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The Art of Teaching Science: What Every Georgian Ought to Know about Charter Schools

IMG_0478Georgians should be aware that our state legislators are at it again under the Gold Dome changing key aspects of education in our state through the passage of House Bill 897.  The partisan bill affects education in the state in many ways.  The elected officials have decided they don’t like the Common Core Standards language, and have struck any reference to the words quality core curriculum, and replaced them with the term “content standards.”

Although I am not a big supporter of the Common Core, this a political decision not a decision based on research, or facts.  Georgia had adopted the Common Core as part of the 400 million dollars they received through the Race to the Top (RTT) grant.  When Georgia won the competition in 2010, the legislators cheered.  Not now.  Rather than do any research on the matter, they’ve joined with other conservatives around the country, none of whom base their decisions on deliberations based on facts and data.

But that’s only a small part of HB 897.  They also will cut professional and staff development stipends.  A dumb idea given that in the business world, training and development is a key aspect of employee morale and knowledge.  Even though they are working hard to turn education into a business, they forgot to consider what makes the business of education work.

They also just love the idea of a Virtual School.  Again, they plunge full speed ahead without consideration of the research on the effectiveness of virtual schools.  Of course there are positives for offering experiences online, but there is emerging research that shows that virtual schools are not a panacea, for many students not an environment conducive to their learning, and not necessarily more cost-effective.

Making it Easy for More Charters in Georgia

But the part of HB 897 that I want to focus on here how the legislators in Georgia are making it easier and financially helpful to groups that are chomping at the bit to get into the charter school “business” in the state. The chart below (Figure 1) identifies the changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education code of Georgia that pertain to charter schools.  I’ve used the exact language for each charter school change, but have interpreted the meaning using my language.

Figure 1.  Georgia House Bill 897 Charter School Code Changes and What these changes mean to Georgians.
Figure 1. Georgia House Bill 897 Charter School Code Changes and What these changes mean to Georgians.

There are some things that every Georgian ought to know about charter schools.  Charters are probably doing more of a disservice to public education than enhancing the quality of student learning.  But those who are promoting charter schools in Georgia know this, and are using their political power to unleash charters without the research to support their views.

What Was the Intention of Charter Schools?

The first charter school was begun in 1733 in Ireland by the Charter Society to give Protestant education to poor Catholic children.  In America, the first charter school began in 1988.  The concept of a charter school was an innovative idea when it was formulated historically (in the late 1980s by the American Federation of Teachers!).  Albert Shanker, head of the AFT, proposed the idea of charters, and Richard Kahlenberg recounts its origins:

In Shanker’s vision, small groups of teachers and parents would submit research-based proposals outlining plans to educate kids in innovative ways. A panel consisting of the local school board and teachers’ union officials would review proposals. Once given a “charter,” a term first used by the Massachusetts educator Ray Budde, a school would be left alone for a period of five to 10 years. Schools would be freed from certain collective bargaining provisions; for example, class-size limitations might be waived to merge two classes and allow team-teaching. Shanker’s core notion was to tap into teacher expertise to try new things. Building on the practices at the Saturn auto plant in Nashville, Tenn., he envisioned teams of teachers making suggestions on how best to accomplish the job at hand. Part of the appeal of charter schools to Shanker and many Democrats was that they offered a publicly run alternative to private-school-voucher proposals, which they feared would undermine teacher collective bargaining rights and Balkanize students by race, religion, and economic status.

Once a Beacon for Excellence

As Lisa Delpit reminds us, the first iteration of charter schools were to be beacons of what public schools could do.  Teachers were at the center of charter schools, and they would collaborate to design new models of teaching for the most challenging populations.  Dr. Delpit, in her recently published book, Multiplication is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children, says charter schools:

were intended to develop models for working with the most challenging populations. What they discovered was to be shared and reproduced in other public school classrooms. Now, because of the insertion of the “market model,” charter schools often shun the very students they were intended to help. Special education students, students with behavioral issues, and students who need any kind of special assistance are excluded in a multiplicity of ways because they reduce the bottom line—they lower test scores and take more time to educate properly. Charter schools have any number of ways of “counseling” such students out of their programs. Delpit, Lisa (2012-03-20). “Multiplication Is for White People”: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children . Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

The charter school movement is a dangerous path for us to follow.  Although charter schools are public, and use tax payer funds, they resemble private schooling in the sense that they are not accountable in the same ways that public schools are evaluated.  Charter schools have boards that are not elected, and often the managing organization is an out-of-state enterprise that swoops in and sets up shop.

As Dr. Delpit puts it, public schools, that were once the beacon of democracy,

have been overrun by the antidemocratic forces of extreme wealth. Educational policy for the past decade has largely been determined by the financial contributions of several very large corporate foundations. Among a few others, the Broad, Gates, and Walton (Walmart) foundations have dictated various “reforms” by flooding the educational enterprise with capital. The ideas of privatization, charter schools, Teach for America, the extremes of the accountability movement, merit pay, increased standardized testing, free market competition—all are promulgated and financially supported by corporate foundations, which indeed have those funds because they can avoid paying the taxes that the rest of us must foot. Thus, educational policy has been virtually hijacked by the wealthiest citizens, whom no one elected and who are unlikely ever to have had a child in the public schools. Delpit, Lisa (2012-03-20). “Multiplication Is for White People”: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children . Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

The charter school movement is in the interests of these foundations, and charter management organizations that control much of the charter school market.

Choosing a charter school for your student is not the same as choosing a glass of milk for your family.  It’s more like making a wrong turn into a dead-end street.

Charter Schools are not a Cure-all for our Students

Charter schools are seen as a cure-all to raise test scores of American students. It kind of like a philosopher’s stone, or a 19th century elixir, to serve as an antidote for the ills of traditional public schools. Many policymakers are motivated by the delusion that choice and competition is the answer to solving problems facing our schools.

Public schools are the only agent that can create a sense of community among diverse communities from which students come. Charter schoolshave not done this. In fact, charter schools have further segregated children from each other, and we know that this is not a good idea.

Yet, it is quite obvious that policymakers have ignored the research that has been conducted by university-based researchers, and not “partisan think-tanks.” Instead they are enacting laws around the country that will enable for-profit charter management companies to swoop in and set up charter schools, almost at will. These laws further destabilize public schools, and remove the locus of control of local schools, and put it into the hands of unelected bureaucrats (political appointees).

Charter Schools Do not Measure up to Regular Public Schools

In a recent article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper, “charter schools are touted as the reform model that will boost student achievement by allowing schools to be creative and by having parents, teachers, and the community more a part of the decision-making.” But as I have shown elsewhere on this blog, charter schools simply do not do as well as their public school counterparts, and indeed, students would be better off going to public schools.

We have reported on this blog that two major research studies show that charter schools do not do nearly as well as traditional public schools. In a study published by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford, hundreds of charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia were studied to find out what was the impact of these charter schools on student learning.

Here are some of their findings from the CREDO study:

  • Of the 2403 charter schools reflected on the curve, 46 percent of charter schools have math gains that are statistically indistinguishable from the average growth among their TPS comparisons.
  • Charters whose math growth exceeded their TPS equivalent growth by a significant amount account for 17 percent of the total.
  • The remaining group, 37 percent of charter schools, posted math gains that were much below what their students would have seen if they enrolled in local traditional public schools instead.
  Figure 2. Percentage of high school graduates meeting Texas SAT/ACT College Readiness Criterion plotted as a function of concentration of poverty. Every disk is a high school, with the area of the disk proportional to the number of graduates. Charter schools are highlighted in red; non-charters are grey. Source: Dr. Michael Marder, Used with Permission. Click on the graph for more visualizations.  
Figure 2. Percentage of high school graduates meeting Texas SAT/ACT College Readiness Criterion plotted as a function of concentration of poverty. Every disk is a high school, with the area of the disk proportional to the number of graduates. Charter schools are highlighted in red; non-charters are grey. Source: Dr. Michael Marder, Used with Permission. Click on the graph for more visualizations.

Dr. Michael Marder, at the University of Texas has studied not only Texas charter schools, but charter schools in other states including Florida, New Jersey, New York, and California. He has found that most charter schools do not do as well as the traditional public schools. Follow this link to his analyses of charter school data presented as easy to understand visualizations.  The link will take you to a movie in which Dr. Marder walks us through a very large data set that he presents as visualizations.

He analyses the relationship between poverty concentration vs. achievement, and compares regular public schools and charter schools, as well ethnicity.  The image on the left shows every Texas school (regular public and charters) as circles of varying sizes (number of graduates) and color ( fraction of non-white students).  As you can see, and as Dr. Marder has concluded, the there a strong relationship between poverty concentration and achievement.

It turns out that charter schools do not increase student performance on academic tests. In fact, charter schools tend to turn away English language learners, and special needs learners. Most charter schools have created segregated environments, which in the words of The Civil Rights Project, has been a civil rights failure.

Dr. Marder puts it this way:

Unfortunately, in state after state, not only are charters worse on average than regular public sc hooks, even the best of them is not truly exceptional. 

In the movie below (Figure 3) listen to what Dr. Marder found about poverty concentration and achievement comparing charter and regular public schools.  As you will see, very few charter schools, compared to their counterpart regular schools do that well.

Charter schools are an unfortunate trend not only in Georgia, but across the country.  We’ve convinced parents that charters give a real choice for their students, when in fact they do not.  There are choices for parents–they could home school their students.  That’s a real choice.  They could send them to a private school of their choice and it doesn’t matter where you live.  Parents just need the money to do this.  Charter schools were never established to offer choice.  They were established to improve education in local public schools–democratically established schools–that are in the public sphere and are open to all, no restrictions, no favoritism. 

What would you add to this conversation about charter schools in Georgia?  

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Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a former high school science teacher and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University. While at Georgia State he was coordina...