Will Common Core Force Charters to Go Back to Their Roots?

08/21/2013 03:44 pm ET | Updated Oct 21, 2013

When New York City replaced its old-fashioned bubble-in high stakes tests with Common Core assessments, the predictable result was a 50% drop in test scores. The decreases were sharper in high-poverty schools. The collapse in test scores was most dramatic in previously high-performing charters that took the test prep short cut. As Gary Rubenstein reports, pass rates for Democracy Prep Harlem Charter dropped from 84 percent to 13 percent, while KIPP Amp dropped from 79 percent to 9 percent in 2013. Rubenstein concludes, "The reformer narrative just blew up."

For years, these charters have allowed market-driven "reformers" to spin their test score increases in a divide-and-conquer war on public education. Now, it is time for them to take a collective look in their mirrors. Without some deep soul-searching, "No Excuses" charters and their excessive test prep will have no chance of meeting the Common Core standards.

As the boasts of "reformers" like NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg are discredited, it is even more clear that traditional neighborhood schools and charters were both damaged by the teach-to-the-test educational malpractice that was encouraged by data-driven "reform." Traditional public school educators had already known that they were in the gun sights of corporate reformers but, now, charters that try to serve a fair share of low-income children should realize that they also face a mortal threat.

On the other hand, charters now have the opportunity to do some soul-searching, to recognize how their students have also been damaged by high-stakes tests and, hopefully, return to their roots.

On the eve of No Child Left Behind, Bruce Fuller's Inside Charter Schools analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of 1990s charters. Fuller noted their shortcomings, such as the failure to transform classroom practice or to overcome generational poverty, but he recounted many virtues of the grassroots choice movements. Fuller noted the dangers of choice and asked whether it would further damage poor children of color left behind in neighborhood schools after charters "creamed" off the easier-to-educate kids from families that were more motivated. On the other hand, it was easy to see how the dynamism of the grassroots activism could release a lot of constructive energy.

Fuller especially admired the community values of many charter advocates. That raises the question of what could have happened if charters had not played into the hands of the accountability hawks and had used the new money that came with NCLB for humane purposes. Had school choice not become a pawn in the test-driven game against traditional public schools, perhaps they could have created high-performing, full-service community schools where low income kids had the supports necessary to master Common Core.

Fuller described how pioneering charters sought a more "human-scale" approach to schooling. Back then, Fuller wrote, "What's striking about many charter school founders is that they are dedicated to much more than simply raising children's test scores. This might not even be an immediate concern."

In the 1990s, these advocates were more concerned with how children should be raised, the cultural content of curriculum, and the balance between democratic or authoritative ways of relating to students and families. Although Fuller found that, "policy wonks talk about how charters enact the best facets of market choice ... grassroots activists and school directors speak of inventing new communities for learning and socialization."

The problem was that the choice movement adopted a "zero-sum game. It became "almost monotheistic" in its desire to defeat traditional educational systems while empowering charters. Although Fuller didn't blame charters, per se, they became teammates of ideologues seeking to destroy the "status quo." He concluded that local reformers did not "always consider the wider political context in which they are both players and pawns." As Fuller explained, they were caught up in a "political culture that requires reformers to pay homage to market remedies for public problems."

Fuller worried that "charter advocates, along with their less balanced allies in the school choice movement will unearth the moral bedrock that supports the ideals of public schooling." That has certainly been the case since NCLB empowered market-driven "reformers" and their assault on teachers, unions, and traditional public schools. Before long, charter advocates allowed themselves to become weapons of corporate reformers. Too many high-performing charters allowed test-driven "reformers" to use their test scores in a slanderous claim that charters had served the "same students" that neighborhood schools had failed to educate.

I suspect that the sincere leaders of many "No Excuses" charters became too trusting in their own public relations spin. They certainly seemed to believe that the scores generated by teach-to-the-primitive bubble-in test pedagogy represented real learning. If nothing else, Common Core has popped their bubble. Surely, these dedicated activists are now realizing that they will never meet Common Core standards without transforming themselves.

Now is the time for charter advocates to go back to their roots and remember that schooling is an act of love - not a competition or a war on unions and educators who believe differently. They did not originally intend to devote their hearts and souls to the "amoral marketplace." Choice advocates must return to their original impulses so that we can return to "the most fundamental social mores" and "a core set of democratic ideas that help hold our centrifugal society together."

And, who knows, perhaps we can even return to the vision of the American Federation of Teachers President Al Shanker who saw charters as a venue for collaboration and innovation, and together we can tackle the challenge of meeting Common Core standards.