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Thompson: Two Charter School Soundbites That Should Be Retired

ChartersIf we are serious about deescalating this destructive conflict over school “reform,” we must stop hurling two unsubstantiated charges:

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.”

We who have been on the receiving end of “reformers’” spin should not do the same thing to charter schools.  Unless our evidence meets a very high bar, we should not claim that charters deliberately hurt some students in order to produce higher test scores.

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.  


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I certainly agree with not blaming charter school teachers, of course. They're certainly not the perpetrators of all the lies. Plus all the charter teachers I know are teaching in charters specifically because they couldn't get jobs in public schools, and would jump to public schools in a minute if they could.

Sigh. I posted a response that showed up and then vanished. I'm trying again.

1. Of course charters don't OPENLY say "you're expelled because of your low test scores." They'd be in deep **** if they did. Of course they mouth their stuff about "not the right fit," blah blah. It amounts to the same thing.

2. Claiming that public schools have the same attrition as charter schools is false and invalid. Low-income students tend to suffer high mobility -- because of economic, family and housing instability, they tend to move a lot. And that instability does tend to correlate with being lower achievers.

But in "miracle" "no excuses" charter schools, the high-mobility students who leave are not replaced. The class cohorts shrink, often dramatically. In public schools, the high-mobility students who leave are replaced -- likely with similarly high-mobility students. The class cohorts do not shrink.

(I'm not referring to high school here, since after age 16 students can drop out, switch to alternatives etc. The research has been done on middle schools.)

Confounding "mobility" with "attrition" has been the charter sector's strategy for dishonestly fighting back on this issue. It's invalid, false and deceptive.

And, sorry for the repeated posts, but this again is false equivalence.

It's a lie, plain and simple, that charters take "the same kids."

It's completely true that charters get rid of their less successful students, even if they don't use the words "you're expelled because of your low test scores."

And it's completely true that charters have high attrition and nothing like it exists in public schools.

The charter-sector defense claiming that attrition and mobility are the same thing is a lie.

Caroline, I am not as charitable as the Shanker Blog's Matt DiCarlo in putting evidence on charters in the least negative light, but my post is consistent with his choice of words. For instance, he draws the distinction between charters serving disproportionately fewer students with disabilities and "a widespread campaign of exclusion." in fact, he argues that "there is certainly no evidence" for the later.


Please recall this:


Emma Brown writes, "More than 6,200 students left traditional and charter schools between October 2011 and June 2012 and didn’t re-enroll in any D.C. public school." In other words, when we say that attrition in charters is no worse than attrition in public schools, we aren't saying their attrition isn't horrible. Attrition in both are tragically high.

I agree and disagree with you on the equivalency of my position. We teachers didn't start this fight. Reformers" chose to duck the tough issues, like attrition, and to bash teachers. (I have also read papers where the authors must have been playing games with "mobility" and "attrition," but again, that's not the charter educators.) We have every right to be angry at their two decades of false charges against the teaching profession. But, we must take the higher road.

Also, I don't disagree that research might show that charters have even worse attrition than the horrific attrition of high-poverty neighborhood schools if we took into account poverty and did a better job of distinguishing between mobility and attrition. But, to my knowledge, that hasn't been done yet.

Finally you write, "I'm not referring to high school here, since after age 16 students can drop out, switch to alternatives etc." I'm looking at it through the prism of high school.

I agree with both of your points, John. Maybe SF charters are different; here in Chicago, charters try hard to keep their students. And their students, as far as I can tell, do resemble district schools with the very significant difference that the most challenged kids, the ones who move every few months or so, the ones whose parents are not functional, do not show up in charter schools.

I agree that the statement is very misleading. I worked in Florida for 5 years then relocated to the Turks & Caicos Islands with my husband for his job. I have taught here in both the public and private sector. The education department claims that there is no difference between the public and private schools. i however disagree. Just like there is a difference between public and charter schools. Charter schools are a wonderful asset but to say they are the same as public schools would be a lie. The curriculum is a standard so yes that is the same but charter school (from what I know from friend who work in them) receive extra funding usually from the community that houses the school. All charter schools are new as well since this is a fairly new concept in education where as most of the public schools are old and out dated. When a new school opens parents flock there in hopes of providing their child with a better education by picking a new school.
Thus when a charter school opens and they are accepting children parents flock there as well but too many are turned down and told excuses when really they do select the students. So just not every child has a chance of getting in.

Great article, John. Nice to see someone at least attempt to present a balanced view of this reform.

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