Stanford Charter School Fails to Make the Grade

06/21/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How much more evidence do we need before we conclude that charter schools aren't the panacea for America's public education woes that so many believe them to be? If you missed the story last week, a charter school created and administered by Stanford University's renowned Department of Education had its charter revoked by the local school board. Why? The same old drumbeat of low test scores and a designation as one of the poorest performing schools in California by our state's Department of Education.

You would, of course, expect nothing but the best of everything from Stanford University in its creation of a charter school: the highest-quality curriculum based on the latest educational research, the best-trained teachers, and outstanding resources. It was all there. And, in spending $3,000 more per student than the average public school, money wasn't an issue either. Yet the charter school failed. My gosh, if some of the finest minds in education in America can't figure out a way to educate disadvantaged children, what are the chances that anyone else can?

Stanford has plenty of perfectly reasonable explanations for their failure. The charter school is located in East Palo Alto, a city with large minority and immigrant populations and a long history of poverty and crime. Many parents are uneducated and speak little English. Kids in East Palo Alto have a perfect storm of obstacles preventing them from achieving even minimal academic success. But that's the point. The Stanford charter school was designed to overcome these barriers and it couldn't.

Perhaps the Stanford charter school didn't fail. Reports indicated that its curriculum included traditional academic components, but also social and emotional education. So maybe the criterion that was used to evaluate performance, namely, testing, was too narrow to fairly assess the range of knowledge that the students were gaining from their education.

It is also not completely unreasonable to suggest that knowledge proficiency for many poor students might be less important than important life skills such as social and emotional competence, hard work, time management, and persistence, particularly since most of these students will likely join the work force rather than pursue higher education. Perhaps giving them some basic life skills, hope for the future, and keeping them out of trouble is the most that can be expected under these circumstances. But lowering the bar for these kids goes against everything that Stanford represents. It also conflicts with the very foundation of the American Dream. And it is an insult and disservice to those disadvantaged children who, against incredibly long odds, are able to surmount the obstacles with which they are confronted and break out of the vicious cycle of poverty in which they are mired.

In a way, as badly as I feel for the failure of the Stanford charter school, I hope that Stanford just didn't find that magic recipe that will allow schools to provide poor children with a quality education. Then, the Stanford charter school would be the problem. But what if the current education reform system is the problem, as I have advocated in recent posts. That is even worse because it's easier to fix or fold a few schools than repair or scrap the entire public education reform effort.

What does this sad chapter in the ongoing saga of public education reform tell us? At best, it means that the challenges we face in improving America's public education system are daunting even for the best and the brightest at Stanford University. At worst, it means that the current road of reform that we are on just isn't going to take us to the promised land.