On the Development of Charter Schools: Changing the Paradigm and the Purpose of Schooling?

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While Kahlenberg and Potter argue in their book, A Smarter Charter, that public charter schools should be aligned with the foundational promise of public schooling to promote a common American identity, social mobility and social cohesion, they also underscore that charter schools were, in fact, conceptualized by Albert Shanker to depart from the paradigm of traditional public schools. Although both types of institutions are considered to be “public” for receiving public funds, several factors complicate the comparison between public charter schools and traditional public schools. As frequently noted, choosing to apply to and to attend a charter school implies different levels of student and parental motivation (61). Studies with rigorous research designs that examine charter school outcomes often control for this selection bias (e.g., Bifulco et al., 2009). Yet, what many studies fail to account for are differences in missions. Charter schools were intended to be “educational laboratories” that allow for teacher innovation and experimentation (1). To ensure this flexibility, charter missions outline different goals than traditional public schools (e.g., close the achievement gap or target certain demographics rather than promote social cohesion) (51, 56). Therefore, perhaps it is unfair to use the same original intent of education in the U.S. to evaluate the school demographics of both public charter schools and traditional public schools.

One of the most controversial departures from both Shanker’s original vision of charter schools and the mission of schooling in the U.S. is the often racially, ethnically and/or socioeconomically hyper-segregated student bodies of public charters. While for many this structure appears to be a regression towards the unconstitutional “separate but equal” policy, there is a pivotal difference: parental and student choice. Families actively choose to be part of a charter school. Still, choice is often constrained by housing, neighborhood opportunity, income, etc.

 Kahlenberg and Potter provide a persuasive parental anecdote and several empirically backed arguments outlining why integration is unequivocally beneficial to student outcomes. Some of the highlighted reasons include that racial and socioeconomic integration increases academic achievement, it facilitates interaction and collaboration with diverse groups, and it influences positive behaviors. Thus, the question becomes, why don’t public charter schools prioritize integration? Several reasons are provided that illustrate the forces of economics and location in the design of charter schools. Firstly, educating high concentrations of at-risk students is considered to be economically efficient (47). Secondly, the location of many charter schools either in inner cities or in suburbs attracts either predominantly low-income minority families or affluent White families. The solutions offered include strategically changing the location of public charters or developing charters like inter-district magnet schools by abolishing the constraint of attendance zones and municipal boundaries (48-49). In either case, to truly ensure integration, charter schools should make this goal explicit by writing it into charters in order to be held accountable to it. Otherwise, expecting that charter schools will follow in the public school tradition of seeking to promote diversity and social cohesion will remain an unproductive way to evaluate charter schools.

Questions to authors:

1) In your research process, did you come across parent anecdotes indicating a preference for charter schools due to their high concentrations of a particular racial, ethnic or socioeconomic group? If so, why did you decide not to include them in your book?

2) Do you think that charter schools have alternative definitions of concepts such as “social mobility” and “diversity” than how they are operationally defined in your book? For example, could closing the achievement gap for some be seen as an instrumental way to attain social mobility?

3) At the end of chapter 4, you make a persuasive and substantiated argument that the success of the KIPP model shows that it is not that “poverty doesn’t matter” but rather that peer influence, resources and dedicated teachers can be the catalyst in education. In what ways do you think charter schools such as KIPP that mainly serve low-income minority students could emphasize this message as opposed to the often polarizing and discipline-associated “no excuses” message? Is this a marketing/branding issue or a school culture issue? Additionally, how can success stories like those of KIPP be prevented from fueling arguments in favor of segregation in education?


A Smarter Charter: Self-Selection Biases in Charter School Studies

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Chapter 4 of A Smarter Charter summarizes research comparing student outcomes between charter and traditional public schools. The authors concluded that students in most charter schools perform about the same as students in comparable public schools (68). However, since students choose to enroll in charter schools, this comparison is difficult to make due to self-selection biases that make students attending a charter school and traditional public schools different.

The authors discussed a CREDO study that found low-income and ELL students in charter schools outperformed students in traditional district schools, but without a randomized controlled experiment, an alternative explanation could be that families who sought out charter schools were more motivated (70).  Bifulco et al., who studied magnet schools, also listed motivation and parental support as potential confounding variables. Thus, the authors stress that although the findings may look promising for charter schools, it is unclear if charters are directly responsible for gains in student achievement or if the gains are due to other factors, such as family motivation.

An IES study controlled for family motivation by comparing students admitted to charter schools by random lottery with students who applied but were not admitted. The authors explain that although this may eliminate the concern with the CREDO study about family motivation, peer influence is still a potential bias, with lottery winners surrounded by classmates from similarly motivated families, while lottery losers are educated with many peers who did not apply to a choice school, and hence may not be as motivated (72). Again, as in Bifulco et al.’s analyses, we cannot determine if the school is directly responsible for improving student achievement or if another factor is driving the relationship.

The authors also discussed KIPP, a charter organization that emphasizes tough love and boasts demanding expectations (78). This program undoubtedly uses many of the strategies explained by Welner to influence student enrollment, including the “bum steer,” by driving away ELL and special needs students from applying with their tough love mentality. KIPP also makes use of Welner’s “flunk or leave” tactic, and only students that survive the demanding expectations remain by high school, as KIPP does not replace students who leave. Although KIPP students have shown substantial academic gains, when KIPP took over a regular, high-poverty public school, serving a non self-selected population, the program failed, indicating that the academic achievement at KIPP may be due to the high motivation levels of the students, and not the charter program itself.

The authors highlight the self-selection biases that make it difficult to definitively state that charter schools cause gains in student achievement. It is possible that influence of parental motivation and peers may be driving the apparent improvement among charter school students. Additionally, a close look at the KIPP organization indicates that student achievement may in fact be due to the types of students the school enrolls than the actual school itself. Is it the quality of instruction or the students who choose to enroll that make charter schools successful? Can these self-selection biases ever be completely controlled for?



From Shanker to “Superman”: What Happened?

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I thought I knew the “charter school situation.” I’ve read tens of exposés of charters-gone-wrong, followed Diane Ravitch’s blog for years, and even worked locally with a public school advocacy group in my hometown. And yet Richard Kahlenburg and Halley Potter’s depiction of Al Shanker’s original vision in A Smarter Charter was entirely new to me. While I admit my error and ignorance, I cannot shake the feeling that this story appears, to a degree, hidden from plain sight. The rhetoric surrounding charter schools, on either side, does not make salient the pro-union, pro-teacher voice, “incubational,” integrational model from which the idea originated. It follows to ask: why does today’s charter movement deviate so severely from its beginnings? Is there a particular moment, or is it the culmination of events and processes of relatively equal weight that caused this rift?

Smarter Charter’s beginning chapter points to a few explanatory instances. 1991 saw the first piece of legislation that enabled their genesis. However, it failed to include mandatory teacher certification and automatic collective bargaining rights (14). Already, a significant departure occurs; but is the law itself to blame for today’s segregated and racially isolated schools? In the document, the state charter advisory committee requires representation across racial and socioeconomic boundaries, which might imply a focus on desegregation. However, that is where discussion of diversity ends. Nowhere in the law is Shanker’s goal of desegregation mentioned. The problem with this legislation, it seems, is that it was not definitive enough; rather than mandating requirements that directly opposed Shanker’s vision, the law was too lax to encourage and enforce it. Over time, over 30 racially isolated schools took root in Minnesota (14). Was it only a matter of time before charters, unprotected by regulations, began to slide down the slippery conservative, free-market slope?

This deviation was not without political prodding; oddly enough, the pressure is bipartisan. Bill Clinton was a major proponent of charter schools. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation backed the free-market reform movement, monetarily fueling such efforts as David Guggenheim’s charter-worshipping Waiting for Superman, anti-union/teacher tenure efforts like TeachPlus, and even über-libertarian ALEC. Arne Duncan’s “Race to the Top” provided financial incentive for states to open “high-performing” charter schools en masse. Beyond charters’ shifty, gray-area regulations that please conservatives, it is unclear to me why supposed liberals like Duncan do not reach back to Shanker’s original vision to promote desegregation and teacher voice as a means to better educational opportunity for all.

Minnesota’s 1991 legislation did not explicitly cause or create today’s free-market charters; however, it is a case of what wasn’t said rather than what was. By failing to require protections for unions and student diversity initiatives, the state enabled the opposite to take hold, which established an important—and unfortunate—precedent. In the whirlwind of charters that followed, Shanker’s once-revolutionary speech is all but lost in the storm of reformer rhetoric.

Reference: Minnesota Laws, 1991; Chapter 265, Article 9, Section 3