The progression of the charter school concept away from teacher experimentation and collaboration

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Charter schools have come a long way from Albert Shanker’s vision of an alternative education arena that helps improve public schools while increasing teacher voice and racial and socioeconomic integration. Now, charter schools have become a conservative, free-market alternative that act as competitors to public schools and resist unionization.

Teacher voice is important for both teachers’ rights and better learning conditions for students. Teacher voice does not just mean unionization: it relates to teachers’ roles in decisions on “instruction and curriculum; organization, scheduling, and teaching assignments; hiring, evaluation, and dismissal; salaries and benefits; and teacher professional growth” (85). Teacher turnover is a major problem in charter schools, which have an average turnover of 24.2% versus 11.9% in traditional public schools (39). According to a study by Ingersoll, turnover is correlated with teacher voice: schools with low teacher control in social issues have an average turnover rate of 19%, relative to 4% in schools with high levels (36). In terms of achievement, research shows that schools with unionized teachers have higher achievement levels (though these variables are difficult to measure) (30). This evidence is backed by arguments that empowering teachers brings in more qualified candidates and creates a better learning environment (30-31). Moreover, low rates of unionization in charter schools is not only problematic for those schools; Shanker warned that this pitted teacher unions against charter schools, undermining the latter’s capacity to act as laboratories for public schools (22).

As charter school legislation was enacted in various states, it failed to include collective bargaining rights for teachers. Conservative charter school advocates began to see this as the defining advantage of charter schools over traditional public schools; unions were seen as the cause of unnecessary bureaucracy, micro-management, and restrictions that favored teachers over students (17). Kahlenberg and Potter argue that the image of teacher unions as “defenders of self-interested policies” is inaccurate and outdated; unions have taken middle-ground positions and some have supported merit-based salaries for teachers (31). However, they fail to address on a wider scale the issue of unions protecting bad teachers and preventing accountability. In order to empower educators with new visions, conservative charter school advocates have given preference to school management over teachers to avoid the restrictions unions have imposed on school districts. This has the negative consequence of disempowering teachers and preventing them from having the time, resources, class sizes, compensation, and creativity they need to be a vocal part of charter school experimentation.


You say that charter schools have the “potential to fulfill the great democratic mission of American public education” (5). In what way do you see charter schools as democratic, when they tend to be more “free-market” institutions controlled by private organizations rather than the elected government?

Teacher unions are condemning charter schools because they are resistant to unionization, while charter school advocates are critical of unions for opposing conservative charter school ideology. Is this a vicious cycle, and how can we get out of it?

KIPP Schools: The Exception to the Rule

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In Kahlenberg and Potter’s A Smarter Charter, the authors systematically outline the disintegration of Albert Shanker’s original vision of charter schools, and present a picture of what they really look like today. One of the most salient tenets in Shanker’s proposal for the foundation of charters emphasized the importance of integrating students across all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds in order to promote social mobility, cohesion, and our shared American identity. The benefits of this social integration were backed up by research finding that “children from socioeconomically deprived families do better academically when they are integrated with children of higher socioeconomic status and better-educated families” (9).  Moreover, studies have also found a relationship between racial integration in schools and the production of tolerant, unprejudiced adults (55). Despite the evidence of the effectiveness of socially integrated school populations, charter schools have, on average, proven to be even more economically and racially segregated than traditional public schools.

What led to this break from Shanker’s groundbreaking conception of desegregated charter schools? Charter school operators, whose primary aim is to run schools that bring students better education than their public school counterparts, seem to define doing a “better job” as bringing the benefits of their schools to students who are at-risk. The attention is then placed on helping at-risk students (low-income and minority), pulling focus away from the idea of actually integrating these students into school populations with varying degrees of race and socioeconomic standing. With all the given literature advancing the notion that integrated schools will increase academic performance as well as encourage tolerance in its students, the creation of charter schools catering to at-risk students seems to be a set up for underachievement. However, there is one organization of charter schools that has been able to fight the stereotype and service high-poverty, minority students while maintaining academic achievement.

KIPP, the Knowledge is Power Program, is a network of charter schools that serves more than 86% of students from low-income families and 95% of students who identify as African American or Latino (78). While based on these numbers KIPP appears to cater to an isolated population of low-income and minority students, these students have academically performed better than any other program servicing low-income children (78). KIPP schools embrace longer school days, more homework, and a demanding set of expectations, which sets these schools apart from other low-income serving public and charter schools. These features create a self-selected student population made of not the “typical low-income student, but rather a subset fortunate enough to have striving parents” to inspire motivation in their kids (79).

While KIPP is one example where an almost entirely racially and economically isolated charter school has produced academic success, the “tough love” and self-selection that weeds out lower achievers provides a skewed image of the school. Except for KIPP schools, charter schools should realize the truth and effectiveness in Shanker’s original vision of charters, where the integration of all kinds of students will ultimately lead to increased academic performance.

Teaching Unions: Will they Build or Destroy Education in Charter Schools?

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Teacher unions have long been recognized for the supportive network of educators they bring together. Some believe unions allow teachers to fight for better rights, higher wages and a greater number of opportunities in their communities. Other educators and parents, often stereotypically associated with charter schools, make the argument that with unions, individual school development is difficult, especially given a contract’s typically high standards and restrictive requirements regarding teacher retention, job security and wages. Given Kahlenberg and Potter’s argument for the importance of teacher voice in their book entitled “Smarter Charter,” understanding the supporting and opposing arguments for unions is imperative to comprehending how charter schools can most effectively start and operate.

Charter schools pride themselves on providing opportunities for teacher voice and autonomy, giving educators the chance to work with “school issues, instruction, curriculum, organization, schooling… evaluation, benefits and professional growth” (85). According to Geoffrey Canada, this opportunity is ultimately destroyed by the presence of unions, (151). Without unions, teachers spend more time in their classrooms with their own planned curriculums. Without unions, some argue teachers in one particular school can work more collaboratively to build a system that is productive for both students and themselves. And yet, other scholars discussed in “Smarter Charter” argue the opposite, suggesting teacher unions actually provide the perfect forum for productive collaboration amongst educators.

In speaking about whether or not teachers wanted to form a union at Morris Jeff Community School in New Orleans in 2013, the choice was ultimately made “to make sure the collaborative relationships established during the school’s first few years [would] continue as the school grows (157).” Many individuals are particularly supportive of unions and the purpose behind them, even in charter schools — the idea they exist in order to protect individuals working within the education sector. Unions can give teachers a greater number of opportunities to contribute to school decisions (89), allowing them to use their voices to better institutions. They write school-wide policy and create structure by guaranteeing salaries, writing employment contracts and protecting jobs. Unions act as advocates for the associated employees; these employees are then equipped to construct a stable and effective learning environment for students and their families.

Perhaps, enhancing teacher voice and student performance is not about whether the union exists but rather the potential of the schools themselves. The authors write, “What distinguishes great charters is not the absence of a labor agreement, but the presence of an education strategy built around commonsense ideas: More time on task, aligned curricula, high parent involvement, great teacher support, and strong leadership. (87).” But how can national education exist if each school works on its own? Many union and anti-union activists are focused on the politics of education, often arguing the same points from opposing sides. Instead, regardless of whether unions or other forms of co-op governance exist, it is the practice of education with enhanced teacher voice and plans for high quality learning for students in potentially successful and effective charter schools that activists must focus upon instead.

Other Questions for the Authors:

  1. In creating effective schools with empowered teachers and enhanced diversity, how do you view the concept of discipline and its presence in charter schools? In class, we’ve spoken a bit about No Excuses Charter Schools, as you do with your discussion of the KIPP schools and Harlem Children’s Zone. Are these institutions and their discipline systems models for how the rest of the charter community should smartly teach students?
  2. In chapter two, you discuss Joaquin Tamayo’s response to Sarah Fine’s op-ed in “The Washington Post.” He says, “No amount of praise showered on teachers will ever produce the kind of dramatic results we need to close the achievement gap—because, at its core, teaching is never about the teacher” (27). How do you feel this statement will impact individuals interested in becoming teachers? Do you think the way in which teaching is framed will determine how many people choose to join the profession and thereafter, how much respect they receive for their work?
  3. In chapter four, you write about unions within charter schools in varied US cities: New York City, Boston and New Orleans. How do we move forward as a nation with a unified education system if so many disagree on how teaching networks, if they do exist, should operate?
  4. If unions and other forms of co-op governance are not going to bring charter schools closer to public schools, creating a symbiotic relationship, how can the two kinds of schools help one another to improve in other varied ways?
  5. In chapter eight, at the end of the book on page 177, you write, “Why not use charter schools to rethink traditional notions of teacher voice?” I found this idea very engaging, but how do you think this can best be done not just in one or two schools, but truly nationwide?

Ratios and Rewards: A Discussion of Integration in Charter Schools

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Given the drastic deviation from the original vision of desegregated charters, Smarter Charter devotes much of its discussion to the benefits of integration. One of the greatest results is the reduction in discrimination and prejudice. Increasing contact between individuals of different backgrounds provides opportunities to recognize similarities disprove stereotypes and increase intergroup comfort (55). Another important advantage is that high-poverty students do better academically when they attend integrated and economically diverse institutions. Not only are motivation and ambition contagious, deprived students are able to accelerate their learning through informal interactions with peers (64). Reduced isolation is a requirement in Connecticut schools, but charters are not held to any particular criteria. Binding administrators to strict standards increases accountability through severe consequences and potential termination. Charter schools are given loose demands, which contributes to maintaining segregated schools. Because of the remarkable rewards, integration should be a necessity in charters and become a stricter requirement with set ranges for ratios between different socioeconomic and racial groups.

How do we determine the ratio that produces the best rewards? One might assume targeting the students who are most in need would create the largest reward, since more deprived students would receive better education. Kahlenberg and Potter, however, explain that “the negative effects of concentrated poverty tend to kick in where a clear majority of students are low in-come” (62). A classroom with a far greater percentage of high-poverty students puts all students at risk of a decreased academic environment. The reverse is dangerous as well. Stereotype threat is a phenomenon in psychology that claims simply by being aware of one’s race in comparison to others can cause an individual to underperform due to anxiety that they will confirm cultural stereotypes. Kahlenberg and Potter describe a girl in an all-Muslim school who didn’t feel embarrassed when excusing herself for prayer (20). If she had been placed in a school with majority white, middle-class students, she might have felt embarrassment over her cultural differences, potentially hindering her performance. There’s also the chance that academically deprived students will feel inferior among an ocean of advanced peers; the pressure to achieve at the same level may backfire and result in decreased self-esteem and poor performance.

Kahlenberg and Potter later state “that 70% is a threshold at which a group is at risk of becoming a dominant culture” and recommend charters have between 30% to 70% low-income students (120). This seems fair and practical, and should extend to the racial and ethnic ratios within charter school enrollments. By preventing any one group from falling into dominance, the likelihood of negative effects should decrease significantly. The authors recommend that the state enforce desegregation laws, monitor school compliance and require recruitment plans for outreach (168). Administrators should be thoughtful about creating outreach plans that produce more balanced ratios between different socioeconomic and racial groups. In order to attain the greatest quality and quantity of the positive effects of integration, policymakers should establish and enforce a required benchmark for integration in charter regulations.


Questions to authors:

1. It seems like Minnesota set the stage for the rest of the country’s establishment of charters. How much did Minnesota’s adoption and alteration of the charter vision affect the trajectory of charter schools across the country?

2. One example of preventing class/level divides was giving students the option to take classes at the honors level by completing extra assignments. However, stakes are high and college competition is intense. If a university knows your school offered an advanced level and it wasn’t taken, your chances of acceptance decrease. How functional and successful is this given the current state of college admissions?

3. If middle-class parents are more likely to volunteer, to donate, to be politically savy and hold administrators accountable, does this give them a leg up in terms of making lasting change for issues that concern them and their child? What happens when demands of middle-class parents do not include or apply to low in-come parents?

Charter Schools and The Issue of Scalability: An Unexpected Conclusion

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A fundamental tension throughout A Smarter Charter and the greater charter debate is should charters be mere laboratories with the sole purpose of improving public education for all, or should charter schools provide an increasing segment of the population an alternative to traditional public schools. The ability for charter schools’ methods to scale up to the rest of public schools is the central consideration in this tension. It may seem like the lack of scalability charter schools face would support proponents of limiting charter growth. However, when you reframe the question, the exact opposite conclusion comes to light, universal charters are the solution to the issue of scalability.

Throughout A Smarter Charter, scaling up proved to be challenging. Numerous teachers at the Cesar Chavez school, in D.C. experienced a significant drop off in support and positive work environment when the charter network expanded from teaching 60 students to nearly 1,500 (25). It was not until they unionized that some of that empowering environment was restored. But even then a lot of the teacher-administrative collaboration is delicate, largely hinging on a “more communicative and responsive administration” that could change at any time (44). Kahlenberg and Potter point out that stand alone schools are more conducive to promoting teacher voice (96). There are ways to mitigate these growing pains, but it is not easy to scale all of these reforms. Co-op teacher models, unions, slim contracts, and teacher voice in particular have trouble scaling up (104,109, 117). This inability to scale is not only evident in the very successful schools in the book, but in the charter school community as a whole. On the whole charter schools are not showing gains in student outcomes (68).

Many of the successful practices at the schools featured in this book are examples of charter schools moving in the right direction. However, we saw these policies lose their edge when applied to larger charter networks. How do we interpret this lack of scalability, does this inability to scale support or refute the idea that charter schools should provide education to an increasing number of students? One response to these findings, would be to curb the number of charter schools allowed as Al Shanker original suggested. Charter schools would be used as innovative labs to inform public education and not as a universal school.

Alternatively, the inability to scale successful methods could be interpreted as the exact reason why a universal charter system is needed. A large network of charter schools or the even larger network of traditional public schools will never be able to support the teacher voice, student integration, small community, and site specific flexibility necessary to best address the needs of the students. Perhaps we can preserve the benefits of the smaller charter school by replicating the model rather than expanding the model. In other words, keeping the charter schools small, each with a democratic participatory governance that are independent, yet associated with other charter schools for support and shared knowledge.

Additional questions for Kahlenberg and Potter:

We think of no excuses schools to be paternalistic (20), however these school rarely practice progressive education and other techniques used in schools that serve the elite. What do we make of this irony?

One of the positive impacts highlighted about integrated schools was the role of the parents (64-65) is the increased parent involvement by middle and high income parents. However, are these parents serving the interest of all students at their child’s school or only the interest of their own child? If so, I could see a situation where middle and high income parents bend policy to benefit their own students, for example advocating for extra funding going towards enrichment rather than extra support that actual harms low income students.

Using portfolios to evaluate teachers and teacher pay is a really interesting proposition. How would this affect the current incentive structure for teacher evaluation, and what unintended consequences would come of this policy shift?

In Hartford, the Sheff case has forced minimum levels of integration in all magnet schools. Schools use weighted lotteries to insure this balance. These weighted lotteries receives pushback from some communities leaders arguing that these lotteries take away spots from Hartford students who would otherwise be going to struggling schools and gives them to suburban students who would be going to a high achieving schools no matter what. By using a weighted lottery we are sacrificing equity for integration? Are we okay with this?