Monday, October 5, 2009

Charter Schools: Is More Always Better?

In the wake of the Hoxby et al report on the effectiveness of NYC charter schools, quite a few people seem to be jumping on the charter expansion bandwagon.  Andy Smarick, calls Bloomberg's plan to expand the number of charter schools "fantastic."  The NY Daily News prods the state Education Commissioner to create more of these "roaringly successful" schools.  And the NY Post, in their article praising the report, asks "only one question left: Will Albany let more of these better schools open?"

But I can't help but wonder if this is the appropriate response.  In the words of Lee Corso, I'd like to say "not so fast, my friends."

When you were a kid, did you ever wish you could eat pizza (or ice cream, or whatever your favorite food was?) as every meal?  You really, really loved it when you had pizza instead of broccoli or whatever boring food you had with most meals.  And you were absolutely convinced that the world would be a better place if only you could have pizza for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day.

But now that you're grown up, you know that that's silly.  For a while, you'd be living the high life.  Maybe you'd love every piece of pizza you had for a week or two, but eventually, you'd get sick of it (and probably literally get sick too).

And I wonder if a similar issue doesn't exist with charter schools.  For a second, let's assume that the report is right: that NYC charter schools are outperforming traditional public schools in NYC.  The appropriate reaction to that is not "quick, build more charter schools" it is "I wonder if that will still be true if we build more charter schools."  Maybe it's my research training speaking, but I fail to understand those who cheer on policies before they're proven to work.  If we truly want what's best for our children and our society, we should be agnostic about which policy is best at the beginning of an experiment.

Unproductive cheerleading aside, I really do wonder what the optimum number of charter schools is.  Right now, I think there are around 80 charter schools and 1,000 traditional public schools in NYC.  There's some evidence that the former are doing better than the latter.  But will that be true if we have 400 charter schools and 800 others?  or 2,000 charter schools and 0 others (charter schools tend to be smaller, which is why the total number of schools keeps climbing in these hypotheticals)?  We can make some guesses, but nobody actually knows.  I can be convinced that it's worth exploring, but I cannot be convinced that doing as such will automatically yield spectacular results.  Here's why:

Scaling up is tricky.  Just like it's easier to cook a good meal for two than it is for 200, I wonder whether it's easier to create good charter schools for 5% of the population than it is for 50%.  Since charter schools are, for the most part anyway, highly decentralized this might be less of an issue -- if each one is self-contained, there aren't as many scale-up issues.  But, as I've argued before, one crucial aspect of the charter school model is that low-performing schools are quickly closed in order to make way for better ones.  And I wonder if this will be harder to monitor with 800 charters than 80.

Talent and funds are not unlimited.  Many of the most successful charter schools have received an enormous amount of philanthropical funding.  This may or may not be instrumental to their success, but I think they'd all agree that the talent they're able to attract is.  Charitable donations may or may not expand at the same rate that charter schools do, but I'd think it's extremely unlikely that the number of talented, hard-working people willing to dedicate themselves to working long hours for middling pay at a charter school likely is.  KIPP and other schools run nationwide searchers and rely heavily on Teach for America alums.  Well, TFA only accepts a few thousand people each year and only some fraction of those people will be willing to spend years three through ?? at a charter school.  How many more talented, dedicated, sacrificing people are out there?  I really have no idea.  There certainly aren't enough to staff the million plus schools in the country if we want the same level of talent/qualifications (and have the same level of turnover) that we do at the most famous charter chains, but I suppose it's possible that there are enough to staff more charters in NYC.  How many more?  I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Not all charters are created equal.  The charter report draws a distribution of the effects on test scores of all the charter schools in NYC.  Some do worse than traditional public schools, some do the same, and some do better.  Which type will we create if we expand the number of charter schools?  If funds and talent run out, two things could happen: 1.) we could create middling, or even poor, schools; and/or 2.) we could dilute talent and funds and currently successful schools -- ultimately hurting the children of NYC.  It's certainly possible that distribution of charter success will be the same if we double the number of charter schools -- in other words, the new schools we create might be the same as the ones we have currently -- but I see no reason to be sure of this.  It seems equally plausible that the new schools we create will fail to live up to the hope we have for them.

It seems almost certain that the number of charters in NYC will continue to grow.  And I, for one, am not going to pretend to know how that will pan out.  But I eagerly await the results.


Gideon said...

Your argument might make sense except for one important fact: charter schools are supposed to be accountable for performance. So if a new charter school doesn't perform well after five years, its authorizer is supposed to shut it down. In this scenerio you have a dynamic system where the overall pool of schools should keep getting better as the weaker schools are closed and replaced with higher performing schools. Under the current system, most failing schools stay open year after year, and the students have no choice but to attend them.

KitchenSink said...


You have to remember that charter school authorizers are a factor in this soup as well.

There are real concerns with the authorizers' (particularly SED) ability to keep up with a rapid expansion of charters in NYC. Without a commensurate increase in their number of horses, which is a cost the public may not be willing to stomach, they may not be able to successfully run the race right. It is very expensive to properly oversee and, if necessary, close a charter school. That's why nationwide, not enough bad charters are being closed. I think Corey is right on point with his analysis (and I'm a big charter supporter, by the way - I just don't want to see quality be lost in the madness to increaes 'market share').

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Actually, that doesn't really matter, for two reasons:

1.) A large percentage of charter schools right now are not blowing away other schools -- but they're not doing so terribly as to merit a shutdown. In other words, there's nothing in the charter laws that prevents the creation and replication of a ton of mediocre schools.

2.) Closing down the worst schools has zero effect on the dilution of talent and funds that I worry about -- if there are more schools, even if some of those are subsequently closed, we still have to find more talent and funds to spread around.

Tom Hoffman said...

Also, do parents want to live in a system where their kids future is largely determined by whether or not they win the lottery to get into the right massively over-subscribed charter? Where each parent is trying to pick a whole list of choices of which they might get #6 if they're lucky?

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Hypothetically, if we create enough charters then there shouldn't be a huge waiting list to get into one -- especially if we succeed in closing down the low-performing ones and replicating the best ones.

Unknown said...

Good post, but I think that the pizza, ice cream, etc., analogy is a little wayward. One of the fundamental reasons for the creation of charter schools is so that unique educational ideas can come to light; so that variety can be brought to the table.

In other words, without charter schools, we run the risk of eating pizza and ice cream all day.

If you need any examples, take a look at these five charter schools created in the past year:
1. The Teacher Equity Project Charter School
2. Growing Up Green Charter School
3. Bronx Community Charter School
4. Green Dot Charter School (okay, a little older)
5. VOICE Charter School

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Chripstopher: The fact that there are some extraordinary charters out there doesn't prove that creating more charters will result in more extraordinary schools -- nor does it prove that creating more charters will not weaken these extraordinary schools.

Anonymous said...

I fail to understand those who cheer on policies before they're proven to work. If we truly want what's best for our children and our society, we should be agnostic about which policy is best at the beginning of an experiment.

Right on. I fail to understand those who cheer on the public schools before they're proven to work. We need to shut down the public school experiment now.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

That's absurd in too many ways to mention, but I will point out that charter schools ARE public schools

Anonymous said...

The study that you are referring to did not reach any conclusions about why charter schools
succeeded. The reason that the scores are high is because these charter schools can and do expel students out of their schools if they do not perform at a certain level in terms of test scores. See "Charter schools pawn off
flunking students, says public school principal"

Read more:

The reasons given for the results were anecdotal. The study did not reach any conclusions about why charter schools succeeded, but noted that many had extended school days and school years, mandatory Saturday classes, performance-based pay for teachers and a disciplinary policy that punishes small infractions and rewards courtesy.

Also, the individual doing this study is an economist, not an
educator. If you want to see a study regarding charter schools that was done by a team of educators also from Stanford, see "PACE issues scathing report of charter schools". This study was paid for by the Wal-Mart Foundation who were proponents of charter schools.

A small study that doesn't ask the question of "why" in terms of the results is in my view not a
valid study. It appears that test scores over a certain amount of time were gathered and used to provide the statistics necessary to support the existence of charter schools. That’s all that was done.

Also, charter schools hire young and inexperienced teachers who don't mind working the longer hours and receiving minimum pay and benefits. They also don't mind the merit pay system where their income is based on how well their students perform on a test. See "David B. Cohen and Alex Kajitani: Test scores poor tool for teacher evaluation"

This one study does not validate anything about charter schools one
way or the other.

Anonymous said...

No, it's not absurd, it's just taking your logic and applying it to the status quo. Why should the status quo get an automatic pass? (And that's not even touching the incoherence of your argument that people shouldn't support policies before those policies have been "proven to work" . . . how is any new policy ever supposed to arise under that standard?)

Roger Sweeny said...

Anonymous is right. Any time a proposed change has to prove itself, the existing situation is "privileged" (to use good postmodern vocabulary).

But perhaps that's a good thing. That is, after all, what conservatism once meant. So ironic that while most people in the education business are left of center politically, they get very conservative when it comes to things like charters or vouchers or merit pay.

Anonymous said...

The appropriate reaction to that is not "quick, build more charter schools" it is "I wonder if that will still be true if we build more charter schools." Maybe it's my research training speaking, but I fail to understand those who cheer on policies before they're proven to work.

do you understand how silly this statement is?

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Anonymous: No, I don't. Please enlighten me.