As of this writing, the Chicago Public Schools are on strike. By the time you read this, that strike may be over, but the issues it has raised are important to the future of education.
Many people want to oversimplify the teachers’ strike as one over money. These people are conveniently ignoring the other issues at the heart of the strike, and I believe this is damaging to the way people talk about education in this country. The strike is about so much more than that-- and to simply decide it’s about teacher greed is both ironic (Teaching is an overpaid profession now? Really?) and ignorant of the very complex issues teachers deal with.
One such issue is the emergence of charter schools, and their impact on public schools. I could write a book (and I am) detailing the problems with such schools; but for the purposes of this blog, I’d simply like to point out some things that tend to be surprises to people when I have discussions about this very topic.
This is not meant as a condemnation of all charter schools; simply a primer so that parents understand that these schools are not equal in terms of apples-to-apples comparisons with public schools, and therefore can ask informed questions before sending their child to one. Not all of these facts apply to all charter schools, but these are concerns that any parent thinking of sending his or her child to a charter school should consider.
Let’s start with a “success” story:
Geoffrey Canada is heralded as the champion of charter schools. In Harlem, his Harlem Children’s Zone school has been featured as a successful school—one that President Obama himself has declared a model for the future—and was prominently featured in the documentary Waiting for Superman. And the secret of Canada’s success can be whittled down to one bright spot: he has made education a commodity. The wait list to get into his school is a mile long.
And that is one benefit that Canada enjoys that public schools cannot. He automatically starts the year with a student and parental population dedicated to learning. And, more to the point, he can dismiss any current student in favor of someone else on the wait list, should they not meet the school’s standards. In short—and perhaps a bit cynically—Geoffrey Canada’s school is a success partially because he can literally discriminate; Not in any racial or sexist sense, but in an educational sense that public schools cannot enjoy. If public schools had even a minimum GPA standard, or wouldn’t fear lawsuits for permanent expulsions of students who broke the behavioral code, they would instantly look better on paper due to the sheer nature of statistics.
But that doesn’t concern parents who are looking to send their kid to a better school. In fact, if I were a concerned parent, I’d be all for that model, too. Why I would give a damn about state and local policy, when the shortest route to success is placing my child in an environment where learning really is policy number one, is beyond my ability to negotiate.
Unless, of course, if my child has a learning disability or speaks English as a second language. Then it might affect me, because many charter schools do not have to accept them. After all, a student population with a wide range of abilities will drag down their numbers.
They present a bigger challenge. Let the public schools deal with them.
Speaking of numbers, when you see statistics comparing charter schools and public schools, take them with a grain of salt. Many charter schools set their own curriculum, and methods of implementing it. Sometimes this is good, and sometimes bad, but it’s simply different—and that needs to be taken into account when it boasts about graduation and college acceptance rates.
And, if they make that boast, the appropriate follow-up question would be to ask about statistics that show what happens to their students AFTER they get to college.
Another difference between the models involves the teachers a privately-funded charter school hires. Most of them do not require a teacher to even be certified by the state for employment. A simple bachelor’s degree will do. And if you are a certified teacher, you need not be certified in the area you eventually teach, necessarily.
This means that the education your child is receiving is not necessarily one by a state-qualified teacher. And considering their much lower salaries than public school teachers, and that many of them might not be under continuing contract, they might quit at any time throughout the year-- and they often do, because teaching (believe it or not) is a really, really hard job.
How much does it matter that the playing field isn’t level? It turns out that, once you open the discussion to a comparison with public schools, charter schools underperform despite their advantages.
A 2010 study by the Department of Education says, “On average, charter middle schools that hold lotteries are neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving student achievement, behavior, and school progress.“ They also found that—and this applies to our more affluent readers, “charter schools serving more advantaged students—those with higher income and prior achievement—had significant negative effects on math test scores.”
The Chicago teachers know these things. They know that there are good charter schools, and there are bad-- but it’s simply not fair to fund one type over the other as if they were on equal footing, and then belittle the efforts of one type of teacher while praising another.
And if we are not going to measure charter schools by the same standards—whether they be enrollment, staffing, curriculum, or in terms of statistics—that we measure public schools by, then it is up to the parent to sufficiently and knowledgably investigate whether or not the institution they are sending their child to is a legitimate upgrade from a public school, or simply a tool for someone to make money by privatizing education.
That decision affects not only their child, but our society as a whole.
You can follow Patrick on twitter @PatrickInPublic