mission of serving all poor children, as well as the well-off children of the area, are always better at educating children properly) than government-run schools. It’s therefore somewhat hard to take the more superficial arguments in their favor seriously, regardless of individual anecdotes about how bad one child was doing in a regular school and how much better they did in a charter.

[1] wrongly, as has been pointed out–I’ve heard anti-public school sentiment all my life, in districts where the public schools were very good, with better college admission, more AP classes, less student pregnancy, less vandalism–there is no evidence behind this, that I have ever perceived (but again, maybe this isn’t about evidence)

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L2P 12.15.11 at 10:02 pm

“One interesting feature of charters is that they can accept students without regard to town boundaries. This has driven a substantial change in the number of families with small children who stay in cities, as opposed to moving to more homogeneous suburbs. If you want to keep this aspect it’s difficult to do so within the traditional framework of public schools.”

It has, but only by increasing the amount of time parents need to spend (a) understanding, (b) trying to manipulate, and (c) outright abusing the administrative process. There’s a huge gray market (I don’t know what else to call it) in “mandatory” volunteer work, favor-shopping, donation-bribery, and other unsavory crap that goes with schools that aren’t geographical. Good schools are scarce, enrollment decisions (supposedly through lotteries) are hard to track, and parents are desperate; it gets ugly.

I can’t say it’s a worse system than trapping kids in low-performing schools when their neighbors have great schools, but IMO it’s an issue.

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nick s 12.15.11 at 10:57 pm

Is there a corresponding obvious improvement to American public schools, easily understandable but politically blocked by the influence of money?

Destroy school districts as economic entities, i.e. recipients of property tax revenue from within that district. But that’s not blocked by the “influence of money”, so much as by parents who paid a tacit school-district premium on houses within the district.

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Meredith 12.15.11 at 11:09 pm

Tedra’s post is eloquent and nails it, if you ask me — as do many of the caveats and some of the objections raised in various comments. This is a difficult subject, after all. As a parent of children who benefitted from public education in MA in the 80’s and 90’s (and partner of a current, local school committee member), I’d only add a couple of observations to this discussion.
School-choice among regular public schools is an option in many places (e.g., in MA) — charters aren’t the only way of giving parents/children choices (apart from private schools — which, contrary to popular notions, are usually not very good — we usually only think of the good ones, which aren’t all that numerous).
The charter school movement, along with a lot of emphasis on standardized testing, outcomes assessment, and teacher-bashing, can be traced in MA to the influence of the Pioneer Institute, a very conservative outfit that insinuated itself into MA educational policy (at all levels, including the state university/college system) first through the governors Weld and Celucci. That doesn’t make charter schools all bad, or standardized testing bad. (I see a productive role for both, especially testing, if done right and used intelligently.) But it should alert us to one reason why productive educational debate has been very difficult for years now, even in a state like Massachusetts.
Meanwhile, almost nobody really cares about poor kids, especially in urban schools. The right never could have hijacked this issue with its (and Ted Kennedy’s — he meant well) No Children Left Behind if liberals or people on the left had been paying serious attention to poor children’s problems in the first place.

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John Quiggin 12.15.11 at 11:30 pm

@bemused We had a discussion about pseudonymity not so long ago. Let me restate:

Internet rule #37. Any claim you make about yourself as a pseudonymous commenter has zero evidentiary value.

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Matt 12.16.11 at 12:02 am

Destroy school districts as economic entities, i.e. recipients of property tax revenue from within that district. But that’s not blocked by the “influence of money”, so much as by parents who paid a tacit school-district premium on houses within the district.

That makes intuitive sense and seems like a good start. As great as it is for some kids to have robotics labs and swimming pools at school, it’s not worth it if the flip side of the district-based funding model is other kids suffering leaky buildings or paper shortages.

If you take a random sample of students stuck in a bottom-quintile funded school and transfer them into a top-quintile funded school, is their academic achievement more like that of the other students in the neighborhood where they live or the other students where they go to school? If the school environment is more strongly associated with achievement than the out-of-school environment then there is real hope that student achievement can be improved in an incremental way. Otherwise it seems like the even more politically difficult out-of-school inequality must be addressed for any hope of not leaving children behind.

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Andrew F. 12.16.11 at 12:26 am

The assumption in the post, though, is that improving the base option is a feasible choice given political and economic constraints. In many parts of the US, it doesn’t feel like a feasible choice to many parents. And so for parents in those areas of the US, the “live” options may be either (a) horrific public school system that will hinder their children, or (b) some chance at a better school over which they have more control.

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chris 12.16.11 at 12:40 am

We have a decently performing majority and then a set of terrible outliers which come almost without exception from districts that suffer from a variety of deep social problems, such as drugs, crime, and family breakdown.

After all these other comments, do I really get to be the first one to point out that with a family/social/neighborhood background like that, it doesn’t matter what the school is like, the student outcomes are foreordained? (On a statistical level at least — I don’t deny that the occasional prodigy will overcome all obstacles and become a great whatever.)

Blaming the school for outcomes determined by factors outside the school is the #1 problem with debate about education in America IMO, and why none of the clever educational reform solutions ever seem to work — they’re attacking the wrong problem. (Even the ones that are proposed in good faith — of course some like busting teacher unions are not, allegations of poor school outcomes are just a convenient excuse to attack another union.)

It’s the poverty, stupid. (In light of the new comments policy, perhaps I had better explain that this is a historical reference, not an insult aimed at anyone, on this thread or otherwise. Substitute “economy” and google if you want the background.)

The Scandinavian countries with their “great educational outcomes” also put a holy hell of a lot more resources into eradicating poverty both in general, and especially for children and their families — starting with giving children and their parents (and also everyone else, but that’s less relevant) whatever medical care they need on the taxpayer’s dime. Nobody doubts that more resources would be effective at improving *those* outcomes.

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Watson Ladd 12.16.11 at 12:49 am

You’re right Steve. I could just go defend local schools, which means that children down the street from where I live go to one of the worst schools in the country while those in my town go to the best. Resource-siphoning is redistributive: it enables everyone to potential gain the benefits previously reserved for a lucky few.

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Salient 12.16.11 at 2:15 am

Teaching is a craft best learned in apprenticeship.

And it’s not either/or. The “innovation” we currently need is a mechanism for associating extensive intense apprenticeship with the credentialing, filtering, and buffering system currently provided by university education programs. A workable plan that puts prospective teachers in apprenticeship for two years would be awesome, but also subject to d^2^’s criticism of craft beer microbreweries.

(That is, attempting to adopt standards and practices that make sense for a product finely tuned to agriculturally sensitive product like wine, in order to produce the expected exceptionally reliable consistency one expects of an industrial product, will produce results far too volatile to be worth the occasional unreproducible smashing success.)

((Analogy also applies to charter schools.))

It’s the poverty,

It’s the clear and undemanding pathway to a safe life free from material suffering for everybody that we need. If we could get the middle-class non-impoverished parents, whose (completely understandable) insecurity about their children’s precarious future drives the pressure they apply to maintain a system in which savvy parents have the ability to angle their kids into advantageous positions, to settle in and take comfort in the fact that their child really really is going to find a job that will not kill them, the change in incentives in community education administration would change indescribably swiftly, even if poverty was, for some horrible reason, left untouched.

The parents who intend to drive their kid to be a doctor apply their intense pressure mostly to the kid; the school is secondary, and private schools already available for the money. It’s the genuinely loving and caring parents whose kid is utterly blase that show up at PTA board meetings terrified that the dollars spent on their local school are going to be diffused away from where their kid can partake of them. They’re not greedy. Desperation in a world which has no recognizable place for your daughter or son to settle into will drive most anybody to support and defend a system that’s screwing over the folks ten blocks down.

It’s not the poverty (alone) that’s the intractable problem; it’s the insecurity that motivates the nonimpoverished to be blindly monstrous to a faraway population of competitors through mechanisms sufficiently bureaucratically obscure to not trigger a sense of remorse. There’s not enough safety to go around, so middle-class parents hoard and guard what share of it they can accrue.

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Salient 12.16.11 at 2:17 am

that should be “…a product finely tuned to agriculturally sensitive input, like wine, …”

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LFC 12.16.11 at 3:00 am

Watson @13:
Boston is far from the only urban area to “attempt to violate the spirit of Brown.”

The horrible US Supreme Court decision Milliken v. Bradley (1974), which concerned Detroit but had much wider implications, effectively condemned generations of minority (esp. African-American) students to segregated inner-city schools, esp. in northern cities.

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LFC 12.16.11 at 3:04 am

By ‘segregated’ above I mean a student body overwhelmingly minority and poor.

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Tedra Osell 12.16.11 at 3:19 am

Sorry I’ve missed most of this discussion; the holiday season is a rotten time to try to start anything. A couple of things, though:

“Children’s needs differ enough that any one-size-fits-all option will be impoverished relative to a base-and-alternatives structure.” Absolutely–and this was my point. Teachers need to be able to try new things. And in I’m not actually against alternative schools–PK went to an alternative public school program in our district, which has done a fantastic job with ever-shrinking money providing a lot of varied types of public schools.

What I’m against–and yes, I’m in CA but deliberately didn’t tailor my statements about charters to fit CA schools specifically–is charter schools being set up, as they have, as the “answer” to “bad public schools.” Especially when they draw resources from public schools. So, for instance, in my district one of the charters uses the cafeteria belonging to a “regular” school–presumably the costs of which are borne by the regular school (though I admit I haven’t looked into this). More importantly, as I was trying to make clear, they let parents “opt out” of the system, thereby perpetuating the idea that public schools are inadequate and that parents who can’t/don’t opt out don’t care, so too bad for their kids.

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Tedra Osell 12.16.11 at 3:21 am

19: I would honestly welcome information about the various laws governing charter schools and charter school funding. It’s damn hard to track that shit down; if you know more about it than I do, then by all means please share!

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Eric Titus 12.16.11 at 3:25 am

There is clear evidence that on average, they are not the game-changer that their advocates make them out to be. But there are a schools that do appear to be successes. These schools are endlessly rolled out by supporters as indicators of the promise of charter schools. Staunch anti-charter advocates often try to disprove these success stories, as though there is no way a charter could ever do anything innovative or positive. Ironically, some of these assaults imply that there is little schools or teachers can do to improve student outcomes.

While charter schools may not be solution to problems in our education system, they do seem to be spurring positive action in public schools. It is unfortunately that this is partly due to withering criticism of public schools. But for years the Democrats were too closely connected to the teachers unions to take much meaningful action on education, although some ideas were out there.

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Josh G. 12.16.11 at 3:34 am

Salient @ 58: exactly. As long as we live in a winner-take-all society, many parents are going to move heaven and earth to ensure that their kids are among the winners.

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Matt 12.16.11 at 3:35 am

I find this debate odd. The notion that charter schools are necessary is based on the premise that our schools in the US are poorly performing.

This notion is false. African American students do better than African descended students in any western nation. Latin American students in the US perform better on international test than Latino students in the wealthiest countries south of the border.

Schools in the US look like they are getting worse because of demographic changes. White and Asian students are doing as well as ever comparable to their peers in Finland and SK.

Whatever the reason for the gap between those growing and shrinking demographic groups Pedagogy didn’t cause it and it won’t solve it.

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Tom West 12.16.11 at 3:48 am

Tedra, I’m not certain, barring the adversarial relationship, what the difference is between an alternative school in the system and a charter school. Presumably an alternative school draws funding away from the rest of the public schools, so I’m not certain how it differs there.

Is the idea that an alternative school cannot bar students that steadfastly intend not to abide by principles of that school? For example, in Toronto, we’ve recently introduced an Afro-centric alternative school. Should such a school be allowed to select only those students who have at least some interest in African history or heritage?

If they have that power, I fail to see how they differ significantly from (non-commercial) charter schools as they can in essence cherry pick – if they don’t, then I fail to see how an alternative school would have any means to enforce the principles upon which the particular school was founded.

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Stuart Buck 12.16.11 at 3:49 am

John Quiggin: I was going to write something on this issue, but more on the point of how long it has taken for the research evidence that charter schools don’t produce better outcomes (in fact, the weight of evidence is that they produce worse outcomes) than ordinary public schools.

The weight of the evidence is that charter schools produce similar test score outcomes. There is also suggestive evidence that charter schools produce dramatically higher graduation rates and college attendance rates in Florida and Chicago. See pages 50 and 63 here: http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/2009/RAND_MG869.pdf

Even so, overall averages aren’t really relevant, for reasons explained here: http://stuartbuck.blogspot.com/2011/03/charter-schools-and-averages.html

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MS 12.16.11 at 4:16 am

“…thereby perpetuating the idea that public schools are inadequate and that parents who can’t/don’t opt out don’t care, so too bad for their kids”

This is the dilemma I am interested in: What does one do when the school is truly inadequate?

I think some parents’ education insulates their child from too much damage by the school. You really have to go to a deeply inadequate school though to see how little teachers and administrators seem to care about the kids. Your education does not impress them and they are highly skilled at resisting any attempts at involvement. (10 minutes 1 time a quarter, e.g., and strongly discouraged from any other contact. In fact, there is no way to contact the teacher and they do not want to speak to you before or after school. Teachers do not meet with parents whenever they want at some schools. Administrators will find something–anything–that indicate you are an inadequate parent.) If the school is abysmal, your kid may be utterly miserable 6 hours a day (or 8-9 if you use the horrible afterschool). So the kid may not be fine now. Maybe they’ll turn out fine? That’s not much consolation to them, or you.

It’s interesting from the standpoint of egalitarianism. If you favor equality in education, does this require you to occupy the bottom slot of the unequal system? I think that’s too much to ask. In the case of a charter, the debate is about worsening the fate of other students. I can see that this raises a different issue (but is still a burden put on individuals in an unequal system when they have options). It is very difficult to tell if worsening is a real threat or not. People make this claim but it is hard to find hard data.

How do you maintain your commitment to public education and good schools for everyone when that seems to be a bad thing for your child?

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Tedra Osell 12.16.11 at 4:20 am

“I’m not certain, barring the adversarial relationship, what the difference is between an alternative school in the system and a charter school.”

Well, for example in our district we have dual-immersion (Spanish/English) schools. Surely some of the kids in those schools aren’t particularly interested in learning Spanish (I assume the Spanish speakers are interested in learning English, obvs), but they will do so since it’s their neighborhood school. Other kids who actively want the second language can apply for a transfer to those schools. There’s also an “arts and tech” middle school and a “technology and science” high school; the latter is quite popular and a number of kids end up being sent to the regular high school anyway (the middle school is new and I think that they’re still trying to get their numbers up).

That said, the program–not a separate school–that PK was in does, actually, do some screening. Which I was never in favor of, actually; on the one hand, it’s a program that deliberately includes a great deal of parent involvement (and therefore, the argument runs, “needs” to screen to make sure parents are committed), but on the other yes, potentially there’s some cherry-picking. In practice the program certainly doesn’t cherry-pick along economic or behavioral lines–it has a disproportionately large number of special needs kids, for instance. But it did, unconsciously, end up with a pretty notable ethnic bias in that non-white parents were very, very rare (non-white kids, however, much less so). Hard to say how much of that “just” reflects the demographics of my city (ethnically quite diverse as a whole, but semi-segregated by neighborhood), how much reflects the white-hippy-dippy aspect of the school (sadly fairly strong and I suspect this is actually the biggest problem), and how much was a kind of blindness on the part of the parents and teachers (not unrelated to the white-hippy-dippy aspect).

But in any case. It *was* a public school program, as opposed to a very similar charter school in the district. The main distinction was that the bottom line at our (public) school was that the teachers were in charge (though a lot of parents didn’t really see this) and we were highly subject to funding cuts, which meant every year we lost non-senior teachers; the charter, in contrast, was started because the parents wanted more control over the school itself, from rules about what could be served food-wise to curriculum to faculty hiring to collectively opting out of STAR testing (which in fact can be done; individual parents can do it, so all you need is for every parent at a school to opt out and voila).

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Tom Hurka 12.16.11 at 4:25 am

@ JQ @ 53

Are you suggesting that Bemused’s claims about himself have less evidentiary value than your totally ungrounded speculations about his politics and character?

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Tedra Osell 12.16.11 at 4:31 am

“How do you maintain your commitment to public education and good schools for everyone when that seems to be a bad thing for your child?”

In a case where the kid is really suffering and unhappy, you put them in a different school. In extreme situations (bullying, etc), you homeschool if you can.

I think this is a totally separate question from charters vs. public schools, though; most districts have more than one public elementary/middle/high school.

But yes, obviously, if a given kid is really unhappy you need to support the kid. (Though that support can take lots of different forms: think, e.g., of the incredible bravery of the kids and parents who integrated schools in the 60s, for instance, who had to put up with bullying and hostile administrators/teachers beyond what most of us can imagine. I think in some cases those kids really suffered for it, but in other cases they seem, with the support of their families, community, and a token few highly dedicated teachers, to have been immunized, in a sense, from many of the pathologies you might expect a kid in those circumstances to suffer from.)

This is actually something I’ve struggled with a lot and might post about more another time.

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Tedra Osell 12.16.11 at 4:33 am

71: Knock it off. This thread is not going to derail into a side discussion about bemused.

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krippendorf 12.16.11 at 4:40 am

Chris @ 56 nails it, although with the caveat that it’s not just the poverty, it’s the inequality. Poor kids in poor schools (as measured by school funding and resources) do worse, on average, than their more advantaged counterparts on all standard measures of academic achievement. But so do poor kids in rich schools. Rich kids do relatively well regardless of school type, and middle HH income kids fall in the middle.

Didn’t Coleman’s 1966 report find that the strongest predictor of test scores, out of a huge range of measure of family and school characteristics, was the presence of a vacuum cleaner in the home? (HT: Stephen Morgan)

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bemused 12.16.11 at 5:15 am

I have changed my email address for the purpose of the moderator — You will find that it de-anonymizes me for your purposes. Aspects of my work lead me to remain anonymous when I post about politics.

I am a mom of two (now grown) daughters. My experience as a working mom and foot soldier in the mommy wars led to my participation in founding our charter school. Tedra, here is a good start about charter school rules and regs: http://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/cs/re/csabout.asp .

It makes clear that charters are obliged to undergo testing like other public schools. I suspect there could be funding consequences for schools noticed to have had a parent strike against allowing kids to be tested, but that is pure guesswork on my part.

Charter rules in California have changed over the years, especially when there was a ballot initiative in 1998 that didn’t actually land on the ballot, because it was pre-empted by legislation. See here for the history. It was a trade between lifting the cap of 100 charter schools in return for requiring various regulations to be restored, principally requiring that all teachers of core subjects be certified.

The hardest thing to describe about California public schools is the funding. The Serrano decision (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serrano_v._Priest) ruled that disparate funding between poor and wealthy districts violated poor kids 14th amendment rights and CA const. right to equal education. As a consequence school funding comes from the state according to a formula that, as a sop to the rich districts, allowed them to keep some of their excess property tax funds. This all gets more complicated over time due to later propositions that capped property taxes variously, and carved out school funding in the budget. But it is the case that the money comes to the district from the state based on the average daily attendance (another area requiring much parsing) and grade level of the child. I am not an expert about this, but California school funding is quite different from other states I am familiar with, and deserves careful study by any California parent concerned about the problems of public schools, whether charter or not.

Charters started from scratch (not conversions of pre-existing public schools) have special funding problems because they do not have buildings at their disposal. Typically the districts charge a big fee to charters for rent — if they use district facilities –and other district-provided services, so it is not the case that charters “steal” from the district schools. There can be friction between charters and regular public schools, because if families vote with their feet to enroll in charters and if teachers at regular public schools don’t want to teach in the charter, and enrollment is declining in the district, the number of classes is reduced leading to loss of teaching positions in the regular schools. I understand the resentment about this, but obviously there is an argument on the side of families having choice, and any scheme providing choice will have similar issues.

My other experience with charter schools was gleaned when watching my daughter “Teach for America” at a South Bronx charter. That school couldn’t have been more different than the school she attended as a K-8 student. It exhibited many of the worst aspects of the testing madness, its management was into gaming the test results and discouraging students who had special needs. I don’t want to start a separate argument about TFA, because I’m not planning on defending it. Thank God the advisor in my daughter’s masters program gave her the support she needed because TFA certainly didn’t.

Well enough for one day.

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Meredith 12.16.11 at 7:41 am

Tedra, you asked for it. Here’s some information on Massachusetts:
On charters:
http://www.doe.mass.edu/charter/
http://www.massresources.org/charter-schools.html
http://www.masscharterschools.org/
(The last an organization I’d like to learn more about. Any Pioneer Institute connections, for instance?)
But MA also has magnet schools and technical schools, and also school choice, e.g.:
http://finance1.doe.mass.edu/schoice/
http://www.massresources.org/public-schools-schools.html

One thing is becoming clear to me. Assuming Tedra and others here are characterizing the situations in their states accurately (I assume everyone means to do so — it’s just damned hard, as Tedra observes, to be sure of what all the laws and regulations really are, much less how they’re played out in practice), I think MA may be very different from other states. I’m beginning to be confident that laws and regulations and practices vary enough state to state (and perhaps city to city, within states) that, in using words like “charter” as if they refer to a single phenomenon, we are committing the fallacy of equivocation. The word may refer to different things in different states and even cities.

Another problem. I checked with my husband, the school committee guy (a life-absorbing activity) about just one small thing, the MA DOE website description of school choice. Turns out, when you get into the nitty-gritty, the impression left at the site, that the “home” district will cover the costs of one of “their own” who gets an open slot in another district, is misleading: the home district need pay only up to $5,000. Of course, the desirable district has a considerably higher per pupil cost, so the difference (at least $4,000 — usually more here in MA) has to be eaten by the district that takes the student from “outside.” And maybe that’s fair enough, in some big picture way. I note this fact only to observe how hard it is to collect the basic data.

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Lex 12.16.11 at 2:31 pm

It is the end of the semester and I’m pressed for time, so I’ll address substantive posts such as this substantively some other time. For now, since comments to your debut post here are closed, I just wanted to welcome you back to blogging. I was a big, albeit mostly lurkish, fan of your work at the previous blog.

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Eric Titus 12.16.11 at 3:19 pm

Chris @ 56 But isn’t the problem with the economic determinist argument that you are minimizing the impact of teachers, and schools in general? Is the charter/public debate even worth having if outcomes are exactly the same? I think it is clear that there are improvements to be made, but charter schools aren’t necessarily the way to get there.

I wonder about those (such as Matt @48) who think there is nothing wrong with our current educational system. I don’t know if he has any stats to back him up, but it’s pretty clear if you go in and observe some schools that some kids aren’t getting a great education. The US literacy rate is falling, state schools are finding that fewer students are prepared for college, etc. In many large cities, significant proportions of the middle and upper class populations choose private or otherwise exclusive schools. There are clear problems to be fixed, and until NCLB it was actually mostly conservatives who claimed all was fine and dandy.

John @

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Tom West 12.16.11 at 3:32 pm

Tedra@79: Thanks for the explanation. I was missing, of course, the most important difference: charters are (at least in theory) controlled by the parents (within state parameters), while alternative schools are controlled by the board.

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Tom West 12.16.11 at 3:42 pm

Are there any states in the USA that equalize funding over the whole state?

Ontario, Canada does this, adjusting funding for a bunch of factors (ESL students, teacher cost of living, etc.). It seems a lot more equitable, although I’m not certain it reduced the achievement gap between schools all that much.

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Tedra Osell 12.16.11 at 4:34 pm

The thing about equitable funding is that frankly, the more social problems a given community has, the *more* funding its schools need.

One of the things that struck me about working in PK’s school is that really, you can expect pretty much every. single. kid. in elementary school to have some “issue” that needs “extra” attention at some point. Mom and dad are getting divorced. A best friend moves away. A pet dies. Mom or dad works long hours and the kid misses him/her. Mom or dad is single and struggling. Mom or dad has cancer, heart trouble, mental illness, an addiction problem. There’s money stress. There’s time stress. A sibling has autism. The kid him- or herself has autism. There’s domestic abuse, mental or physical. Grandma has to come live with us. Grandma dies and mom or dad is really upset.

In other words life happens. Kids whose parents have means (health insurance, disposable income, their own physical and mental health, a supportive family, supportive friends) can see therapists (though they usually don’t), doctors, helpful (hopefully) parish counselors. They have supportive aunts and uncles, and if they have brief bumps in school mom or dad can go in and talk to the teacher in an appropriate way and the teacher will understand.

But kids whose parents don’t have those means, or whose parents are overstressed or socially isolated or lack health insurance or money, or are themselves the biggest problem in the kid’s life, can all too easily end up failing in school *even with an empathetic and supportive teacher* because, after all, the teacher also has 30 other students (give or take) to teach, many of whom are also acting wonky for personal reasons, and there’s the Material to Cover, and you can’t just put everything on hold for an hour every day while the Kid With Problems Acts Out. And frankly, academic achievement *is* the least of kids’ worries a lot of the time, which imho is appropriate: kids have a lot more important things to learn than compound fractions or parts of speech.

Ideally, all schools would have trained counselors, say one per hundred kids (a random number), trained full-time nurses, trained librarians, trained specialists for problems with things like reading, speech, etc. All schools would have someone who could help a kid who needs glasses or dentistry get it, and not just by sending home a form for a beleaguered parent to fill out. All schools would have in-class aides (like my elementary schools did when I was a kid) who could sit with a kid who needed a little extra attention, or who could move class forward while the teacher did so. All schools would have money available to pay for teachers to take additional training in academic subjects or child development. All schools would have staff on hand to accompany visiting parents, so that parents *could* visit without disrupting the teacher’s teaching.

And obviously schools with more problems, poverty primary among those, would require more money for more of these things.

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spartacus 12.16.11 at 6:56 pm

Charter school laws differ greatly from one state to another. Here in New York:
a) The State authorizes and regulates charters
b) Local school districts govern all public schools yet have no role in authorizing or overseeing charters
c) For-profit firms are not allowed to operate a charter.
d) The state pays almost nothing towards the cost of charters. The local school district is required to pay tuition to each charter based on a per-student cost calculated by the state but based on the local costs.
e) Although charters have been in existence for about a dozen years, until this year the state did not have the authority to audit charters.
f) Enrollment is by lottery if there are too many requests for too few seats.

So, it is possible to live in a community that does not want any charter schools, but get one or more anyway because the State decides to award a contract to a charter operator. The local community is then forced to hand over tuition money without any oversight rights. It’s a crazy violation of democracy.

Our experience in Albany NY has quite frankly been a disaster educationally and culturally.

We have about 10,400 public school students. Of these about 8,300 are in regular public schools and about 2,100 are in charters. All of our 11 charters are closely associated with (if not directly operated by) the Brighter Choice Foundation.

These 11 charter schools have an appalling record of phoney achievement. They tout their high scores on state testing, and indeed they do post high scores. However, they churn through students to do it. All of Albany’s charter schools have retention rates of 50% to 15%. That is, most do not retain even half of the students who enter their programs….most expel or otherwise rid themselves of a majority of their students. The ones who remain behind are good test-takers, from supportive families, who probably would have done just as well in a public school. Albany charters enroll about 4% special education students compared to about 17% citywide, and those special-needs students at charters are those with the least-difficult needs to fill. Albany charters enroll almost 100% students of color compared to about 70% citywide, thus re-segregating our education system.

One of the things that we know pretty well is that transitions hurt student achievement. In Albany, what this means is that every year, hundreds of students move from a charter school to a public school (and, to a lesser extent, move in the other direction). This is disruptive of their learning.

In New York State, citizens vote on their school budgets, i.e., the entire community decides the level of taxation they will give themselves to provide for their schools. Admirably democratic. In 2011, Brighter Choice charter schools funded an attack on our school budget vote, mailing many thousands of glossy flyers into voters’ homes, advocating a rejection of our budget. Ironically, the 2011 budget had a zero increase! Yet charter organizers fought to cut funding to the local public schools. Their own budgets, being tuition-based, would not have been affected regardless of the outcome of the vote. It was a pure attack on public education.

Over the last decade, Albany has spent over $160 million dollars on these charter schools. The net effect has been terrible. Educationally, they are unsound. They disrupt the lives of hundreds of children every year. They make improvement of the public schools more difficult by taking away resources. They remove from the demand pool a group of parents who would probably help improve public schools. They have attacked several local elected officials including our city treasurer and our school board president. They have funded the election campaigns of at least two school board candidates. One of these candidates, an incumbent, was just defeated in November 2011 largely due to her identification as a charter supporter.

This bring us to the most important point: the existence of a large, organized group of charter schools in Albany has created a terrible divide in our city, putting neighbor against neighbor and making any comprehensive improvement plan for our city much more difficult.

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Matt 12.16.11 at 8:13 pm

Eric @ 78:

I wonder about those (such as Matt @48) who think there is nothing wrong with our current educational system. I don’t know if he has any stats to back him up, but it’s pretty clear if you go in and observe some schools that some kids aren’t getting a great education. The US literacy rate is falling, state schools are finding that fewer students are prepared for college, etc. In many large cities, significant proportions of the middle and upper class populations choose private or otherwise exclusive schools. There are clear problems to be fixed, and until NCLB it was actually mostly conservatives who claimed all was fine and dandy.

How did you get that impression? I implicitly compared American schooling to American health care, and it wasn’t intended to be flattering. I was wondering if there is an empirically supported consensus among experts about how the American schooling system should be changed, because obvious problems don’t necessarily have clear solutions even if you neglect deliberate political obstruction.

In this thread, for example, you have some suggestions like “just imitate Finland.” And the response has been: what does it really mean to imitate Finland? Can you imitate Finnish schools and get their outcomes without also imitating the surrounding Finnish social and economic arrangements? The answer so far seems to be “no, you can’t make a big improvement in academic achievement for struggling students without a lot of attention to their non-academic problems.” If that’s true it is unsurprising but discouraging. It means that you can’t fix one hard problem (poor academic achievement) without first fixing an even harder one (economic/social inequality and its defenders).

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lemmy caution 12.16.11 at 8:39 pm

” My suggestion is to look at high performing schools and try to replicate what works. Here is a paper about a careful effort to do that:

http://www.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/fryer/files/no_ex_pub_schools.pdf

Those studies never scale-up. This study ends with a section on why you shouldn’t blame the author when this study fails to scale up.

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Tom M 12.16.11 at 11:49 pm

I’m a astonished to find no discussion of the NAEP results here if one (Matt) makes a contention that schools are failing. Based on what criteria? Per the NAEP, black 4th graders today score higher in reading today than white 4th graders did 20 years ago. That’s quite an improvement while NCLB has been around for half of that time.
The achievement gap still exists but if you look at the demographic changes, more Hispanics, kids forced to stay in school longer, more kids taking the test, teachers are doing a good job.
On international tests, US kids were never number 1 and lately results are not much different than they have ever been.

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chris 12.17.11 at 1:33 am

But isn’t the problem with the economic determinist argument that you are minimizing the impact of teachers, and schools in general?

The size of the impact of teachers and schools in general (relative to other factors that are, or may be, causal in educational outcomes) is an empirical question. Do you have evidence suggesting that it is large? There’s tons of evidence suggesting that the impact of socioeconomic status on educational outcomes is *so monstrously huge that you can’t see anything else at all unless you have controlled for SES first*, and even then, since the effect of SES is so monstrously huge, even a slight imperfection in controlling for SES will probably swamp whatever else you were trying to study.

The whole point of my post was that conventional wisdom *exaggerates* the importance of teachers and schools in general. That position is backed by evidence (including, but not limited to, the charter vs. other schools results that it just doesn’t seem to matter).

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CJColucci 12.19.11 at 10:33 pm

There are clear problems to be fixed, and until NCLB it was actually mostly conservatives who claimed all was fine and dandy.

That isn’t how I recall it, but then I’m getting close to the age where memory is no longer acceptable as evidence of anything. Anyone with fresher neurons have a different recollection?

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