Why Charter Schools Aren’t a Magic Trick for Poor Kids

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2017/04/14/why-charter-schools-arent-a-magic-trick-for-poor-kids/

Shrewd philanthropists and investors have helped to portray “school choice” in the form of publicly-funded charter schools as the kind of education reform that will finally satisfy the goal, starting with the authorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, of increasing the academic performance of low-achieving students. However, there are at least three good reasons that private- or publicly-funded charters will not be the educational salvation of these students.

First, charters are being targeted chiefly to low-achieving children, segregating them in a school (not a classroom) with their academic peers. Second, their teachers will not be any stronger than the teachers in the regular public schools they left, and all will, it seems, become progressively weaker.

The third reason is appearing on the horizon and it promises to drain off what is left of the K-12 academic curriculum:  a prioritizing of students’ social and emotional learning (SEL). After today’s prospective teachers complete teacher preparation programs and work for several years in the schools, they will have had time to replace the remnants of a once-K-12 academic curriculum with variously packaged empty skill sets collectively labeled SEL they have been told to use by education schools and school administrators. The result:  students, whether in regular or charter schools, who are suitable for the “collaborative” workforce desired by today’s social engineers because they are incapable of expressing logical dissent

As an example of the first and third reason, consider the recently reported collaboration in Boston, since 2011, between a charter high school and a regular high school not long ago diagnosed as ready for “turnaround.” Although one can find many claims of academic success by the schools’ directors in an opinion piece featured in the Hechinger Report, no student work (from either school) is shown as evidence. We aren’t told what kids in either school can now read in grades 11 and 12 that makes them “college ready.” Nor are we told how much this initiative cost per pupil or how many students were involved. All we are told is that the regular high school “implemented a comprehensive turnaround plan, including a 60-minute extension of its school day, providing ample time for teachers to work in teams, and supporting students’ social and emotional needs to reduce barriers to learning.”

How these “barriers” were reduced remains a mystery, as well as why this focus was considered important for success in the face of evidence for a very different approach from a comprehensive study of charters in urban and non-urban schools in Massachusetts completed in 2011.

Information from six urban and suburban charter high schools in Massachusetts (from 2001 to 2010) contributed to a study of charter school effectiveness by economists at MIT (Joshua D. Angrist, Parag A. Pathak, Christopher R. Walters. “Explaining Charter School Effectiveness,” April 2012). After comparing the achievement of students admitted by lottery with those failing to get in by lottery in order to ensure a valid comparison, the researchers concluded that the “relative effectiveness of urban lottery-sample charters is accounted for by these schools’ embrace of the No Excuses approach to urban education” (Abstract). How a “No Excuses” approach squares with whatever is recommended as “supporting students’ social and emotional needs” is not at all obvious.

Unfortunately, little pedagogical information can be found in a set of guidelines issued in 2011 by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education titled Guidelines on Implementing Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Curricula. While it authoritatively declares: “Research clearly demonstrates that social and emotional skills can be taught through school-based programs,” the document fails to offer even one published article in a peer-reviewed journal as evidence of this huge claim. The absence of research citations is glaring in the section on “instructional approaches that further student learning and success,” despite the trumpet call that: “SEL interventions can be effective in both school and after-school settings; for schools in urban, suburban, and rural areas; and for racially and ethnically diverse student bodies.”

The second reason that charters are unlikely to provide a stronger curriculum to the low-achieving students who will be given a “choice” of charter school to escape a “failing” public school is perhaps the most compelling. What qualifications will teachers in the schools of the future have? Today, many states do not require charter schools to hire licensed teachers (e.g., Massachusetts).  Principals of charter high schools in these states can hire the kind of people they want as teachers, including Ph.D.s in mathematics or science — people unlikely to be willing to take the education coursework required for a teaching license.

The 2015 re-authorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (called Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA) seems to have taken away that state-crafted incentive for many of the earliest charter schools. It requires all public schools serving low-income students, including charters, to employ only licensed (certified) teachers. Given the already-low academic level of most state’s licensure regulations and tests (whether made available by ETS or Pearson) and the current pressure to lower that level (as “barriers” to becoming a teacher) or to eliminate licensure tests judged to serve as “barriers” to the diversity of the employment pool, as did New York State, it is quite likely that future teachers in K-12 will know little more than the low-achieving students they teach. As a report from the National Center on Education and the Economy on the training of elementary school teachers recommends on page 74: “… content courses should be aligned to the level of the curriculum being taught.”

To nail the cover of the public education coffin down tight, the person (now president of the College Board) who wrote the model for the version of English language arts standards used by most states today (including Massachusetts) insists upon “cold reading” or “close reading” of historical documents — the opposite way in which historians approach historical documents, which includes taking background knowledge and context into account. See, for example, actual research on this approach and broader discussion in a Pioneer Institute blog. How will future public schools be able to find, never mind hire, academically competent teachers for low-income children, whether in public charters or regular public schools?


Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is professor of education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read her past columns here.