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Educating for Democracy: Diane Ravitch Weighs in at Charter School Hearing

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At an April 22 hearing on charter schools held by NY State Senator Bill Perkins, Diane Ravitch, the noted educator, cited many of the issues that have been raised in the past by critics of the schools. She pointed out how there is little evidence that they are better performing than district schools, the most comprehensive being a study of half of the 5,000 charter schools in the United States conducted by the noted educator Margaret Raymond. In the study, although 17% of charter schools performed better than regular schools, most performed the same if not worse. Ravitch cited as negative factors in the charter school movement the smaller proportion of special needs students in charter schools, the limitations of the lottery system in reaching all parents in poorer neighborhoods, and the divisive nature of charter schools when they compete for resources with the host schools in which they are "co-located."

Ravitch's views had been reflected by critics of charter schools I interviewed, although I also spoke with supporters. As I arrived at 250 Broadway for the hearing, the sidewalk was clogged with groups of students carrying signs advocating a lifting of the cap on charter schools. The students were well-dressed, orderly and passionate. Clearly, they seemed to be satisfied with the education they were getting. But how well were charter schools serving the larger constituency that these students represented?

One of the charter school supporters whose children go to, Ross Global Academy, informed me that her daughter is being instructed in Chinese in fourth grade and her son has just been accepted at Brooklyn Tech, an elite public high school. Another parent whose children attended Explore Charter School told me of the excellent education both her children had received. The parent, Lakisha Adams, who is also president of one of the few charter school PTAs, felt that the lottery system used to select children for this school was fair and that the school was "open to parents" and visitors.

But Regina Olff, a South Bronx school teacher and critic of charter schools, pointed out that the lottery system is in itself selective since parents who have special concerns for their children's education were more likely than others to apply for the lottery. Parents who are recent immigrants or are not familiar with the lottery process might also be uninformed on how to enter their children in the pool.

Another charter school supporter, Julie Goodyear, who is the parent of a child in the Icahn Charter School, explained why it was that there were a smaller number of special needs children in her charter school than in the district schools. She observed that the school felt that regular, not specialized education, was most effective in dealing with children who have learning disabilities and that later on it would be less effective. But Larina Miley, whose 5-year-old daughter attends a charter school, insisted from her child's special needs were not being met at the school she attended, where she only receives 45 minutes of counseling weekly from someone who has no qualifications in special education. She feels she is being pressured to withdraw her child from the school.

Michael Stern, another advocate of charter schools, a former businessman and one of the founders of Bronx Charter School for Excellence, a school with a 100% minority student body, explained that he became involved in education because of his concern about the "lack of quality education" for minority youngsters in NYC. He was proud of the way the school "turned around" after two difficult years. "We got rid of 90% of the staff and the principal and the next year test scores went up dramatically." When asked how reliable he felt the New York State standardized test scores were for measuring student achievement, he conceded that they needed to be improved but for lack of other ways of measuring student learning reliably, he felt that that they were the only ones that were available.

I could not help wondering whether there was some connection between the turnaround in student test scores at Mr. Stern's school and the dismissal of almost all of the previous teaching staff for not having gotten the students to "achieve" high scores. Besides, there are many other ways of measuring student achievement besides standardized tests: performance-based assessments that are most likely to be more accurate in reflecting the students' true knowledge But such evaluations as portfolios, student interviews and oral exams do not generate the "numbers" cachet of standardized tests that seem to be almost the only measure of successful learning in all but the elite NYC schools which do not rely on these tests to measure what students really have learned. It is the "business model"-oriented entrepreneurs and supporters of many charter schools who, with little if any experience in education, use the same "market-driven" mentality in evaluating student success that they would use in industrial production. This "data-driven" mentality govern the teaching practices of many of these schools to the detriment of the students.

The assumption about charter schools that I find most troubling is that they are being advanced as a "solution" to the problems of learning in public schools. The emphasis that is being placed on them by President Obama's "Race to the Top" indicates that charter schools are a major part of his school initiative, when the case for their large-scale adoption has never been made. Moreover, a great deal more transparency in governance of charter schools is also needed before the City of New York, the state, and the country can move forward to adopt the charter school approach to something as complex, varied and problematic as public education.

As Ellen Raider, a co-founder of ICOPE (Independent Commission on Public Education) -- an advocate of a human rights based system of public education -- pointed out, this kind of "competitive education" system was used twenty years ago in New Zealand. This system gave "school vouchers" to every parent in the country for their children. The disastrous results are reported in a study of the program: "When Schools Compete" by Edward Fiske and Helen Ladd.

I'm not claiming that there are no good charter schools in New York City. But there should be some that are able to co-operate with public schools to improve student learning, not just "compete" with them. Ravitch pointed out that the idea for charter schools in the City was actually proposed by Albert Shanker, president of the UFT, as an "experiment" to find best practices for teachers to use to improve the education of students with various learning disabilities. Shanker turned against the charter school movement when he saw it as detrimental to public schools by taking away public resources for education.

There is no way to determine at this time that adding more charter schools will improve public education. There are many signs, however, that their presence can become a disruptive element when they are housed in a district school, especially in minority neighborhoods. There are also allegations, as raised in the hearing, that some of the for-profit charter schools are being run as much for the benefit of the investors and high-salaried administrators as they are for the students. Senator Perkins' hearing was focused on the need for better transparency of these schools' governance and greater accountability of how their public funds were being used.

Winston Churchill once said, "The American people will find a solution to every problem. . . once they've tried everything else."

I'm afraid that the trend toward making charter schools a "solution to every 'educational' problem" before there is abundant evidence that it is a solution and not another part of the problem will once more prove Mr. Churchill right.

Note: I requested comment from James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, but as of the posting of this blog, have not received a response. I will be glad to report on his reaction to some of the issues raised in my column should he choose to reply.