Charters In Gotham

This op-ed by Joel Klein about expanding charters in New York City seems pretty straightforward and hard to argue with.  And he forthrightly notes that charters are not a silver bullet.   Still, I’m sure there must be some reason (not apparent to mere plebeians, of course) why this is all wrong.   That’s because if Joel wrote an op-ed saying today was Thursday I’d be getting emails about how wrong he is and how saying it’s Thursday is  just further evidence that he’s deranged and hates children…

3 Replies to “Charters In Gotham”

  1. Is Mr. Klein wrong? Only time will tell. And when that time comes, both Mr. Klein and Mr. Bloomberg will be long gone. So, as a political move, Klein’s unconditional endorsement of charter school expansion is perfectly correct. But the logic he invokes to support his position is questionable—as is the rightness of his position.

    “Mayor Bloomberg and I have set about giving parents more choices—both because choice makes it more likely that parents will find what they want for their children and because competition creates better outcomes for children.”

    Klein says that “…choice makes it more likely that parents will find what they want for their children.” While this makes intuitive sense, it is hardly a certainty. There are two things that increase the likelihood of parents finding the schools they want for their children: (1) More schools that appeal to parents’ wants; and (2) More parents with a clearer sense of what they want.

    What Klein, and many unabashed charter advocates depend on, is the current “edumeme” that “public = bad and charter = good.” In reality, no correlation has ever been shown between school quality and method of legal formation. Still, charters are very popular with parents all across the nation regardless of their quality. I work regularly in charter schools—most of them abysmally managed, tragically under-resourced, poorly housed, and with unusually weak teachers and curriculum. But the parents of the kids in these schools couldn’t be happier. The simple fact of being in a charter is to them the main satisfaction. It feels different, and because “same” is bad, “different” feels good—even if “good” isn’t better.

    Charter schools are, on average, about 40% smaller than their traditional pubic school counterparts. And “smaller = better” is another education universal (even though the “Small Schools Movement” hasn’t exactly proven itself quite yet). Additionally, the operational freedom charter schools enjoy tends to translate into a feeling of freedom within the school community—another almost irresistible quality. And finally, the small number of highly successful charter schools in our country, and the extraordinary amount of media attention they have received, has made “charter” synonymous with “high quality” in the public mind, even though only a fraction of all charters have produced unusually good results, and special circumstances unique to these schools (like extraordinary philanthropic support) can almost always be found to explain at least some of their achievements.

    All of these things go to the credit of the charter movement. It has been extremely successful, if not always in educating children, then certainly in educating parents about what parents want.

    But I’ve been working for fifteen years with parents about what they want in a school and the truth is that I’ve never met a mom or a dad who could actually tell me. Many use words like “challenge” or “rigor” or “individual attention”. But when I ask them to go a level deeper, to support those general concepts with specific details, they stumble. Even parents who relentlessly visit school after school as part of their choosing process can’t tell me why they like one school better than another except in terms of four surface factors: (1) The kids look like their kids or how they want their kids to look; (2) The building is clean and orderly; (3) The building appears to be neither empty and lifeless nor full-to-bursting and chaotic—most parents have an intuitive feel for what I often think of as “appropriate human density”; and, perhaps most important of all, (4) The school has a positive reputation, often as slim as the word of one other parent whose child has attended, or who has merely “heard good things.”

    When parents work with me, and realize that they can’t explain what kind of school they want, and that all they can really do is say “I like this school because it just feels better”, I point out the four characteristics I cited above as the likely reasons for their feelings, and more often than not, they agree with me. Then I tell them that those are the criteria virtually all parents use to choose a school, and that most parents who make an effort to choose end up making better choices if for no other reason than they are engaged in the process of choosing. If one year doesn’t work out well in one school, the next year will probably work out better in the next school simply because they will know more about their child, more about schools, and more about their skill in making choices.

    Choice in schooling feels inherently good to parents. And charters are synonymous with choice. Many districts have choice programs among traditional public schools. But these programs are almost never as popular as programs that include charters.

    The popularity of charters is based largely on the unpopularity of traditional public schools and the feelings of hope that charters inspire in most of us. Even people who don’t like charters still hope that the charter schools we have educate their students well. Only the most embittered and ideologically-blinded among us hate charters so much that they actively wish for their failure—and the attendant failure of the entire movement. Hating charter schools is like hating puppies.

    But none of the warm, fuzzy feelings we have in this country about charter schools has much to do with whether or not a given charter school is better than a given traditional public school, or whether charters as a whole are inherently superior. So Mr. Klein’s assertion that more charters make it more likely that parents will find the schools they want is merely a self-fulfilling prophecy. This makes the man right but it doesn’t make the idea good.

    I’ve always felt that we do charters backwards in this country. That is to say, we charter precisely the schools we should not, and leave shackled to an outmoded system the very schools most worthy of increased freedom. Think about it: every time we charter a new school, we grant a license to care for children to an unknown entity with no existing track record. I’ve always thought that it would make more sense to identify our very best schools and grant them charters instead. That way, “charter” would be synonymous with “quality,” and the schools that had proven themselves to be the most effective would receive the freedom they deserved to innovate and expand on their success unfettered by traditional restrictions.

    But if Mr. Klein’s first point is only true by virtue of public sentiment, his second point hasn’t been shown to be true at all.

    Mr. Klein says that, “…competition creates better outcomes for children.”

    I can’t recall a single study where competition has been shown to create better outcomes for children—except possibly on the athletic field.

    The unsupported notion that competition improves the quality of schools is widely believed for three reasons: (1) Many people have come to believe that the “education is a business” metaphor is not a metaphor but a reality; (2) Many people believe that competition is inherently beneficial; and (3) Competition as in “free market competition” is part of our American DNA—it’s simply un-American to believe otherwise.

    That none of these statement is necessarily true rarely occurs to anyone when the subject of education is front and center. As a nation, we take for granted that competition will improve our schools. But is this really the case?

    First of all, education is not a business. At least public education isn’t a business. It’s simply missing too many of the basic features. States are bound by their own constitutions to educate their younger citizens; said citizens are required by law to attend schools; schools are required to provide similar services; there are no price differentials; there is virtually no transparency in the “market”; and there really isn’t a “market” at all—unless a kind of “faux market” is created through artificial means. Even then, with choice programs, for example, choices don’t actually equate to competition because schools can’t be “unchosen”. Regardless of how many families choose some schools, all families can’t have their first choice, so all schools end up filled. In essence, then, there’s no “market penalty” for not being chosen or any “market reward” to be popular. Popular schools in the public sector accrue no advantages as a result of their popularity. Therefore, there’s no incentive for schools to get better or even to compete at all. Finally, if education is a business, is it a service business, a product business, or some combination of the two? And how, exactly, do we define and evaluate the product produced or the service rendered?

    Market competition only creates improvement when there are clear winners and losers, and when winning and losing have tangible consequences which lead directly to incentives for improvement. Even though we know we have many bad schools (including thousands of bad charter schools), we don’t close them. And even though we have many excellent schools (including hundreds of excellent charter schools) we don’t reward them in ways that would contribute to their improvement. As such, market competition cannot improve public schools, at least at this point in time, either individually or in the aggregate. By contrast, people can improve schools. And if we closed down many institutions, and fired many of the least talented people, we would indeed be left with a smaller number of improved places of learning as available talent began to concentrate more intentionally in the few places that remained. But this would require having many fewer schools—and then overloading this smaller number of better schools to the point where they were no longer better, or even workable at all.

    Second, competition is not an inherently good thing. Gang warfare is competition. Better, tougher, more resourceful gangs would surely evolve over time if we simply let them fight to the death. Would that be good? Medicine has an unfortunate competition going on between anti-biotics and viruses. The viruses merely become more virulent with each new anti-biotic we apply. Drugs get better and viruses get better. But society doesn’t. And, of course, we’re learning right now that no one wants to compete for the resources of our healthcare system.

    Something similar happens within schools themselves. Some children naturally excel while others struggle. Struggling is stigmatized, achievement is encouraged. As the difference in results between children grows, their estrangement from each other grows as well. Children begin to sort themselves out, the winners from the loser. And teachers find it harder to serve them all because their needs are so divergent. The end result is that we now have some of the smartest and well-prepared young people in the history of our country—and many of the least prepared as well. And these least prepared, so lacking in ability relative to the requirements of a world defined by the best prepared, end up worse shape than the generation that preceded them. In all, a net loss for society by virtue of our collective estrangement from each other or simply the growth of the welfare state and the prison system.

    So competition isn’t inherently good but it does seem to be inherently American. Or maybe that’s not exactly true either. As I read the early history of our country, I’m struck by the incredible degree of cooperation that occurred between individuals and groups of people who seemingly had no reason to cooperate other than the hazy dream of being part of some “union”, some new world, some society where people could enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—as long as no one else was deprived of these inalienable rights. Competition is an important part of the American character. But being American is even more important. Were that not the case, thirteen states would never have formed a single country in the first place, and Lincoln may have let the South secede.

    So Mr. Klein’s assertion about competition improving schools—the same claim made by virtually all charter enthusiasts—may not be true. At least it hasn’t been shown to be true so far. In fact, no direct connection has been shown between the existence of thousands of charter schools over nearly 20 years and overall school quality. Not even in the few states with the majority of charters can it be said with confidence that education as a whole has improved.

    Regardless of what I’ve said here, and regardless of who agrees or disagrees with it, Mr. Klein and charter schools will carry the day. This is a virtual certainty. And the Obama administration’s reform-based funding approaches will undoubtedly usher in a charter explosion over the next decade. But while we’re assured of having more charter schools, it’s unclear whether we will have better ones. In fact, having more of something usually means that it gets a little worse. There is, after all, only so much talent to go around, and there has been no research to show that school talent has been migrating from traditional public schools to charters. Even private sector and philanthropic support seems to tilt just slightly toward traditional public education—though that may change at some point in the future as the popularity of charters continues to grow and our collection national knee-jerk disdain for traditional public schools continues as well.

    An interesting thought experiment might be this: What if we instantly chartered all public schools in America? Then charters wouldn’t be viewed as better than traditional public schools. In fact, no comparison would exist at all. And what of competition and freedom and choice then? As the number of charters grows, and the number of publics shrinks, we reach a point at which the charter concept simply becomes irrelevant. Perhaps then, at last, people will learn the simplest of all lessons: We don’t need charter schools or public schools. We need good schools.

    And that’s what Mr. Klein should be talking about.

  2. I’d love to see all schools chartered (ie, operating under a performance contract–no tenure). Paul Hill and Marc Tucker have suggested this as better governance strategy than the one we have.

    Klein just keeps getting better–as portfolio manager and advocate.

  3. Tom, there are many things that make sense and many more that appeal to common sense. But many of the things we desperately need to understand are counter-intuitive because of simple perception (falling objects) or because they are parts of complex systems.

    I suggest therefore that appeals to common sense should not be attractive. Mr. Klein’s attractiveness of lack thereof notwithstanding. As you say, don’t blame the messenger…

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