A prominent education historian, Diane Ravitch, writes in her latest blog, Bridging Differences, with Deborah Meier, that many charter schools are not the silver bullet depicted by films such as “Waiting for Superman,” or other educational pundits. Instead, unregulated, they can be lead bullets which poison education, especially for the least privileged and those in high poverty communities.*
The following quote (of a quote) from her blog is telling and gives a prime example of the inequitable rules charter schools operate under, while the public schools must accept any and all, regardless of educational performance, behavior, etc.
[Diane Ravitch writes:] I received an email from Dr. DeWayne Davis, the principal of Audubon Middle School in Los Angeles, which was sent to several public officials. Dr. Davis said that local charter schools were sending their low-performing students to his school in the middle of the year. He wrote:
“Since school began, we enrolled 159 new students (grades 7 and 8). Of the 159 new students, 147 of them are far below basic (FBB)!!! Of the 147 students who are FBB, 142 are from charter schools. It is ridiculous that they can pick and choose kids and pretend that they are raising scores when, in fact, they are purging nonperforming students at an alarming rate—that is how they are raising their scores, not by improving the performance of students. Such a large number of FBB students will handicap the growth that the Audubon staff initiated this year, and further, will negatively impact the school’s overall scores as we continue to receive a recurring tide of low-performing students.”
This example, according to Ms. Ravitch, plays out in charter schools around the country, inflating their achievement records, and forcing the most academically and behaviorally challenged students upon public schools already straining under the weight of the myriad of conditions foisted upon them by local, state and federal laws.
While most of those laws are well-intended and necessary to ensure equitable treatment of students from all backgrounds, the additional burdens they impose are not fully funded and so stress the public system further each day. Charter schools get a pass on many of those rules and regulations so it’s no surprise if they achieve higher performance when they can dismiss students from school for failing to meet academic and behavioral expectations. This improves the perception of their performance by removing the lowest performing students and immediately decreases the perception of performance of public schools since they must take those same underachieving students that were dismissed from charter schools. This inequity is doubly deceptive and burdensome when comparing achievement between charter and public schools. The playing field for the two is not level; hence, it is disingenuous for free market advocates to compare the performance of the two and point to the amazing accomplishments racked up by charters. While most charters truly try, and want, to improve their students’ academic performance, few really do since so many other factors are involved in student achievement than the school and teacher; nonetheless, it borders on misrepresentation when charter advocates claim charter students outperform their peers in public schools.
When the media, pundits, and politicians rail against public education (or any issue, for that matter), keep in mind they typically grasp only the narrowest of concepts that neatly fit into sound bites that make them look on top of things for their audience, customers, and constituents. They rarely dig deeper than the talking points, key messages, or other “marketing and PR” material provided to them by those advocating for their ideas, whether they are sound, realistic, or even true. As long as it pulls heartstrings, sounds logical, and generates enough interest in a segment, likely ignorant of the facts or how they are manipulated, these voices dominate the public forum drowning out those that speak from experience, fact, or truth.
It is a shame that our democratic system is so easily twisted to suit the needs of those with money to spend on spreading their word, regardless of its truth, accuracy, or validity, all in the name of making a buck, and letting those with the largest egos drive our national debates. Thank goodness for the Internet which allows voices like Diane Ravitch’s, Richard Rothstein’s, and others who do their best to speak with facts to support their points, in hopes that the mainstream media will pick up their stories and carry it to the masses, thereby providing balance to the heavy-handed, distorted perspectives offered by those like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee who seem more interested in themselves and bashing teachers and teachers unions than students in their charge.
* I spent seven months in the 2009-2010 academic year volunteering in the math department at a college prep focused charter high school that served disadvantaged students; over 95% of the student body are Hispanic, about 85% qualify for free or reduced lunch, and over 40% are english language learners (ELL). Everyone at the school from the executive director and principal to the teachers to administrators to staff provided their students with compassionate support while helping them develop the academic and behavioral skills necessary to succeed as first generation college attendees, and, thereafter, graduates. While I did not have the opportunity to discuss the specifics surrounding dismissal, or dropping out, from the school, I was told that there was an approximate attrition rate of close to 50% from freshman to senior year. I never had a chance to delve into the details of the attrition but suspect it was a mixture of academic, behavioral, and other factors such as moving to another area or wishing to remain with prior friends in public schools. In spite of this, one thing was abundantly clear, this school existed for the benefit of the students.