First, let’s savor the irony: Two former (private) school chums duke it out over charter schools.
Last Monday, Jonathan Alter published an article in the Daily Beast that was at least partly a response to my New York Times OpEd, “The Myth of the New Orleans Charter School Makeover.” Alter’s piece is entitled “Why Liberals Should Learn to Love Charter Schools.”
Alter begins by reassuring us that the Obama administration and “left-leaning groups” like Democrats for Education Reform are pro-charter. The fact that there is no daylight between Republicans and Democrats on the subject of education reform and privatization is small comfort. In politics, when everyone agrees on the One Right Way, there’s a good chance it will lead to a dead end.
Alter’s biggest mistake is that he fails to see public school systems as, well, systems. Even if he’s right that the “top quintile” of charter schools perform very well, that’s virtually meaningless from the perspective of creating a better system. There are good public schools as well as good charters, after all. A 20-percent success rate is meaningful only if you can show a path to scaling that success in a practical way.
The two questions we should be asking are: A) What is the best method by which to improve all schools? B) If, as in New Orleans, charter schools are used as Trojan horses for turning public schools into dumping grounds for the weakest students and, eventually, eliminating public schools altogether, what is the cost of doing so—to kids and to our society?
There is growing evidence that the market model of large-scale public-school replacement by charter schools—one based on a competitive race for limited philanthropic funding for whoever produces the highest test scores—is a zero-sum game that can only work by sidelining the most vulnerable kids.
The evidence from New Orleans, after a decade-long experiment with other people’s children, is not encouraging. Even as Alter accuses Diane Ravitch and her “acolytes” of cherry picking statistics, he chooses to ignore a host of serious problems with the charter-for-all model a la New Orleans:
–Alter relies on a completely false statistic about New Orleans charter-school success rates that is touted by Paul Vallas, but not by credible educators now in New Orleans, i.e. that only 6 percent of charter schools are failing; the implication is that 94 percent of New Orleans charters are successful. (Vallas also mendaciously asserts that the New Orleans model has proceeded “with no displacement of children.”) Based on the grades given every school in New Orleans by the Louisiana Department of Education, fully 40 percent of the schools that were taken over by the state following Hurricane Katrina received grades of “F”, “D” or “T” in the 2013-2014 school year; the latter are schools so bad–they received “F” grades for at least three years–that they have been recently “taken over” by a new charter operator with their “F’s” converted to “T’s” for takeover. (Presumably, the only way to get to 6 percent is by including in the denominator, the mostly selective Orleans Parish schools, which were never taken over by the state and to which most poor Black kids in New Orleans have no access, and excluding from the numerator both D- and T-rated schools from your definition of “failure”.)
–Alter ignores growing evidence that New Orleans charters push out the most vulnerable students. See my latest NYT OpEd and Owen Davis’s “The Uncounted”
–He brushes aside the searing indictment of the New Orleans model by its erstwhile champions in the black community. Andre Perry, who was one of the few black charter-school leaders in New Orleans, said recently: “There were some pretty nefarious things done in the pursuit of academic gain,” including “suspensions, pushouts, skimming, counseling out, and not handling special needs kids well.”
Alter asserts that charter schools are public schools. No; they are private enterprises that use public funding, but with little oversight—which is how those New Orleans charters got away with those “nefarious” practices. Pedro Noguera, an education professor at the University of California Los Angeles, was spot on when he called the charter sector “stunningly opaque, more black boxes than transparent laboratories for education.”
Finally, Alter, like the billionaires who support DFER, is a scathing opponent of teacher’s unions. In Waiting for Superman¸ Alter called teachers’ unions “a menace and an impediment to reform.” Yet, if we take test scores as the key measure of success, Alter should be wildly pro-union because the best test results have been achieved in blue states with strong teachers’ unions. Think Massachusetts. Meanwhile, anti-union states like Louisiana continue to produce the lowest test scores. Then, too, the test-based reform and accountability lauded in Superman led to cheating scandals in both Washington, D.C. , Atlanta and beyond.
All this should not deflect attention from the serious work that public schools and school systems must do to focus on meaningful, collaborative long-term improvement. There is a rich body of knowledge on how such efforts can be realized in a range of institutions, including schools—though they have been virtually ignored by mainstream reformers. As part of such efforts, bloated district bureaucracies will need to be downsized. And teachers’ unions will need to move away from the industrial-era model of unionism with its strict work rules and seniority system.
But as Richard Kahlenberg has pointed out in his gripping biography of Albert Shanker and in his new book, A Smarter Charter, authored with Halley Potter, unions can be an important force for reform. (A key takeaway from the latter is that the best charters are those that give teacher’s a meaningful voice in school improvement.)
An important reminder on this week of Labor Day: At a time when real wages are declining and the lowest-paid Americans have seen their pay checks shrink the most, any American who is concerned about growing income inequality and the difficulty that Americans today have of climbing to, and staying in, the middle class should find ways to support—and improve—unions, not undermine them. (Elementary and high school teachers have suffered a 3 percent decline in real wages between 2009 and 2014, while the wages of special-education teachers has dropped 9 percent, according to a new study by the National Employment Law Project.)
In New Orleans, privatization has meant sky-high teacher turnover and legions of inexperienced teachers—including, Alter’s beloved TFAers, toting books by the much-praised Doug Lemov. But so many of these “innovations”—the hiring of college kids with a mere five weeks of teacher training and Lemov’s “taxonomy” with its hand gestures and “common vocabulary” and the relentless focus on behavior—are used by many charters to replace professional teachers with temporary workers and canned curricula.
The sad truth is that the no-excuses model has become widespread not because it’s the best educational model for kids, but because it helps inexperienced teachers control their classrooms. It’s a model that, I’m confident, neither Alter nor I would select for our own children. [And it’s in direct opposition to the progressive model of education of which we were the beneficiaries at the Francis W. Parker School in Chicago. (Jon transferred to Phillips Academy for high school.)]
Anthony Recasner co-founded New Orleans’s first charter school, New Orleans Charter Middle School, in the 1990s—a progressive school that bares little resemblance to today’s no-excuses charters—and is one of the city’s most respected educators. He is also one of the only leading education reformers in New Orleans who grew up as poor and disadvantaged as the kids whom the local charter industry purports to serve. “Education should be a higher-order exploration,” Recasner told me three years ago, adding: The typical charter school in New Orleans “is not sustainable for the adults, not fun for kids.”
The fact that leading Black educators, including Recasner, Howard Fuller and Andre Perry, are increasingly critical of the New Orleans charter success narrative—critics who can hardly be called Ravitch acolytes—should give Alter pause about the direction of the modern-day charter industry, the mainstream education-reform movement as well as what’s best for kids.
Alter would be on much firmer ground if he were to advocate for a return to the original mission of charter schools, which was to serve as small-scale experiments in innovation and flexibility designed to improve public schools—a mission that has been abandoned by today’s charter advocates. Sadly, there is little learning or sharing in either direction even though there is much that the best schools—both public and charter—could learn from each other.