What You Really Need To Know About Charter Schools

People have been hashing over the NYT's editorial (Reining in Charter Schools) all week. For different reasons, I agree with the overall assessment that charters haven't lived up to their promise and don't seem to be on a path towards changing that.

But if you want some new knowledge, check out Mike Kirst's NCSPE piece (The clashing politics of national charter movements and state/local charters PDF) for a peek at how things work inside the charter world. You may think charter proponents are all of a kind, but it's just not so.


Blogger Paul Hue said...

As long as charter schools mimic government schools in hiring teachers with "education" degrees rather than degrees in serious academic fields (literature, math, history, chemistry, etc.) and having mandatory attendance even for students devoted to misbehavior, I fear that they will fail to fulfill their hypothetical promise. Other factors undermine them, including the funding equation that gives them far less per-student than the regular government schools, and their requirement to budget for their own facilities (whereas budgets at government schools have their facilities handed to them by tax dollars).

However, charter schools at least permit a group people to create a school that -- while being undrmined by special budget penalties, and adhering to some of the worst policies of government schools -- can at least try some improvements. Do charter schools generally have the capacity to go with an all-academic currucula, with no fluffy junk food classes?

11:37 AM  
Anonymous tgabriele@mchsi.com said...

I hear over and over again that if we just got rid of teacher education programs and allowed schools to hire college graduates with 4 year degrees that this would solve most if not all the teacher quality issues that schools face. Like most simple solutions, it seems almost to good to be true. For example, is there any evidence that would lead us to believe that schools could meet their needs (numbers) for new teachers if they did this? Are there really that many math majors or history majors that want to teach elementary school? Are we sure that the students who typically become education majors would be as well prepared to teach if they majored in psychology or communication studies? I find this hard to believe but I am willing to be convinced.

7:22 PM  
Blogger Paul Hue said...

tgabriele: I very much appreciate your open mind. Very refreshing. And I will admit that I do not know as a provable fact that my proposal will solve all problems!

Let me start by stating that this proposal is a little more complex that merely replacing "education" degree with any other degree. All proponents of this view that I've encountered would limit the qualifying degree to some core academic areas in the liberal arts and sciences, which would surely preclude communications (and business, social work, criminal justice, etc.). Also, they would require some teacher training and apprenticeships.

I concede that your questions point to some very real challenges. If we remove "education" degrees, are we going to get enough graduates from these "core" degrees? This will be a problem, since "education" degrees are relatively easy, and now we would require people interesting in working as a teacher to work harder studying tougher intellectual material. Then once we get somebody who earns one of these impressive degrees, what is the likelihood that they'll want to teach, especially given the rather low salaries of teachers?

If all we change is the intellectual credential, I foresee the problems to which you point. The people who propose this change also propose other changes, which would work together. One important other change would be to pare down K-12 (especially 9-12) curricula to only include core intellectual courses; no more "office administration" and "basics of math".

Another change: eliminate "compulsory attendance". Create three sorts of schools: academies, trade schools, and day care centers. Students who are serious about academic matters will attend the academies. Those who want only to learn a trade will attend a trade school. Those who refuse to comport themselves productively in either of those facilities will find themselves assigned to day care center, where they will have access to activities that would let them earn integration back into either of the other two options.

Now we're getting somewhere. People who've troubled themselves to acquire history or chemistry degrees will be much more likely to seek employment where they are training young people in these fields, as opposed to managing a room full of kids obligated to attend regardless of their attitudes.

Into this mix I would indeed now add vouchers, and not vouchers as currently managed, but full vouchers for all students. Some of the poorest districts now spend about $10,000 per year per student. If these came in the form of vouchers -- full vouchers -- and they could apply only to core academic classes taught by people with degrees in those fields, I would expect that private outfits would find a way to maximize the amount of that figure that goes into attracting and retaining these sorts of teachers. That would, I hypothesize, force the government schools to likewise cut massive amounts from their administration budget, and decentralize their recourses into the pocketbooks of successful teachers.

Another method I propose for making schools more intellectually serious -- and thus more attractive both to seriously credentialed teachers and students -- is to eliminate inter-school sports. Let's leave that for parks and recreation departments.

I am very eager for your reactions to my comments.

12:14 PM  
Anonymous tgabriele@mchsi.com said...

Paul, thank you for elaborating on your proposal - it certainly is far from a "simple" solution and has some interesting new twists that I have not heard/thought about. The idea of forming different school "tracks" as a way of reducing the number of highly qualified subject matter specialists needed is interesting and I can see how this might actually work -at least at the middle/high school level. At the same time I find this intriguing, I have to admit it makes me a bit uncomfortable as well. I guess one of the things I most admire about the US public education system as compared to other systems around the world is its inherent optimism that all students can pursue the college track. While this may be idealistic and economically inefficient, I think one of the strengths of the American system is our core belief in second (and third) chances and our healthy skeptism that we can predict individual fates. While I realize in practice schools do many things to subvert this and this may be more of an ideal than a reality, it is the kind of ideal I would prefer to strive for rather than give up. And yet as I say this, I have to admit that the status quo fails to deliver on this promise and in that sense can be faulted for limiting educational opportunities, particularly for the disadvantaged. So while your plan may actually in the end lead to better results or at least more efficient results than the status quo, I am afraid we may lose something valuable in the process. I guess I would prefer to explore alternative ways of improving the educational system that would preserve these ideals.
As for vouchers, I am not at all convinced that the profit motive would lead to better educational providers entering the market and that the competition would in turn lead to better public schools. Anyway, this seems peripheral to your plan rather than essential.

8:50 PM  
Blogger Paul Hue said...

forming different school "tracks" as a way of reducing the number of highly qualified subject matter specialists needed

I hypothesize that this would not only reduce the number of academically qualified teachers *needed*, but also would increase the number obtained, since these professionals would have the same assurance as sports coaches that they would only be working with students committed to the task.

11:30 AM  
Blogger Paul Hue said...

one of the things I most admire about the US public education system as compared to other systems around the world is its inherent optimism that all students can pursue the college track... I think one of the strengths of the American system is our core belief in second (and third) chances...

My proposal enables and encourages extra chances for refractory students, but not at the expense of students who are either devoted to academic matters, or who are at least willing to constructively participate in academic activities. One of the great weaknesses that I see with US K-12 (and even university) education is the attempt to serve all possible customers in all possible ways, which I think makes a nice aspiration that can only succeed in making us feel good about what we're attempting to do, but is doomed to failure in producing a maximum number of well-trained scholars.

In my years of teaching and directing a private, all-volunteer program (bencarsonscholars.com) for black high school students devoted to math, reading, writing, and the SAT, I found that we could only establish functional order in 6x20 student classes by kicking out approximately one student every three semesters. We always gave such students second and third chances. But until we developed and enacted this policy, we lost perhaps 10% of our students -- and our best ones, at that -- due to complaints about disciplinary problems. We also found that we had better success changing the conduct of these "refractory" students if we kicked them out than if we expended class time and teacher energy with any other methods of discipline.

I am convinced that if schools treat refractory students the way that school sports teams do -- and indeed adopt the other values and practices of sports teams ("coached" by true subject matter experts, no vacuous activities, emphasis on repitition, etc.) -- US K-12 schools will join US K-12 sports teams at the top of the international heap.

Have you noticed, dear sir or madame, that the same US schools that fail miserably in the classroom complete at the elite level in sports competitions? This despite the coaches of those schools dealing with the same student pool (poor families, violence, etc.) and accessing the same resource pool (delapidated infrastructure, etc.). I might add that many "minority" schools have wonderful facilities and rather elevated economic level of its student body, yet sill produces sad academic output that contrasts with their marvelous sports performances.

What happens to refractory students on those sports teams? Does anybody ever cancel track practice for a "Career Awareness" assembly or field trip? How different is football and basketball practice today than it was 40 years ago, with its emphasis on repitition of fundementals, etc.?

11:47 AM  

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