Thursday, September 12, 2013

Charter schools and the movement to reform our education

If you tell someone that you support labor unions, they'll inevitably tell you about the evils of unions while using the example of teacher unions.  Even among those who like labor unions, often times they'll say that they don't support the only successful  union that's left in America.  The union that they're referring to, of course, is the teacher's union.  It's been ingrained into our minds from various television shows, movies, op-eds, articles, and anecdotal evidence that what is really destroying our public education system is teacher unions.  So to save education in our country, we need to get them away from the cartel of teacher unions.

The argument against teacher unions can be summed up best by the documentary Waiting for Superman.  Essentially, the teachers union does what unions are supposed to do.  It makes it harder and harder for an employer to fire a member, promotes job security, and guarantees a wage in line with other members.  While most unions are able to collectively bargain for wages that are higher than non-union members, there is some debate that the teachers' union is what is making it so that teachers are not paid as well, as you'd expect.  In fact, some people go as far to say that if you get rid of the teachers' union, the free market would pay teachers a better salary.

The way to escape public schools is to go to a charter school.  A charter school is a publicly funded independent school established by parents, teachers, community groups, or businesses under the terms of a charter with a local or national authority.  If you go to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools website, you'll see the usual arguments for charter schools.  The website reads, "charter schools are independent public schools allowed freedom to be more innovative, while being held accountable for improved student achievement...teachers are given the freedom to innovate and students are provided the structure they need to learn."  It sounds like, if you're against charter schools, you're against freedom.

I think partly because of the idea that charter schools will innovate to make sure students succeed, a lot of fairly famous people have advocated for them.  Here's just a small sample of people who have come out in favor for them: Barack Obama, Cory Booker, Michael Bloomberg, Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, Rahm Emanuel, and Antonio Villaraigosa.  This is not even mentioning the thousands of parents who help set up these charter schools because they think it is a good idea.

In a fairly recent annual Gallup poll, Gallup found that Americans are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the quality of our nation's schools, yet 77% of public school parents award their public school a grade of A or B, the highest such mark since 1985.  There is an obvious disconnect between what parents think of their actual school and education in the country as a whole.  Maybe that's why we see parents all over the country signing up to start charter schools in their area.

Charter schools began in California in 1992, when the state legislature decided to create public schools that could operate outside of most education code requirements and school district bureaucracies.  The idea was that they could create model schools that would test innovative test practices.  But, if they didn't post better results, i.e. standardized test scores, than traditional schools, they could be closed.  While 64 of the charter schools have failed due to administrative or fiscal mismanagement, the Los Angeles Times reports that none of them have failed or closed due to solely academic performance.  Despite the creation of charter schools in the early 1990s, the charter movement didn't really take off until the early part of the 2000s.  The reason for this rise was to, in fact, sink Los Angeles Unified School District and the teachers' union.

While it is rare in California for charter schools to be run by for-profit companies, charter schools are run by for-profit companies in other states.  One of the more prominent charter school companies, is K12, Inc, led by investment banker Michael Moe.  At an education conference attended by a former DC mayor and former New York City schools chancellor, Moe handed out information packets stating education reform could unlock "immense potential for entrepreneurs."  Moe gave out information to fight back against the union "bully" while handing out information how education is undercapitalized in our society, much like healthcare in the 1990s.

Moe is in favor of even more privatization of education.  Charter schools are the first step.  The next step in his and other "education" reformers' minds is to convert charter schools into an online education factory.  Arguments for online education is gaining steam because of the low cost associated with online education.  Educating a student through Florida's virtual school costs $2,500 less than traditional schools.  With states always looking to cut spending because government spending is the root of all evil, we have already seen legislation passed by states all over the country to make online education to creep into the curriculum.  But online education is probably a different argument for a different day.

Michelle Rhee, who was the former chancellor of schools in Washington, D.C., is one of the bigger voices in education reform today.  Rhee changed how D.C. judged schools by increasingly deciding to focus on standardized test scores.  Standardized test scores were a hot button issue because of George W. Bush's education reform known as No Child Left Behind.  Under No Child Left Behind, schools that performed better at standardized tests would receive more grants while those who underperform could be in danger of losing funding or closing.  Education reformers like to point out that standardized test scores are a fine measurement for school performance.  A lot of times if you criticize the standardized test scores, you're seen as someone pushing the union agenda.  Rarely will people say that test scores are not the best measure.  Regardless, charter schools still sell the idea that they will perform better on standardized tests than comparable public schools.

The CREDO study was issued by Stanford University and found that in math, as early as 2009, that 17% of charter schools were better than a matched traditional school, 37% were worse than a traditional public school, and 46% of charter schools had the same scores as traditional public schools.  Even more sobering for education reformers was the recent report from New York.  Just 23% of charter students scored proficient in language arts compared to 31% of public school students.  31% of charter school students scored proficient in math, the same as public school students.  The charter schools, in general, were the schools that had the biggest drops relative to other schools with similar 2012 scores.  Out of over 500 schools, including 35 charter schools, of the hundred largest drops 22 were charter schools.  Gary Rubinstein notes that the 2013 was more difficult than the 2012 tests.  The average charter school scored 51 points less in 2013 than 2012, compared to 34 points for the average public school  One plausible explanation, he notes, is that charter schools just weren't up to the challenge in prepping students for these more difficult tests.  Maybe public schools are doing a better job in prepping students.

This doesn't even account for the anecdotal evidence that is out there about charter schools suspending students who are likely to perform poorly on the tests before the test actually takes place.  Or that a superintendent, Geoffrey Canada, kicked out an entire class of middle school students because they didn't score high enough on their tests for the board of trustees.  It must be one of those innovations that teacher unions aren't taught.  Just get rid of low performing students.  It is much easier than getting rid of low performing teachers.

Of course, Michelle Rhee, was DC chancellor when an intense cheating scandal took place.  The cheating scandal took place at the same time that high measures of student achievement happened that prompted school reformers to look towards Rhee for advice.  What's more is that Rhee knew about the cheating scandal and knew how widespread it was.  In memos that were marked confidential, multiple times, an analysis showed that there were many marks that were changed from wrong answers to right answers by simply erasing the wrong answer and marking the right answers.  The analyst noted that the most common way for adults to cheat the system in high stakes testing was to change the answers.  Many outside consultants noted how easy it would be to change the answers.  The tests would stay in the building for two weeks, in case students needed to make up the exams.  The tests were in the schools for about a month.  This would have allowed adults plenty of time to look through the booklets and mark the correct answers.  One of the few teachers implicated in the cheating scandal, stated that he stood over students and coached them until they filled in the correct answers.  He stated that this was the way testing was conducted in his school.

Despite the widespread cheating scandal, Rhee has been praised by many politicians and education reformers.  Her policies have been adopted by 25 states.  Half of all newly hired teachers leave DC's public schools within two years compared to a national average of three to five years.  She fired more than 600 teachers during her tenure as DC chancellor.  In three years, she appointed 91 principals, 39 of whom no longer had those jobs in 2010.  12 of the 14 schools with the highest implications in the cheating scandal have lower test scores than before she was there.  DC's public schools declined enrollment by 13%.  DC's high school graduation is the lowest in the nation.  She gets credit for increases on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, but they rose in the same amount under Rhee's predecessor.  The gap between low income and high income students widened under Rhee's tenure.  Maybe, that is the real reason for education reform.

Education reform and charter schools will continue to be a big issue in not only politics but parenting, as well.  As more and more parents are told that their public schools are being staffed with underperforming lazy teachers, more will start enrolling in charter schools.  Despite facts dispelling many of the myths that are told about charter schools, parents still tell me that charter schools, as a whole, give students a better chance to succeed.  It has become a common idea to say that the teacher's unions are problem and weakening or otherwise getting rid of them will help students.  We can look at the American South, where teacher unions are weak, we do not see that southern schools are outperforming others.  Or you can look at charter schools where 88% of teachers are not a part of the teachers' union, where you can implement many of the ideas of education reformers but you find in every comprehensive study done, that you will have mediocre results.


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