Friday, March 7, 2014

Myth 7: Charter schools make all schools better.

Myth 7. School choice and competition work to improve all schools. Vouchers, tuition tax credits, and charter schools inject competition into the education system and “raise all boats.”

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.

The Scottsdale (AZ) Uniified School District just announced that it will be creating an honors track for middle schools! Yes, middle schools! Can AP courses in Kindergarten be far behind? Apparently it's never to soon to let the little kids know that "You're smart, and he's not." The administration says flat out that the change is because of competition from charters. Scottsdale has a couple of charter schools that cream high performing kids off of the traditional public schools. One of them – Basis Scottsdale – is a part of the chain of Basis schools that have been anoited one of the "10 Best High Schools in America" by U. S. News. 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

1 comment:

  1. What you’ve captured here, Gene, particularly with the example of Scottsdale, is the straightforward reality that an unconstrained choice marketplace has winners and losers. More advantaged families are more active choosers AND kids from those families are the ones who schools most compete for. This means that the responses to competition are highly asymmetrical, often designed in ways that benefit some children at the expense of others. Using your example of high- and low-performing students, imagine New Student X, from an advantaged family, and New Student Y, from a disadvantaged family. Both students would be harmed by a lower-track class, with lower expectations, less advantageous peer effects, less experienced teachers, etc. But it’s Y who will more likely end up in that low-track class. We tend to excuse this because of an assumption that X is more meritorious or is more likely to benefit from the higher-track. Yet even setting aside the problems with such assumptions, there’s no need for us to feel trapped by that choice. All children benefit from the accelerated learning of well-done, detracked schools, as the TCR article you cite illustrates.