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Thompson: The Line Separating Reformers from "Reformers"

A light went on while reading Alexander Russo's Charter Advocates Denounce Reuters Reporting. It illuminates the fundamental difference between school reform and "reform."

The dividing line is not evidence-based disagreements over charters, competition, collective bargaining or teachers' due process.  The issue is how do "reformers" deal with inconvenient truths. 

image from farm6.staticflickr.comStephanie Simon's Class Struggle - How Charter Schools Get Students They Want explains that "charters and traditional public schools are locked in fierce competition - for students, for funding and for their very survival, with outcomes often hinging on student test scores." Simon then punches holes in the hype of "reformers" who claim that this is a "fair fight" and that charters get better results with the same types of students. 

Conservative reformers like Mike Petrilli and Frederick Hess acknowledge that charter students come from more motivated families.  Hess says that charters' supposedly open access policies make for popular talking points, but "there's just one problem: It's not true."  He adds, "There's a level of institutional hypocrisy here which is actually unhealthy."

The real issue is not the fate of individual charters. A bigger problem is that the proliferation of charters has become a drain on traditional public schools. As Simon explains, even some staunch fans of charters agree that "the charter sector as a whole may be skimming the most motivated, disciplined students and leaving the hardest-to-reach behind."

The single biggest problem is that too many "reformers" spin the data in order to justify the closing of scores of neighborhood schools to be replaced by more charters. "At some point, the slow leak of the most motivated students and families can put traditional schools in a downward spiral they can't recover from," says Teachers College's Jeffrey Henig.

For instance, Simon reports that 3/4ths of Philadelphia charters studied last year placed "significant barriers" in the way of open enrollment. Worse, Philadelphia could close 37 neighborhood schools using a law that greases the skids for charters.  The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that that system is likely to reflect the national trend where 40% of schools that are closed are replaced by charters. If such a pattern continues, charters will become an existiential threat to collective bargaining and, perhaps, the principle of public education.

Think of how different our debates would be if we limited ourselves to accurate evidence used in an intellectually honest manner.  If charters were not granted unacknowledged advantages, would school closure decisions be made in a more constructive manner? We could also debate whether charters' exclusionary policies make sense and whether their higher expulsion rates were due to an intentional effort to pad their test scores. We could argue whether charters, while admittedly starting with an advantage,  did some things better and thus added more value.  Perhaps, charters could then return to their original ideal and serve as laboratories of best practices.

If we had a debate based on accurate information, I wouldn't expect conservatives to join the AFT or the Diane Ravitch fan club. But, it could end the civil war between otherwise liberal or neo-liberal "reformers" and educators who should be allies. And, we could still debate with Petrilli and Hess over the ways of helping neighborhood schools that are being subjected to more intense concentrations of extreme poverty due to "creaming" by charters.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via CCFlickr


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