Friday, November 7, 2008

Charter Advantages: Cause for Cynicism or Reason for Expansion?

I wrote yesterday about Eva Moskowitz's charter schools in NYC -- more specifically, how they follow in the paternalistic tradition of a number of charter schools. I noted that Moskowitz made very stringent demands of parents and informed those who didn't want to follow that they should take their kids elsewhere. The fact that charter schools can influence who attends their schools has become somewhat of a running theme in this blog. While I have absolutely no idea how pervasive it is, it's quite clear that some charter schools go to great lengths to push out certain types of students -- something that traditional public schools simply cannot do.

Legally, I'm not sure if charter schools have any more right to expel a child than does a traditional public school (I'm guessing this might differ by locale, but if anybody has seen anything on this topci, let me know) but, practically, charter schools absolutely have more power to get rid of a child. KIPP is known for holding back a number of children -- many of whom transfer to another school rather than repeat a grade. According to David Whitman's book, the SEED Academy expels almost 6% of its students each year and 30% are not promoted to 9th grade on their first try.

Now, I'm not sure of two things:

1.) How widespread the practice of expelling kids (or, in most cases, recommending that they leave) is across charter schools.

2.) How much their de facto ability to expel some students and deter others from attending affects the climates and the successes and failures of such schools.

But my gut feeling is that these are having some sort of effect -- and I'm not sure anybody would disagree (but, please, feel free to). So, for a moment let's assume that the fact that charter schools have an exit door and can attract/deter certain types of students/families is an advantage that charter schools have over traditional public schools. Here's the bigger question: does this advantage mean that we should discount what charter schools accomplish, or does it mean that we should strive to make all schools more charter-like? In theory, these aren't necessarily mutually exclusive but -- realistically -- most people are on one side of the fence or the other.

Commenter Kerri on my last post referred to the fact that charter schools can demand what they want of parents and that parents can leave if they don't like it as "the beauty of charter school." We could probably extend that out to the beauty of any sort of school choice system -- private, parochial, charter, vouchers, magnet, etc. The power to attract/deter certain types of students and rid yourself of those that won't cooperate has the potential to entirely change the way a school does business. It's hard for me to imagine that such powers wouldn't substantially reduce disciplinary problems in a school. In that sense, it would be a good idea if all schools had these powers. If all schools were "schools of choice" that had entry requirements and an exit door, then principals and teachers wouldn't be stuck in the powerless position in which many find themselves today: students and/or parents who refuse to cooperate but also refuse to leave.

On the other hand, that some schools have these powers and others don't may be a strong reason to believe that schools in these two groups cannot be compared to one another -- that they're like apples and oranges. In this sense, holding up the miraculous results of any "school of choice" and insinuating that traditional public schools should copy their model is an invalid argument -- because traditional public schools cannot, by law, fully copy their model.

So that leaves us with two options:

1.) Change the law. Make all schools "schools of choice" and eliminate an awful lot of complaints. Problems with this option: a.) there may something inherently valuable about a community school and the degree to which it fosters social cohesion in that community; b.) it's unclear what would happen to students if no school would accept/continue to enroll them -- would education no longer be a right in such a circumstance?; c.) it's unclear to what extent parents would really be able to choose the correct school for their child -- transportation is a huge obstacle, as is the dissemination and comprehension of information.

2.) Stop comparing schools of choice to neighborhood schools. Problems with this option: a.) There's no way to make people stop comparing the two; b.) just b/c a neighborhood school can't copy the entire model of another schoold doesn't mean they can't learn something; c.) finding a reason for differences between these two groups doesn't really help either boost their performance.

So, in short, it's not possible to make all schools "schools of choice" without excluding some students/families from the education system -- but simply living with limitations of non-choice schools doesn't solve the problem. What's a nation to do?


Rebecca said...

A few thoughts (I study choice at ASU).

Most paternalistic charter schools require parents to sign a contract, so that when they expel a child for failing to comply they are covered. Realistically any school (including traditional public) can expel a student for some offenses, but charter schools will use their charters and parental agreements to define somewhat more liberal criteria.

Regarding how wide-spread the practice is, we hear the most about schools like KIPP because those that stay generally see substantial improvements. But most charters don't play this game. In AZ most charters go out of their way to attract students who are not successful in public schools. There are few academically advanced schools whereas most charters are perceived as being a place to go if you can't hack it in public school.

Here's my thought - If we allowed all schools to set their criteria, someone would step in to get the money for students who got booted; probably the virtual charter schools. Despite initial expectations that charter schools would become the refuge of the rich and privileged, the majority focus on at-risk kids.

The question of parents choosing the right school, there is evidence that their idea of "right" and our idea of "right" aren't the same. For all that neighborhood schools are supposed to build community, parents who use choice are choosing to self-segregate by race and are happier regardless of improvement or even drops in achievement. (email me for cites.) I'm arguing (in the dissertation that I haven't read yet) that school quality to parents is as much about cultural homogeneity and safety from disagreeable ideas as improved achievement.

In the end though I reject your assertion that you can't provide more latitude to neighborhood schools without eliminating some students from the system; as we have seen with the proliferation of charter schools aimed at at-risk kids, there are entrepreneurs willing to step in and fill whatever gap is left, especially when they get paid per student.

In doing so we may live up to one bit of the promise that charter schools in the first place; taking ideas that work (such as getting parents involved and setting specific expectations for what both the student and child will do) and bringing them back to the public schools.

Rebecca said...

One more thought; I find the whole paternalistic charter school both fascinating and sad. What is essentially happening is that the schools are force-feeding both the children and the parents a form of middle-class social capital that they otherwise don't have. Rather than objecting to the hegemony of middle class values as a root to success, these schools are taking the attitude that they should make up the gaps the students don't have to give them the knowledge and values necessary to success that middle-class kids get by default from their parents and upbringing.

I know that as a ed-school student I "should" chafe at that approach, but I am above all a practical person and have to admit that I respect it. It's a difficult path for the kids who follow it, but it acknowledges the world as it is rather than letting the kids flounder waiting for the world that we would like to be.

Rebecca said...

fyi, i am appalled by the number of wording errors and typos in those two comments - I wish I could fix them. I swear, I'm not a dingbat....I just need to proof-read BEFORE I hit publish....

RDT said...

I think it would help a lot if the comparisons between schools became more specific. There is so much variation in charter schools that a simple "charter" vs. "regular" isn't all that meaningful.

More meaningful are questions like Does a longer school day matter? Does class-size matter? Does "paternalism" help? Does expelling problem students increase the achievement of the remaining students (rather than just removing low-achieving students from the sample)?

If expelling difficult students really helps the students who remain at the school, we need to start looking at better options for the students who are expelled -- sending them back to "regular" schools doesn't help either the students at the "regular" schools or the students who are expelled.

kerri said...

i'm not sure how charter schools work in other states, but in PA i'm pretty sure they have to go through the same steps as regular public schools to expel kids. HOWEVER, i have seen charter schools in PA and NY use their positions thus: when a kid's behavior becomes particularly unbearable, the head of the school calls the parent in and says, "you have a choice: we can expel your kid, or you can make a choice to withdraw him and send him to another [usually his local public] school without an expulsion on his record." amazingly effective. so charter schools control their student populations without actually using more expulsions. it's genius, really.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Rebecca: Some very good points. I hadn't though about the virtual schools. You're probably right, somebody would eventually swoop in to take in these kids. The problem is if it's not a school that the kid wants to attend (well, more accurately, that the child's parent doesn't want him/her to attend).

Rachel: Yes, those are more meaningful. But it's not always what we see done. Also, it's not just whether expelling a student helps others out it's a combination of actually filtering students and having the power to filter students. In other words, the fact that a school *can* expel a student may cause them to behave differently -- and the fact that a student/family can leave the school if they disagree may cause them to act differently.

Anonymous said...

Good questions and discussion. I have no answers, but I do have a question, a bit tangential perhaps. Rebecca, I am puzzled by your statement "Rather than objecting to the hegemony of middle class values as a root to success . . . . ", and then in your next paragraph, "I know that as a ed-school student I "should" chafe at that approach . . . . " That sounds strange, very strange. May we conclude from these quotes that the ed school perspective would be that middle class values should be put down on some moralistic grounds, and/or that lower class values should be honored? That somehow the middle class is oppressing the lower classes? That middle class success comes at the expense of lower class lack of success? If this is the case then ed school is a lot more ideological than I had realized. And if that is indeed the case, then ed school is doing a lot of harm.

Rebecca said...

Many ed schools (mine in particular) are filled with people who believe that feeding middle class social capital to disadvantaged kids as more likely to lead to success is immoral. It implies that they can't succeed in their own way, and any implication that they should have to change in order to succeed is considered bad.

I tend to disagree; I am a realist, in that I prefer to prepare kids to deal with the real world, and frankly those values are what will help them succeed in that world. To me if we can't solve the problems of culture and poverty (which we certainly can't do in the short term) than the least we can do is give those kids the tools necessary to succeed.

My ed school is extremely ideological. My adviser likes to gloat that he found me (the most published and most earned recognition of all grad students) in the reject pile; I was insufficiently ideological and nowhere near liberal enough for my school. My adviser also hates the fact that being ideologically in tune with the school is far more important than ability to write, and quantitative ability is practically a negative.

Frankly I should have gone to someplace like Chicago,Vanderbilt or Stanford; somewhere quantitatively oriented and less ideological. I might be less alienated from my peers. Too late now though; I'll finish and show them that they were wrong.

Rebecca said...

Timely article: Jeff Henig wrote a policy brief on KIPP schools -

Henig is one of the most experienced scholars writing about charters an choice. This is a very evenhanded report on the KIPP schools.