Thompson: Two Charter School Soundbites That Should Be Retired
The soundbite that high-performing charter schools are serving “the same students” as high-poverty neighborhood schools should be retired. We who teach in the toughest schools that serve all students who walk into the door also deserve an apology for that slander, but I’m ready to move on without it.
Similarly, the equally serious charge against charter schools – that they intentionally “push out” difficult students in order to raise test scores - is wrong. Such an attack on the integrity of charter school educators is just as serious as the idea that we in neighborhood schools could have the same success as the top charters if we had their “high expectations.”
So, I was very pleasantly surprised by Ron Zimmer's and Cassandra Guarino's "Is There Empirical Evidence Consistent with the Claim that Charters Schools 'Push Out' Low-Performing Students?" It found "no evidence that low performing students are exiting charter schools at higher rates than low performing students in traditional public schools."Also, it found that students exiting charter schools had slightly lower achievement levels than their former peers, but this pattern was true for traditional public schools as well. As a whole, the paper provides no evidence that charter schools are intentionally forcing out students to make their test scores look better, at least in the district Zimmer and Guarino studied.
Numbers, alone, cannot determine whether charters are more likely to attract more motivated students. Neither can they identify the students who would never apply to a charter because they doubted their ability to meet the prerequisite higher behavioral standards. And, in their carefully worded paper, Zimmer and Guarino cited Sarah Karp who wrote:
It is unlikely that charter schools would be so bold to expel students outright for low achievement performance. If students are being pushed out, it is more likely to occur in subtle ways--for example, through counseling students and their families to seek a better fit for their needs or requiring certain commitments that are associated with higher student achievement such as family involvement and student attendance requirements.
Then, Zimmer and Guarino reached a conclusion that was equally well-worded:
While a study using administrative data cannot definitively show whether any school is pushing out low-performing students, it can examine whether there are patterns in the data consistent with the claim ...
Our analysis suggests that there is no evidence consistent with the claim that charter schools are in general or at the individual level pushing out low-performing students. While there needs to be more research in other districts or states, our results weaken the "push-out" argument against the establishment of charter schools in general.
Yes, the "'push-out' hypothesis is a weak argument to use to oppose the establishment of charter schools." Certainly it does not conform to my understanding of the motivations of charter school educators. In my experience, charters set their standards high because they sincerely believe that that is the best way to produce the greater good for the greater number of students. When students leave because they cannot meet those standards, charter teachers see that as a defeat - not a method of making their statistics look better.
Many charter opponents also draw on their personal experiences and I have no doubt that they have witnessed abuses in some or many charters. It is one thing, however, to extrapolate from personal experiences (like I do) and say that I have no direct knowledge of abuses, as opposed to condemning large numbers of educators based on such anecdotal evidence. There must be a far higher burden of proof when making serious charges.
Many charter advocates acknowledge that they do not serve more than 90% or so of the students who attend regular schools. Charter educators are grateful that they do not face the same policy constraints as regular schools. I do not know whether they fully understand how and why the need to serve all of the most troubled children in the least restrictive environment has created so many unintended problems for neighborhood schools. But, charter school educators did not cause those dilemmas.
We must heed Zimmer's and Guarino's findings. A broad range of students chose charters to get away from the conditions in high-poverty neighborhood schools, and they leave for a variety of reasons. For instance, higher performing students might leave because the "No Excuses" pedagogy is not their cup of tea. Lower performing students may leave because they cannot meet the higher standards. Some exiting students try another high-quality alternative. Others have no choice but to return to regular schools.
The same is true of neighborhood schools. Some students are pushed out by bullying or because they cannot stand the chaos of the regular classroom. Others leave because they fail to meet even the lax standards of their schools. Tragically, these kids are more likely to be pushed to the streets.
Charter school teachers did not create the intense concentrations of poverty that have defied systemic solutions. Whether or not they agree with the political spin of "reform," educators in charter schools did not issue the false press releases that claim to have improved performance for the "same" students. And, charter teachers do not have access to the corporate boardrooms where market-driven "reformers" seem to be embracing privatization. If we choose our words carefully and constructively, perhaps charter and regular school teachers can see eye-to-eye on better ways of improving our low-income schools.
United, we could better resist the "Billionaires Boys Club," and others who see charter management organizations as the latest quick fix.-JT(@drjohnthompson) via.