From Slate’s review of Dianne Ravitch’s new book, in which the former advocate of No Child Left Behind and charter schools admits they’ve failed. Excerpt:
The data, as Ravitch says, disappoints on other fronts, too–not least in failing to confirm high hopes for charter schools, whose freedom from union rules was supposed to make them success stories. To the shock of many (including Ravitch), they haven’t been. And this isn’t just according to researchers sympathetic to labor. A 2003 national study by the Department of Education (under George W. Bush) found that charter schools performed, on average, no better than traditional public schools. (The study was initially suppressed because it hadn’t reached the desired conclusions.) Another study by two Stanford economists, financed by the Walton Family and Eli and Edythe Broad foundations (staunch charter supporters), involved an enormous sample, 70 percent of all charter students. It found that an astonishing 83 percent of charter schools were either no better or actually worse than traditional public schools serving similar populations. Indeed, the authors concluded that bad charter schools outnumber good ones by a ratio of roughly 2 to 1.
Obviously, some high-visibility success stories exist, such as the chain run by the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, which I’ve previously discussed here. But these are the decided exceptions, not the rule. And there’s no evidence that a majority of eligible families are taking advantage of charters, good or bad. “While advocates of choice”–again, Ravitch included–“were certain that most families wanted only the chance to escape their neighborhood school, the first five years of NCLB demonstrated the opposite,” she writes. In California, for example, less than 1 percent of students in failing schools actually sought a transfer. In Colorado, less than 2 percent did. If all this seems a little counterintuitive, Ravitch would be the first to agree. That’s why she supported charters in the first place. But the evidence in their favor, she insists, simply hasn’t materialized.
Ravitch isn’t arguing for pessimism. She’s arguing for humility–the kind she’s had to learn the hard way–and a healthy skepticism about silver-bullet notions of reform. The dirty dark secret of NCLB is that we may know how to identify the worst performing schools, but no one (yet) knows how to turn them around in any consistent and reliable way. And I mean no one. Not the Gates Foundation to date. Not most charter programs. No one.
You know this is a hobbyhorse of mine. I don’t want to defend lousy schools and bad teachers, and won’t do that. But the idea that even the best teachers and the most brilliantly run schools can educate kids who come from badly broken families and badly screwed up cultures is grossly unfair to teachers and educators. I have a teacher friend in California — an award-winning public school educator, in fact — whose school was on the verge of being declared “failed” under NCLB. In fact, she told me, many of the kids in the school were doing great — especially the Asian immigrant kids. The problem students in that particular urban school were Mexican immigrant kids, many of whom would disappear for weeks at a time when their parent, or parents, took them back to Mexico to visit family. There was simply no way for these kids to learn up to standards, said my teacher friend, if their parents wouldn’t cooperate with the school, and didn’t see themselves as full partners in their children’s education. But the entire school was at risk of being deemed a failure — a designation that would have severe consequences under NCLB — because of cultural factors completely beyond the school’s control.
Is that fair? Of course it’s not fair. Yes, there are plenty of bad teachers, and yes, teacher’s unions are often part of the problem, as well as corrupt and inefficient public school bureaucracies. But if these were the only problems with our failing public schools, then charter schools would have done better than they have. As another public school teacher friend of mine once put it (and I paraphrase), “So many of these kids come to us from such screwed-up backgrounds, if they make it to school with their shoes tied, it’s a triumph. You wonder how in the world we’re supposed to teach these kids when we have to spend most of our time doing social work with them. I’m their teacher, not their parent — but society expects me to be both things. I can’t do it. Nobody can.”
The problem with the public schools is they can only be as good as the public they serve. Good luck trying to fix that problem.