How come charter schools are no better than ordinary public schools?
September 12, 2014 3:53 PM   Subscribe

It would seem that charter schools have many advantages—administrators and parents who work hard to create a school, parents who are interested enough in their kids' education to enroll them, kids who are presumably somewhat better students on average, and longer hours. Yet studies say charter schools, on average, don't get better results. What could charters be doing so wrong that would offset their advantages?
posted by markcmyers to Education (13 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
Best answer: In general, when studies indicate that charter schools have no better results, they are saying, "a given student will perform equivalently at a charter school or a public school" rather than "students at charter schools perform equivalently to students at public schools." This article describes how charter school selection of students can confound statistical evaluation of charter school performance.

In short, you've already answered your question - charter schools tend to end up with the best parents and the best students, so they often end up with the best scores. However, that is not necessarily indicative of those scores being caused by the charter school, they're more indicative of better students having better scores, which is a truism.
posted by saeculorum at 3:58 PM on September 12, 2014 [19 favorites]


Best answer: Some charter schools are run as for-profit enterprises, with the highest levels of administration focusing on minimizing expenses and maximizing revenues. I had a friend that worked for a for-profit charter school where they would do shady things like ignoring the fact that students dropped out so they could still record them as students and get funding for them.
posted by fermezporte at 3:58 PM on September 12, 2014 [16 favorites]


Best answer: Maybe it's because public schools, and teachers in them are already doing a good job? That issues that occur outside of school are the major contributors to student (and, therefore, school) success?
posted by shrabster at 4:14 PM on September 12, 2014 [23 favorites]


Seconding what fermezporte said. In some states, running a charter school can be a lucrative for-profit business and people will open and operate them mostly with the goal of making a profit. There are some bad charter schools out there. There are also good charter schools, of course.
posted by aka burlap at 4:15 PM on September 12, 2014


Because this is calculated on an average. For every well-organized successful charter school there is at least another one that is being run as a for profit grift or by a group of well meaning but disorganized parents.
posted by deanc at 4:30 PM on September 12, 2014 [6 favorites]


Best answer: Former teacher here. I worked at a district school for three years, and at two different charter schools for two years apiece.

Charter schools generally come in two stripes: either they are "highly performing" and they treat districts as dumping grounds, or they are dumping grounds themselves. That sounds very insensitive, but let me use my experiences to explain.

Charter A was the first charter I taught at after leaving my local district, having drunk the kool-aid about going to a school that would give me "more freedom in the classroom as a teacher." This school was founded by a for-profit management chain that ruthlessly slashed budgets in order to make a buck and relentlessly recruited students, as every butt in a seat means another X thousand dollars of funding that year.

This charter was treated as a dumping ground by the local district. Nearly all of our students were kiddos who were failing multiple classes at the two local district schools. Time and time again we'd hear from parents that the district counselors and registrars had "really suggested the charter" and "thought the charter might be a great fit." (In other words, please take your kid somewhere else, they're ruining our test scores.) We had great teachers at Charter A and beautiful facilities thanks to some great grants. Our curriculum was actually quite good... but our test scores were horrible and we were considered a very low performing school. Our student population was struggling, and many of our families were living in poverty in rougher parts of our area.

Charter B was the second charter I taught at (and last school I taught at before quitting teaching). This was a very highly performing school that was formed by a committed parent group with a lot of support from a local university's school of education. It did nothing to recruit students as it had a very strong academic reputation. In fact, the school regularly did the opposite. To get into the school, students and their families first had to fill out an application and hope they could get it in on time to get a spot. Then there was an entrance interview where teachers and the principal would meet students and their families. THEN... there was a so-called "placement exam," which all incoming students would take to determine which classes they would be placed in (e.g. Math I, Math II). Really, though, this placement exam was often used to weed out students. Then there was ANOTHER entrance interview, and if a student did poorly on the exam, the school would steer the family toward a district school as a place that could offer "more remedial options." The school would regularly be accused of "selecting students," which was de jure false... but de facto true.

Charter B had some good teachers, and some really rotten ones. The school's academic reputation really only existed because of the talented students it brought in, and most of these talented students were from upper middle class families with very involved parents. The curriculum was mediocre and the school's management was fairly inept. Nevertheless, at the time it was considered a poster child for the charter movement (it has since merged with another school and lost its reputation).

So what are the takeaways I learned in my career?
  • Parental involvement and parental wealth are the most important factors affecting student success. Everything else (even the quality of curriculum and the quality of teaching) is far less influential.
  • The idea that charters "always attract better students" is false. In fact, some charters attract nothing but struggling students.
  • Test scores are toxic as they encourage districts and charters to shuffle students back and forth... it's a big chess game.
  • Funding is also a toxic factor... again, districts and charters will shuffle students back and forth to try to get more butts in seats and more state or federal money.
  • Not all charters have administrators or founders who are most focused on student success or on "educational freedom." Some are out to make a buck, either on running the school, or on owning school property.
TL;DR there are some really crappy charters out there, just as there are good ones... and the success of a charter school (like any other school) is mostly about parent involvement and about bringing in wealthy, successful students... not about curriculum, "freedom," "choice," etc. Everyone who has answered so far is absolutely correct in their answers.
posted by Old Man McKay at 4:39 PM on September 12, 2014 [105 favorites]


I had a friend that worked for a for-profit charter school where they would do shady things like ignoring the fact that students dropped out so they could still record them as students and get funding for them.

Public schools here in CA have a tendency to want to do that, too. It's a weird cycle where they want to count as many students as possible in attendance when it's time to justify funding numbers based on head count, and then at usually a different time of year, pare down out of district interlopers when budgets are examined to see who's leeching off the system. It's a totally weird "we love all comers/get the hell out, moocher" pendulum swing.

As for results, charter schools are a mixed bag. Some are good, some not so much. What's really interesting to me is that is seems despite lack of measurable advantages, people still seem like charter schools a good deal. I think the bottom line is that, despite claims about being very serious about education, most folks who endorse charter schools are invested in the idea having to do with involvement, exclusivity, etc. whereas they might be less willing to be invested in a school run the same way as every other in the district, and there's less opportunity to tailor the educational focus, or enjoy whatever status that may be perceived.
posted by 2N2222 at 4:42 PM on September 12, 2014


A lot of good answers already, but on a basic level charter schools are an attempt to take away all the regulations that are designed to maintain certain basic standards at public schools. Deregulation tends to make institutions much much worse for everyone but the very rich, who can buy themselves out of the problems they've created.

Over the last thirty years or so a myth was created that public schools were "bad." The right-wing people who created this myth wanted to starve public schools of funding, especially in poor areas, to promote religion in schools paid for by taxpayers, and generally to screw the poor. Charter schools, and the absurd overemphasis on standardized testing are the direct results of people swallowing whole the myth that our generally excellent (at the time) public schools were "bad" or "broken."
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:16 PM on September 12, 2014 [17 favorites]


Best answer: Because at their core the charter schools are no different than the public schools. They are both working from a model that doesn't work well in today's world.
posted by dgeiser13 at 5:19 PM on September 12, 2014 [5 favorites]


Best answer: Also, there are at least some charter schools that are opened to serve a highly specific population. At least two (of just 100 total at that time) of the charter schools in North Carolina serve residential facilities for children who require inpatient therapeutic treatment as a result of severe trauma and/or abuse. For obvious reasons, academic achievement may have fallen by the wayside and the students are therefore coming from a severe disadvantage, even compared to more typical kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.
posted by clerestory at 10:08 PM on September 12, 2014 [3 favorites]


Over the last thirty years or so a myth was created that public schools were "bad." The right-wing people who created this myth wanted to starve public schools of funding, especially in poor areas, to promote religion in schools paid for by taxpayers, and generally to screw the poor.

You forgot "and bust the teacher's union." While there are some unionized charter schools, most of them are non-union.

This article is also relevant to the charter school discussion: Confessions of a Teacher in a "No Excuses" Charter School.
posted by SisterHavana at 1:26 AM on September 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


Best answer: Diane Ravitch is recommended reading in this area.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 3:41 AM on September 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


Best answer: I'm a teacher too, and I agree completely with Old Man McKay.

This is somewhat of an aside, but if you're interested in potential issues with charter schools (rather than just with comparing public/charter schools), I would absolutely recommend reading about hiring and retention issues. Many charter schools (both the good and bad ones) hire inexperienced teachers and to go through a lot of churn-and-burn. Often those policies that people tout as good for kids (longer hours, longer school years, no union) decimate any semblance of work/life balance for teachers - which makes career teaching fall somewhere between unlikely and impossible. The reality is that teaching is a highly complex art form that even the best teachers cannot perfect within their first 5 years...so if you're only hiring new or new-ish teachers, and they all leave within the first 5 years, you're never developing a solid core of staff who are great teachers, and you're not developing the people who can become great mentors to new hires.

As I mentioned, though, that's largely an aside. Old Man McKay is correct that parental involvement and parental wealth are the most important factors affecting student success. Almost any question one might have about educational policy outcomes in the United States can be answered by diving deep into the data - not of standardized test scores, but of the socioeconomic breakdown of the students involved. As a nation, we've spent decades arguing loudly about education while stridently ignoring the real issue: class in America.
posted by leitmotif at 9:06 AM on September 13, 2014 [8 favorites]


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