Not So Simple

We often hear how public schools are failing our kids.  That because of failed policies, dysfunctional leadership, and stubborn teacher unions, the status quo has been maintained for years.  The solution is more charter schools and school choice.  Charter schools often have a track record of success.  They do well by their students; charter schools are the right answer.

As a defender of public schools, it is sometimes hard to argue.  We are bombarded with successful stories of charter schools from KIPP to Aspire.  In contrast, public schools are often maligned for poor test scores, low graduation rates, and overall ineffectiveness.  Often charter schools represent the only chance for a good education, as depicted in Waiting for Superman and the Lottery.  A lottery decides which children and families get a quality education; the documentary asks if it is fair that luck decides the future of these kids?

Yet, how did those families get in that room to begin with?

While the chances of getting into one of these chosen schools aren’t great (1 and 7 for some schools), not every child is represented in that room.  The film highlights families pushing for a better education for their child.  But what about the other kids out there?

What about the kids that have parents who don’t have time to complete the lottery process?  What about the kids whose parents don’t speak the language?  What about the kids whose parents aren’t able to fill out the form because they can’t read?  What about the kids whose parents that just don’t care, about their kids or their education?

An aspect not discussed in charter versus public schools comparisons is the parental component.  While the students are chosen by lottery, understand that not all the children are included.  Only parents who enroll their kids enable the opportunity for a better education.  Doesn’t this tell you something about these families?

While some charter schools only require a lucky pull in the lottery, others have high expectation for students and parents alike.  KIPP, a well known charter brand, has the students, teachers, and parents sign a commitment to the kid’s education.  Listed here, it has strict expectations for the parents. Perhaps this is one reason that a study found nearly 60% of students who start at KIPP in 5th grade end up leaving before 8th grade.

Am I now bad mouthing KIPP?  That is not my intention.  KIPP is an excellent program that has had documented successes.  Kids who enroll and stick with KIPP end up being very successful.  The extra instruction time required has a significant impact on achievement.  Yet, I have several concerns including the high turnover rate of students and teachers (Over two thirds of the teachers in the study no longer teach in the classroom setting in the KIPP schools examined) as well as the necessity for outside fundraising (the study found that KIPP school needed to raise 40-70K each year to close funding gaps from what the state provided) (1) .  In truth, my biggest objection is not the existence of KIPP like programs, but instead the unfair comparison between it and public schools.

Getting back to parent involvement, studies have found that engaged parents have a significant impact on learning.  This impact crosses both economic and racial demographics and often finds parental expectations and time invested to be the most important factors.  KIPP expectations build on these data, requiring parents to invest in their kids.  The results, to a certain extent, speak for themselves.

You may argue that programs like KIPP are the exception rather than the rule in terms of parent requirements.  Indeed, I agree that for most charter schools (my wife’s old one included) the requirements on parents were much less stringent.  The perception is that these schools do a better job educating kids than the public schools.  But is that accurate?

In fact, some charter schools do produce improved test results as compared to public schools.  But the numbers say that, it is actually less than 1 in 5 that is better than public schools as a whole ( 2, 3, 4). In fact the vast majority are only on par with public schools and nearly 1/3 are worse than their public school counterparts.  Are there charter school that are better than the average public school?  Yes.  Is that true for all or even the majority of them?  No.

So what’s the point?  Simply, schools are much more complicated than can be depicted in a 102 minute documentary.  The answers aren’t as simple as more parent involvement or fewer bad teachers. Public schools are not all bad,  nor are charter schools all good.  The point is that there is not a single, correct answer.  There are many solutions that can and will be successful.  These solutions do not  always translate in every situation; one size does not fit all.

The process requires us to think not in terms of a multiple choice test with one right answer, but instead as a free response test with multiple correct avenues to solve the problem.    The sooner we stop trying to find the “one” way to solve the problems, the sooner we can improve education in this country.


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