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Curmudgucation: Rules and Charter Innovation (A Paired Text Exercise)

It's an ordinary day when a pair of charter school boosters conclude that charters work best when mean old government doesn't make them follow a bunch of rules and stuff. It is an ordinary day when someone points out they're full of regular non-innovative baloney. It is a less ordinary day when the baloney is being called out by a piece in the house organ of the Thomas Fordham Institute.

So let's pretend for a moment that the question of regulations vs. charter innovation is a real question. David Griffith, the Fordham Associate Director of Research, frames this as the old tension between autonomy and accountability, which makes more sense than talking about charter school innovation, because after a few decades of charter proliferation, the amount of innovation they have produced is somewhere between jack and squat. Despite being billed as "laboratories of innovation," charter schools haven't come up with much of anything that public schools were not already well aware of. 

But the "study" of the relationship between innovation and regulation comes from two guys who are not exactly unbiased. Jay Greene was previously of the University of Arkansas, where he was occasionally willing to hit reformsters with uncomfortable truths; nowadays he's at the Heritage Foundation, where his job is to push preferred policies. Joining him is Corey DeAngelis, the education dudebro logging many miles across the country as he lobbies hard for Bety DeVos's American Federation for Children. I'm old enough to remember when someone could have a civil conversation with DeAngelis on line, but these days "attack dog" and "unleasher of troll pack" seems to be part of his job description. Ian Kingsbury is also in on this; he previously worked for cyber school giant Stride (formerly K12) and the Empire Center; these days he's a senior fellow at the Education Freedom Institute ("Protecting and promoting school choice"). DeAngelis is the EFI executive director, and Greene is the Managing Senior Fellow. 

In short, this is a trio of people whose profession is pushing school choice.

A caveat here--the article is in Educational Research and Evaluation, part of the family of Taylor and Francis journals, and if I want to read the whole article, it'll cost me $50. That is far outside the Institute's budget of $0.00, so I'll be working strictly second hand here.

To "study" the relationship between regulations and innovation, they had to come up with a way to quantify innovatiness, so this is what they did. They considered five factors: the pedagogical approaches used to teach that academic content; the types of students they sought to serve; whether they delivered that education in person, virtually, or with a mixed approach; and whether they had a specialized theme, such as technology, art, or the environment. The judged 1,261 charter schools by cruising their websites and seeing how they stacked up on those five dimensions. That gave each school an innovation rating.

Having manufactured the innovation rating, they stacked those up beside state ratings from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), which the researchers see as based on how heavily regulated charters are in the state. 

Aha! they declared. The more regulation, the less innovatiness in charter schools. For charter fans, it's simple--more options means they can move more product, and while I get their point, it is also true that we would have far more innovation in the food industry without all those government regulations about poison and stuff.

Griffith makes a similar observation. Their technique of quantifying "innovation" gives the charter points for being unusual, and that's problematic:

From a purely normative perspective, an obvious problem with the authors’ approach is that it is content neutral. So, for example, a school that was grounded in Satan Worship would count as highly innovative (provided it didn’t start a movement), as would one that imparted no knowledge whatsoever (as seems to be the case for many virtual schools).

And he doesn't think "innovation" means what they think it means either, noting that many of their "innovations" aren't particularly new but instead include "longstanding programs such as Core Knowledge (est. 1986), Waldorf (1919), and Montessori (1907), not to mention “single-sex” education (Harvard, circa 1636) and “project-based” learning (the Pleistocene)." (That is Griffith's snark there, not mine).

So do they really mean "programmatic diversity"? Griffith says no, because their system really measures

how similar a particular state’s charter sector is to the national charter sector (rather than how many different types of schools a state’s charter sector includes). Which simply isn’t the same thing as diversity or innovation, no matter how much the authors may want it to be.

And some of that variation, he points out, can simply be a factor of location or the student population being served. New Jersey will not have the kind of rural-serving charters that Idaho might have, for reasons having nothing to do with regulation.

In short, Griffith finds their whole design junk.

All of which makes it hard to swallow the authors’ claim in a recent National Review article that “we know heavy charter regulation has this negative effect on diversity and innovation in the charter sector because we actually measured it in our new peer-reviewed study.”

No, we don’t. No, they didn’t. And the mere fact that a study is “peer reviewed” doesn’t mean it should be taken seriously.

All of which I agree with wholeheartedly. And it's a special day when I don't have to dismantle a reformster "study" because a Fordham guy gets there first. 


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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. ...