Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Weakness of the "Charter School" Industry

An editorial by Mike Feinberg, superintendent of KIPP Houston, admits that charter schools "are not the 'magic bullet' for education", but argues for additional subsidies to help "high-performing" charter schools expand. To his credit, Feinberg also calls for holding charters accountable and closing "low-performing charter schools". But while I understand his zeal for expanding the charters offered by organizations whose schools typically offer better performance, his argument is not compelling either as to why those organizations need to be subsidized or why the same (or better) results could not be achieved by redirecting the funding that would go toward subsidies back into the public system. As he notes, even with the existing level of subsidization, abuse is rampant:
The charter school movement was based on a simple premise: freedom to innovate, in exchange for accountability around results. Unfortunately, not all charter schools are living up to this promise. Even more upsetting, loopholes in the current charter law are allowing low-performing and fiscally irresponsible schools to stay open, which casts a pall on the majority of charter schools in Houston and across Texas that are keeping their promises to their students and families.
Creating massive new subsidies seems likely to either exaggerate that problem, resulting in even more public money being siphoned off by opportunists and scam artists, or to insure to the benefit of a handful of privileged charter school organizations, giving their schools significant subsidies that new, innovative charters won't enjoy. Further, beyond their desire to rapidly expand, it isn't clear why organizations like KIPP require additional public funding. Between funds paid on a per-pupil basis and the large donations their parent organization has amassed from various corporations and foundations, Houston's KIPP schools reportedly already spend more per pupil than their public school counterparts.

So when the proposal is made,
The government needs to [give] districts incentives to open up unused spaces for charters to use.... The government should also back bond offerings for public charter schools, as it does for their traditional counterparts, so that the competition for buildings is fair.
In relation to KIPP it seems to be more about budget priorities - it doesn't have to choose between spending more per pupil and having a brand, spanking new, state-of-the-art school facility - than it is about budgetary fairness. And, as I previously noted, when it comes to schools and organizations that are less established or less philanthropic than KIPP, particularly in the for-profit sector where abuses already seem rampant, it sounds like a recipe for disaster. I will grant, if school districts have unused space that's suitable for charter schools, making those facilities available for charters to rent or purchase does seem fair. But let's not pretend that granting new subsidies so that charters can construct new facilities, even as public schools in the same districts continue to crumble, is about leveling the playing field.

Also, when we start talking about closing underperforming charters, we need to recognize that there's already push-back against that idea particularly in the for-profit sector. Testing and standards? They're for public schools. It's difficult to see where this proposal leads, except to exceptional taxpayer subsidy and lemon capitalism that will largely benefits for-profit charter school organizations who will happily leave the taxpayer holding the bag in the event of default, and will actively lobby for exemptions from any standards applicable to public schools or for their receipt of subsidies even though they don't meet those standards based upon their professed "innovations".

Feinberg also suggests that the one big "innovation" offered by charters serving the inner city is the extended school day - something borne out by research - and that it can easily be replicated within the public schools.
HISD has taken some promising steps in this direction, including its Apollo 20 initiative, which is working with 20 historically underperforming Houston schools to pilot innovations adapted from successful charters, including the extended day and year.
But Feinberg can't resist suggesting that teacher job protections should be undermined, and suggests that public schools need "freedom to innovate", whatever that means. (What "freedom to innovate" do public schools current lack and which freedoms, if any, are not imposed by administrators?)

Here's something that puzzles me: Whatever wars public school administrators want to wage with public school teachers, why does Feinberg care if public school teachers can be easily fired by a principal? If I were cynical, I would wonder if he felt that it would make it easier for charter schools to poach quality teachers out of the public school system - after all, if they no longer enjoy tenure and are expected to work longer hours without additional compensation, why not switch over to a better funded charter school - particularly one in a brand spanking new, taxpayer subsidized facility? I don't recall ever hearing the administrator of a quality, fully private school complaining about public school teachers, save perhaps to note the importance of offering competitive pay packages. Is Feinberg's complaint really about competition? Burned out KIPP teachers move to public schools, and quality teachers in the public school system aren't interested in KIPP?1

The Wall Street Journal offers, through SmartMoney, a remarkably candid take on charter schools.2 Charters aren't significantly outperforming public schools - to the contrary, only 17% outperform their public counterparts, whereas 37% produce worse results. They rely upon non-certified teachers and have high teacher turnover. They find ways to exclude students with learning and behavioral disabilities, particularly those with severe disabilities, shifting the higher cost of their education back onto the public system. In relation to KIPP,
The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) schools have been criticized for high rates of student attrition, in part because it’s the struggling students who are more likely to leave schools mid-year – so if more students leave charters, that churn could boost a school’s scores. A KIPP study released in June found students leaving at rates comparable to the rate at which students leave traditional public schools – but, according to Miron, that study ignored the fact that KIPP schools don’t then fill empty slots with other weak, transient students the way traditional public schools do. “Traditional public schools have to take everybody,” Miron explains. “Charter schools can determine the number they want to take and when they want to take them, and then they can close the door.”

Miron found there was a 19% drop in enrollment in KIPP schools from grades 6 to 7, and a 24% drop from grades 7 to 8. Some charter schools lose 50% of a cohort each year, Miron says. And in some cases, students can be explicitly pushed out of a charter school for failing to meet the school’s academic or behavioral standards – an option that’s not available to a traditional public school.
And the biggest (non-)secret of all? “The single biggest predictor of student performance is family income". I've stated before that it's perfectly reasonable for a school to regard teachers as the most significant in-school factor in a child's education, and that it makes sense to recruit the best teachers you can and to provide them with the support they need to succeed in the classroom. But you cannot disregard the effects of poverty. Part of KIPP's success can reasonably be inferred to come from the fact that its students are more removed, both by virtue of additional school hours and by virtue of the fact that children with behavioral issues won't last long in a KIPP school, from the chaos that otherwise prevails in many of their lives.

1. With no disrespect intended to KIPP's accomplishments or to the teachers who work long hours teaching KIPP's students, I'm certainly not interested their pedagogical model, either as a parent or a former public school student, and find it difficult to believe I would enjoy working in one of their schools. I'm also not personally sold on the idea that the "cure" for inner city schools should be a model of instruction that would be rejected, out-of-hand, if proposed for a middle class school. I hope that KIPP's graduates achieve long-term success.

2. They have a counterpart for public schools which raises some valid issues, but it seems like they scrambled to come up with the same number of points.

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