In recognition of today's celebration of our nation's birthday, I was planning on writing something inspirational and patriotic. Perhaps something about how America's "noble experiment" of universal education for all, regardless of social and economic standing, epitomizes the democratic spirit of our country. I thought I would expound on how public schools present us with the perfect example of how the future of humanity relies not solely on the rights of the individual but also on a "shared effort" among everyone in a community to ensure the well-being of future generations.
I thought I would take the patriotic bond we're all feeling today as an opportunity to remind people that the functions of schools extend way beyond, as Larry Cuban puts it here, "transferring knowledge and skills from adults to children." From the early grades - where little children are taught about "taking turns, no hitting or biting, washing hands, working independently, cooperating with others who look and act different" - through the middle and upper grades that prepare students for the the workplace and citizenship. I felt today would be the perfect time to point out that public schools are a "hotbed for democracy".
While it's true that our educational system cannot right the wrongs that are inflicted on children in every corner of American society - especially in violent, impoverished cities like Chicago and conservative, rural states like Oklahoma - that does not mean that universal public education is a systemic failure. After all, businesses fail all the time and our economy is currently in shambles, but there's no broad based movement to declare capitalism a failure.
So I was getting set for an emotional appeal to acknowledge the history and value of our public schools - what they really mean to this country. And then this flashed across my monitor. Resembling the bland countenance of Kim Jong Il, here we have the nemesis to everything American public education reveres: democratic input from the citizenry, local control, education of the whole child, equality of opportunity and access. And my friends, when you see the arsonist setting your house ablaze, you'd better not pause to reflect on what the house means to you. You'd better man the fire brigade.
|When Bill Gates talks about charter schools providing the leverage for revolutionizing education and creating "breakthroughs" for all those children who traditional schools "don't work for," what is he talking about? When he says that the key to the success of charter schools is something called "autonomy for accountability," what on earth does that mean?
At the outset, let me differentiate the legitimate roles of charter schools from the charter school movement. For school districts to offer alternative structures and forms of schooling within the confines of the community they serve is all well and good. I'm well aware that schools that reflect a broad agreement in values and goals within a community will occasionally ill-serve individual students who don't fit in with those norms, for whatever reason. School-within-a-school, blended learning approaches that include online courses, single-sex academies, and other alternative offerings have shown some evidence of success on a case-by-case basis. But let's be clear that this is not what the charter schools movement is about.
Although the charter school movement relies on an education vigilantism to motivate its base, the true heart of the movement is primarily corporate. In other words, the charter school movement is a business plan. Anyone who doubts this need only read this essay by charter school enthusiast Andy Smarick. As excerpted here by edublogger Jim Horn, the plan is for charter schools to
1. Establish a "solid charter base" of 5% in large urban districts such as Albany NY, Washington DC, and Kansas MO.
2. Obtain "human and financial capital" by engaging with symbiotic "allies" such as Teach for America and well-funded private foundations.
3. Expand "market share" until the local school administration - which is governed, by the way, by a democratically elected school boards or mayors - becomes a "financially unsustainable marginal player."
What was really being celebrated at the charter school conference where Gates keynoted was that (1) the 5% threshold of "solid charter base" has in fact been achieved at least on a national basis, (2) their "key allies" are firmly in place, and (3) the movement is now poised to drive local schools into the dust.
Before getting to how fundamentally undemocratic the charter school movement is, let's consider the more pragmatic subject of whether charter schools can deliver what they profess to.
In the same week that Gates was delivering his cheerleading speech, yet another study emerged that indicates that charter schools on average nave no edge over traditional public schools.
"Students who won lotteries to attend charter middle schools performed, on average, no better in mathematics and reading than their peers who lost out in the random admissions process and enrolled in nearby regular public schools, according to a national study released today."
The study examined schools that had more applicants than they could accommodate and compared students who were randomly selected to attend those schools with those who were not. Claus Von Zastrow illuminates the lessons to be learned from the study:
* Since the study looked at charter schools that parents are most likely to choose, it proves that even the most popular charters do not outshine traditional public schools.
* Since the study revealed that parents and students are happier with the most popular charters - even though those school perform no better than public schools do - it clearly proves that the "free market did not guarantee success" because people will choose irrationally.
All these mixed evaluations of charter schools are coming to light despite some of the advantages thrown to them:
"On average, though, the charter middle schools in the study enrolled a lower percentage of students who are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals than charters nationally, and served smaller percentages of students scoring below proficiency levels on state exams than their national peers. Also, the percentage of African-American students who attended the charter middle schools in the study were smaller when compared with charters nationally."
So when Gates touts the "breakthroughs" being achieved by charter schools he's clearly not talking about anything having to do with academics. And the supposed efficiencies of charter schools - another big selling point of their advocates - are also a mirage. As a new study revealed this week, charter schools actually spend more on administrative costs than traditional public schools.
More likely, what Gates is referring to is the supposed great achievements that were hailed this week by another "education reform" advocate, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter. In his column taking to task Rep. David Obey for having the temerity to try to save teachers' jobs, Alter trots out this fantasy that the Obama administration' policies favoring charter schools have achieved "major accountability improvements." By "accountability improvements" he must mean all those states that have lifted caps on charter schools in order to qualify for competitive grants. But how has this made any "improvements?" Doesn't making improvements have anything to do with genuine progress in student achievement and wellbeing?
In the charter school movement, calls for "accountability" in education have taken on an Orwellian language where accountability now means policy points, specifically lifting the caps on the number of charter schools allowed and the rapid procurement of public funding for charter schools, rather than genuine improvements for school children. And when Gates says that the key to the success of charter schools is something called "autonomy for accountability," he's saying in a curious new Doublspeak that the way to make charter schools more accountable is to leave them totally unrestricted and let "the market," in the form of deep-pocketed right-leaning foundations determine what happens.
That fact alone, that the likes of Bill Gates and the Walton and Broad families are now having more say-so about the direction of school improvement policy in our country than local teachers and parents is what is so fundamentally anti-democratic about the nature of the charter schools movement. Driven by the ranks of the charter school movement, the new philosophy guiding public education is that the "market" decides, there are "winners" and "losers," and decision makers in the elite halls of DC thanktanks know more about what's best for kids than their teachers and parents do.
This anti-democratic philosophy behind education reform has been sold so successfully that even within the ranks of "progressive" Democrats there is widespread agreement. Case in point, this week, Matt Yglesias of the Center for American Progress made a faux-Darwinian argument that school improvement is a matter of "you let a 1,000 flowers bloom, and the average flower turns out pretty average. But if you cull the bottom 200 flowers, let the top 100 flowers replicate themselves, and then plant 100 new seeds you'll be making progress over time."
Get that? We're going to genetically engineer our way to better schools by letting the "flower growers" in DC experiment on our kids. Now if that's not anti-democratic, I don' know what is.
(Aside: One thing I love about Matt's posts on public education policy is that in the comment thread his points are so thoroughly discredited and reduced to what they are - neo liberal blather - that there's hardly a need to take his argument up seriously.)
Let's be clear that when Gates says he wants more "risk taking" that he's not talking about risk taking for the elite of our country. The reality is that "innovation for the sake of innovating may not always be the wisest strategy for improving schools, and like most things in life, when established public institutions are gutted, the most vulnerable populations of society are the ones most apt to experience the downside of "innovation."
So let's celebrate America today. But let's be mindful that America today is increasingly in danger of becoming a place where a DC elite is usurping local control of schools, where the wealthiest are reengineering public schools to perpetuate Wall Street profits, where our political leaders are openly proposing that we give away public school buildings to privately run charter schools, and where our nation's promise of "universal education" is being set ablaze by the greedy and powerful among us.