Thursday, June 11, 2009

Insufficient answers to pressing questions

Bob Herbert describes extraordinary results in a charter school (2 charter schools, actually--a middle school, and a high school that they made in response to their initial success in the middle school). 48 of 48 students in the graduating class are going on to college. All of these students face the difficulties educators point to--poverty, first to attend college, etc.

Eduwonk (hat tip for the article) frames this as the reason to have charter schools.

But my fundamental question remains unanswered--why can't we do this with public education? Why don't we? I think Eduwonk would say "Teachers' Unions! Vested Interests! Education Lobbyists!" Is my industry so politically powerful? Is it so short-sighted that we'd betray our professional principles and destroy our credibility?

At the same time I write this post, I happen to be listening to a Smithsonian Folkways podcast about labor movement folk songs, and it occurs to me that I toe the Union line pretty strongly. So let me clarify: I, of course, celebrate the success of all the students of Gaston Prep Middle and the high school (unnamed in the article). I honor the tremendous effort and sacrifice, and admire the professional dedication, of Tammi Sutton and Caleb Dolan, the educators responsible for creating and driving the schools that have helped this graduating class. I look forward to continued success from these schools. I don't question that in another educational setting these students would not have met anywhere near the same degree of success. I look forward to continued success from these schools.

What I question is, why wouldn't these students have had the same degree of success in their local public schools? What did this school do that public schools don't do? Why don't they do it?

The heart of my criticism of charter school is this: Charter schools and similar reform efforts are based on the notion of competition between education providers. The theory runs thus: as charter schools show their worth, non-charter schools will have to reform and improve student services, or parents will choose schools that will do the best job by their students. "Free and open market forces" will decide the distribution of limited resources--the victors will survive, the failures will dissolve. With the failure of just a few schools, we'll achieve a much higher degree of educational efficacy in education. And maybe that's the case.

But we already have a system of distribution of limited resources. It's called the "public education system." It is not immune from criticism: It is a near-monopoly; it's a bulky bureaucracy with many share-holders whose objectives sometimes work at cross-purpses; change is nearly impossible; every rule change has a million unintended consequences. Public schools fail a huge number of students, and these students are disproportionately the ones who most need help from the public sector--minorities and special-needs students.

But, and here's the rub of it, I think, charter schools and other competitive systems of education reform seek to dilute pools of limited resources, in effect robbing Peter to pay Paul. This inevitably leads to incentivizing "trade secrets," which is the opposite of what we want. If a school finds something that works that nobody else is doing, we want people standing on the rooftops screaming about it. We want successful teachers to be rock stars, the subjects of articles and TV specials, teacher educators, article-writers. We want their techniques studied, spread, maximized. To that extent, anything that charter schools can do to make us better, I'm all for it. I remain extremely sceptical, however, that diffusing the nation's education resources is the best way to do that.

No comments: