Do charter schools really make all schools better? Up until now, the only effect the charter school movement has had on traditional public schools has been on the latter's marketing budget. But as the charter school population now at about 5% nationally approaches "critical mass" a phrase the charter owners love to throw around, as if some grand self-sustaining nuclear reaction will soon decimate the nation's school system things could change. One change is taking place right now. And it's a change for the worse.Never mind that Basis's high scores on SAT/ACT tests and high rates of elite university entrance are the result of winnowing 500 elementary grade children down to a couple dozen by graduation time through a gauntlet of gruesome testing that drives the less able back to traditional publics.
So what's wrong with segregating the brightest students off from the hoi polloi so that they may soar? Well, almost everything. Remove the high-performing kid from the presence of the low-performing kid and what happens to the environment of the low-performing kid? It is further reduced in opportunity. The interaction among all students that teaches both the fast and the slow that they have more in common than they realize is lost. The chance for a bright kid to lend a hand to a slower kid is lost.
The big news about the charter school movement is that it is contributing to the re-segregation of our public school system. (Iris Rothberg has recently reviewed the very convincing research in this regard.) Now the traditional public schools, feeling the sting of declining enrollments bought about by the charters, are contributing to the problem by creating tracks in middle school.
The old adage holds that "Enemies come to resemble each other," because they eventually have to use the same weapons to survive. In education, no good can come of this. My colleagues in education research have warned about these problems for several years. Read about it:
- Burris, C. C., Wiley, E. W., Welner, K. G. & Murphy, J. (March 2008). Accountability, Rigor, and Detracking: Achievement Effects of Embracing a Challenging Curriculum as a Universal Good for All Students. Teachers College Record. 110(3), pp. 571-608.
- Welner, K. G., & Oakes, J. (2000). Navigating the politics of detracking. Arlington Heights, IL: Skylight Publications.
Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
University of Colorado Boulder