Tag Archives: Matthew di Carlo

Why Charters Skim, and Why They Should Stop

Matthew DiCarlo of Shanker Blog deconstructs the larger meaning of the excellent Reuters article on selection practices of charter schools.

So, in the “traditional” model, public schools are supposed to be “general practitioners” – they must accept all students and serve them well. The charter/choice model, on the other hand, takes a somewhat different view – schools must accept those who apply, but different models will work well for different students. If we make schools compete for those students by giving their parents a choice, this will encourage schools to develop varying models, and to attract and retain those students for whom their approach is well-suited.
….For example, the flagship model of the charter movement is the high-cost, high-intensity approach of so-called “no excuses” schools, which rely on practices such as tutoring, extremely long school days and rigid discipline policies. But not all students, regardless of their backgrounds, thrive under these conditions, and so some of them leave (or don’t apply in the first place). Despite all the controversy about this selection and attrition, it is a crucial element of a choice-based system – students who don’t fit in well with a given approach will go elsewhere.
….In other words, one might speculate that the sheer extent to which raw absolute testing outcomes are judge and jury serves as an impediment to the “something for everyone” end goal of school choice. So long as these measures are the coin of the realm, operators will tend to compete and innovate for higher test scores, and there may be less incentive to cater to constituencies or develop/expand models that are not necessarily compatible with this priority. (emphasis mine)

These regular public schools take everyone they get, but there is a de facto screening process of sorts, by which entry into the schools requires income sufficient to live in the area. Put simply, if you can’t afford to live in a “good” school district, your children can’t attend its schools. That is one big reason why regular public schools are heavily segregated by race, ethnicity and income.

In brief: of course charters are selective. As specialists, that’s their job. And in each district, comprehensive schools act as the “general practitioners” who take all comers. But hey, before you get all righteous about it, public comprehensive schools in desirable districts are exercising choice, and this, too, is a bad thing we should fix.

I like DiCarlo’s work, but this line of thinking is disingenuous crap.

First, catch that guilt trip! All you folks opposed to charter schools, remember that public schools are viciously, ruthlessly, sorting by income. Sure, charters are sorting by ability, but only those kids shut out in the cold after geography does the job.

Then there’s diCarlo’s acknowledgement that while, in theory, each charter could specialize in teaching a different category of kids, in practice, they all want to raise test scores.

But hey, sorting’s reasonable—not the probably illegal methods outlined in Reuters, but the behavioral requirements sorting and academic expectations sorting and all the other tacit methods of getting rid of the unmotivated. Don’t get fussed about charter sorting unless you’re going to go nuclear over those dastardly rich folks keeping their schools free of pesky black or Hispanic poor people.

So let’s see. Public schools belong to districts. Any child in that district can attend the school. The public schools are ferociously bound by state, federal, and constitutional law. But because Americans self-segregate by income, these schools are morally equivalent to charter schools that take public funds, limit/select their population—and then brag about their success in raising test scores while pretending they aren’t selecting.

Di Carlo ignores the fact that charter school “success”, achieved by this selection, is used to condemn those “general practitioner” schools required to take the leftovers that none of the charters want. Charter school “success” at educating blacks and Hispanics is further used to pummel all schools, rich or poor, who have an achievement gap. Since charter schools can improve on the achievement gap, slightly (none of them have even come close to closing the gap), their “success” is portrayed as an indictment of all teachers, those lazy, fat, union-dependent slobs who just want to phone it in and teach “easy” kids and pretend that the other kids just can’t be taught. Moreover, the “general practitioner” schools forced to take all comers are portrayed as “failing schools” and face risk of closure for not doing as well as the “specialist” schools—except, remember, we’re pretending they aren’t specialists. But that’s okay, because we can start more charters to take on the kids that no one wants, but of course, those schools will “fail” as well—and, since they aren’t bound by the same rules as the true publics, they’ll be able to get away with all sorts of shenanigans.

It’s all based on a huge lie, but apparently di Carlo is okay with this because if we really wanted to change things, we’d force those rich and middle class districts to take their share of the kids no one wants—that is, “economic desegregation”.

But parents are smarter than edupundits, and far more willing to acknowledge the obvious: school quality is primarily about the peers. Low income parents who compete for charter access do so not to get their kids better teachers, but to get them better classmates. Parents who buy or rent in districts with good schools are paying to keep their kids away from low income black and Hispanic kids—few suburban parents hold their kids’ teachers in particularly high regard (good lord, if they were any good, they’d have been something other than teachers). We tried economic desegregation with busing; it failed. Moreover, the achievement gap holds intact in good school districts; poor white kids still outperform wealthy black kids and tie with wealthy Hispanic kids pretty much everywhere. Not only would economic desegregation be woefully unpopular and drive parents out of public schools, it would fail to close the achievement gap. Bad idea in every way. But until then, apparently, di Carlo is cool with charter selection, dumping the kids no one wants back in the truly public schools.

Does no one find it troubling that charters are using any sort of selection on public funds? Apparently not. This is what bothers me the most. I am repulsed by schools like Bullis Charter suing their local district for public funds to run a quasi-private school, and the only difference betweeen Bullis and KIPP is that all the kids at Bullis are rich.

So what is the answer? I think it starts by accepting that parents want peer effects, and that geographic limits on school districts are natural and normal. Within those limits, public schools (unlike charters) are required to accept all comers.

The answer continues by accepting that some kids have absolutely no desire to be in school, and these kids are disproportionately found in the lowest income communities and schools. While these kids deserve an education, any experienced veteran of low income public schools, whether administrator, teacher, or simple volunteer, can testify that these kids have a profoundly destructive impact on the classroom, on the teacher’s ability to teach and the students’ ability to learn.

So how do we fulfill our commitment to educate all children while still preventing these kids from doing any harm? First, allow public schools to permanently expel incorrigible students. Here, finally, is a legitimate role for charters: let them take the truly difficult kids, the incorrigibles, the willful destroyers. Let them enforce their behavior requirements or their educational agenda or whatever on kids who have no choice but to comply, because they can’t go back to public school.

This agenda, of course, will make it extremely difficult to recruit teachers. Charters will no longer be able to beguile high-achieving do-gooders with romantic tales of helping kids who “just need a chance”, who can pretend, for a few years at least, that they are educating the kids who public teachers just didn’t care about. Instead, they’ll need to pay big bucks to teachers willing to be enforcers to a dangerous population. No takers? Off the kids go to the alternative schools, where they can fill out worksheets.

As for those well-meaning philanthropists who want to give a boutique education to a few select low-income kids, let them start a private school.

What would such a policy entail? Well, the impossible. We would have to accept that permanently expelled students would be disproportionately black, Hispanic, male, and low-income—but that the students who benefit from this policy would also be disproportionately black, Hispanic, male, and low-income. Then we’d have to accept that this policy would not magically improve academic performance of low-income students, and that charter schools educating the toughest kids would have an even more dismal record of academic achievement. And none of that’s happening, which is why the Education Realist’s opinion is not heavily sought in educational circles, be they eduformer or progressive.

But consider what this would achieve. Poor kids would be given a secure and welcoming school environment without the requirement of a parent willing to enter a lottery. The kids who routinely destroy that safety and security would still be educated, but in a tougher and more restrictive environment, losing some rights due to their behavior. Knowledge of this dire fate might—just might—make more kids appreciative of the environment they have, and less likely to act out.

Giving all kids a safe, controlled environment in which they can learn and feel that the larger society cares about them, whether or not their parents do, is no small thing. Couple that with an incentive to behave, because otherwise a much tougher school awaits, and maybe a number of borderline kids will stay and “invest”, as TFA rather tediously puts it.

So what it comes down to, really, is who determines what kids should be expelled for the good of the majority. Right now, charter schools are making this determination and sending these kids back to the genuinely public schools, who have to take everyone. It’s time to look at giving public schools that determination, and leave charter schools to experiment with the genuinely hard to educate, as opposed to skimming the kids who want to learn. It will scale better, if nothing else.