Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Self-Fulfilling Prophesy Of Charter Schools

This sounds like a good idea:

In 1988, (Albert) Shanker was trying to figure out what to do about the large number of students who were disengaged, who dropped out of school, or who sat sullenly in their classrooms, apparently indifferent to instruction. His idea was that a group of six or eight teachers in a school might collaborate on designing a new sort of school for these students, then go to their colleagues in the school and ask for their approval. Before they could proceed, they would also need to get the support of their union and the district school board. Then they would recruit those students who were hanging out on street corners and who were likely to droop out. The new school would be free from the usual regulations, and teachers would be free to come up with their own ideas to help these youths. Whatever they learned, they would share with their colleagues. They would collaborate with the public school system, not compete with it. (From Reign of Error, 2013, Diane Ravitch)

Shanker, then president of the American Federation of Teachers, called this idea "charter schools," with the idea being that they would work with these at-risk students for a set period of time, then dissolve when their work was done. To this day, many in the public school privatization movement claim the legendary educator's endorsement, when in fact, he was an active, vocal opponent of what charter schools have become: cost-cutting, competitive enterprises motivated by profit, not education.

Indeed, I understand that there are some charter schools out there doing work in keeping with Shanker's original idea of intervening on behalf of students who were being failed by traditional public schools, but the majority are these corporate chains, which are being given access to the public coffers, while being freed from many of the regulations and state laws that govern such things as health and safety, disciplinary policies, and admissions. In many cases they are even free from the financial oversight, teacher evaluation requirements, and union contracts that are mandatory in public schools. Despite two decades of this, these schools, on average produce no better results (as judged by the test scores) than do traditional public schools, and in many cases worse.

Of course, these are business people running these schools, many paying executive salaries in the mid- to high-six figures, and they see the writing on the wall. Even if they are satisfied with their ability to turn a profit, they know that they're going to need to show some actual "educational" improvement over traditional public schools if they're going to keep the gravy train running in the long run. So they're doing what all for-profit corporations do, they are rejecting inferior "blueberries" at the loading dock, via a process labeled "creaming," as in skimming the cream from the top. Disabled students, for instance, are largely excluded from all but a tiny percentage of these charter schools. This is true of students with all kinds of special needs, not just severe disabilities. They turn-away a large percentage of English language learners. And most are not required to accept students with behavioral challenges. Despite their claims to accept all students, they employ rigorous screening methods similar to elite private schools to make sure they are only enrolling the top students. And they've developed slimy ways to dump their under-performing students back onto public schools, often just before it's time to take the standardized tests by which their school's performance will be judged -- you know, instead of actually teaching them.

And now, increasingly, they are simply finding ways to exclude poor students, because, on whole, they are inferior blueberries:

Both Great Hearts and Basis (large for-profit charter operators) are what Julian Vasquez Heilig, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin's College of Education, refers to as "a la carte schools," because while they are tuition-free, they charge fees for uniforms, field trips, extracurricular actives and athletics. In some instances, that can amount to more than $1,000 per student annually. On top of those fees, parents are also encouraged to assist the schools financially through personal donations. With neither school providing transportation to their campuses, parents with limited financial means could face an additional obstacle . . . "Some charters have perfected the art of creating barriers to low-income kids," Mr. Heilig said. "If you have to run a steeplechase to get into school, most low-income parents aren't able to do that, especially when they are working two or three jobs."

Albert Shanker envisioned charters as a way to reach out to struggling students, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, those with learning disabilities, and those with socio-economic challenges that cause them to drop out of school. Today, our charters are failing exactly the kids he intended to help: indeed, these for-profit schools are increasingly using public money to educate rich white kids, while leaving these challenging students on the hands of beleaguered and impoverished public schools, creating exactly the kind of self-fulfilling prophesy that will mean the end of public education.

And for those of you who didn't click the link, here is the blueberry story:

The Blueberry Story: The teacher gives the businessman a lesson

“If I ran my business the way you people operate your schools, I wouldn’t be in business very long!”

I stood before an auditorium filled with outraged teachers who were becoming angrier by the minute. My speech had entirely consumed their precious 90 minutes of inservice. Their initial icy glares had turned to restless agitation. You could cut the hostility with a knife.

I represented a group of business people dedicated to improving public schools. I was an executive at an ice cream company that became famous in the middle1980s when People Magazine chose our blueberry as the “Best Ice Cream in America.”

I was convinced of two things. First, public schools needed to change; they were archaic selecting and sorting mechanisms designed for the industrial age and out of step with the needs of our emerging “knowledge society”. Second, educators were a major part of the problem: they resisted change, hunkered down in their feathered nests, protected by tenure and shielded by a bureaucratic monopoly. They needed to look to business. We knew how to produce quality. Zero defects! TQM! Continuous improvement!

In retrospect, the speech was perfectly balanced - equal parts ignorance and arrogance.

As soon as I finished, a woman’s hand shot up. She appeared polite, pleasant – she was, in fact, a razor-edged, veteran, high school English teacher who had been waiting to unload.

She began quietly, “We are told, sir, that you manage a company that makes good ice cream.”

I smugly replied, “Best ice cream in America, Ma’am.”

“How nice,” she said. “Is it rich and smooth?”

“Sixteen percent butterfat,” I crowed.

“Premium ingredients?” she inquired.

“Super-premium! Nothing but triple A.” I was on a roll. I never saw the next line coming.

“Mr. Vollmer,” she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to the sky, “when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?”

In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap…. I was dead meat, but I wasn’t going to lie.

“I send them back.”

“That’s right!” she barked, “and we can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with ADHD, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one! And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business. It’s school!”

In an explosion, all 290 teachers, principals, bus drivers, aides, custodians and secretaries jumped to their feet and yelled, “Yeah! Blueberries! Blueberries!”

And so began my long transformation.

Since then, I have visited hundreds of schools. I have learned that a school is not a business. Schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material, they are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, competing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night.

None of this negates the need for change. We must change what, when, and how we teach to give all children maximum opportunity to thrive in a post-industrial society. But educators cannot do this alone; these changes can occur only with the understanding, trust, permission and active support of the surrounding community. For the most important thing I have learned is that schools reflect the attitudes, beliefs and health of the communities they serve, and therefore, to improve public education means more than changing our schools, it means changing America.

Copyright 2002, by Jamie Robert Vollmer
Jamie Robert Vollmer, a former business executive and attorney, now works as a motivational speaker and consultant to increase community support for public schools. He can be reached at jamie@jamievollmer.com

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Andrea said...

Thanks, Teacher Tom.

Anonymous said...

David Ross (of Cosalt plc fame) running our academies! A public disgrace.