Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Charter by Any Other Name

In the local paper today they presented what I thought was a telling example of our current and dangerous fascination with charter schools.

In theory, there's nothing wrong with experimentation and having schools try new things.  But aside from the more subversive and toxic tendency for charters to employ union-busting, a few high-profile examples have come to leave an impression in the public's mind that they are somehow better than traditional public schools.  What is often not well understood is that these special cases are not at all representative of what a charter school typically looks like.  Those somewhat storied charter schools that have shown remarkable results in decreasing the achievement gap between socioeconomic groups also tend to rely heavily on private donations or sacrifices from staff that are somewhat onerous.  The most notable of these schools is KIPP, or the Knowledge Is Power Program.
Most KIPP schools run from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on select Saturdays (usually twice a month), and middle school students also participate in a two- to three-week mandatory summer school, which includes extracurricular activities after school and on Saturdays. As a result, KIPP students spend approximately 60 percent more time in class than their peers.
This is not necessarily a bad model at all - if you can find the money and teachers to do it.  But the results you get from this type of environment should not be confused with what is possible from a more typical charter school, which is much more similar to the traditional model.

When the word charter becomes synonymous with some kind kind of magical reform, capable of turning around even the worst school, it can lead to some very unreasonable expectations.  The danger in this is that if people are taking false comfort from a supposed reform that has no real value, they are not taking action to support some other reform that might have real-world benefit.

A local school, Cielo Vista (one I have substitute taught at numerous times) has recently applied and been accepted to transfer to a charter model by the school board.  Apparently the staff and parents had been pushing very hard for the change, and for a while it appeared they weren't going to get it.  However, the application was approved, and everyone was ecstatic.  There are now 100 students on the waiting list.  Today's paper quoted a parent:
“When the charter came out, it was a win because we heard so many good things about Washington Charter — why couldn't Palm Springs do the same thing?” he said. “We wanted to get behind it.”
Now, what's interesting about this quote is that Cielo Vista and Washington Charter are two very different schools.  The "good things" the parent has heard most likely involve Washington Charter's API, or Academic Performance Index score, which is 915.  Cielo Vista's is 840.  That's actually quite good, and their score has been rising for a number of years. 

But what is also different about Washington Charter is the demographics.  The surrounding neighborhood from which it primarily draws students is upper middle class, and very white.  The state doesn't publish numbers on parent level of education or specific incomes, but around 80% of Cielo Vista students receive federally discounted lunches because of low-income, while only 30% Washington Charter students do.  Cielo Vista is 80% minority, Washington Charter is 30%.  60% of Cielo Vista students are Language Arts proficient, while 80% are at Washington Charter.

Yet despite these differences, Cielo Vista is doing quite well.  Both schools are actually ranked favorably against other schools with similar demographics.  If anything, based on indicators of how well each school should be doing considering the populations they serve, Cielo Vista is probably outperforming Washington Charter.

In the end, what this parent, and the larger public in general who see charters as somehow inherently superior to traditional schools, fail to grasp is that socio-economics - things like race, class, education and culture matter.  They matter more than any state test calculation could ever show.  Washington Charter is on one side of town, and Cielo Vista is on another.  The social capital is unevenly distributed.  In many ways, Cielo Vista will never be like Washington Charter.  The two neighborhoods will never be the same.  Maybe one day, with the right kind of investment, we will make sure that lack of social capital is no barrier to getting an equal education.  But simply calling a school a "charter" isn't enough.

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