Many good reasons why ‘no excuses’ charter schools are not a solution
Within the next year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan will go to Boston to trumpet its charter schools as one of his "islands of excellence" where children can blossom and principals can take charge, unfettered by all those pesky rules and annoying teacher unions.
Most of Beantown's charters operate under the "no excuses" philosophy that emphasizes rigorous academics and tough behavioral standards. Hard to argue with that and, besides, "no excuses" would be a great buzz phrase to replace the disgraced "no child left behind."
On the surface, his case will be convincing.
The MATCH Charter Public School, for example, recently was recognized as one of the top in the nation, with 99 percent of its graduates moving on to a college or university. For three years running, all of its 10th graders have passed state English and Math tests. All graduates must pass at least two Advanced Placement and university classes to receive diplomas.
MATCH is no exception in a city where charter schools outperformed public schools as a whole, according to a January report from The Boston Foundation. That hasn't been the case with Boston's "pilot schools" that also were freed from rules and unions but remain under the auspices of local districts, the report continued.
The Boston charters don't appear to benefit overwhelmingly from "good" demographics, though they do have slightly fewer special education and free- and reduced-lunch students than the city as a whole, according the foundation report. They serve a higher percentage of Hispanics than do Boston Public Schools, but more African-Americans.
But then the myth starts to deteriorate.
Students at both charter and pilot schools had higher math and English standardized test scores before high school than their public school peers registered, indicating that charter students were ahead going in.
The study's authors said it's impossible to determine, beyond demographics that don't tell a complete story, the nuances of students' family situations. Are the charters skimming students from families more committed to their children's educations? The numbers alone can't answer that.
Then you have to consider that the Boston charters are drawing a different type of teacher than the rest of the country does.
A recent report by Steven F. Wilson for the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy says that teachers at the Boston charters were more likely to have graduated from highly competitive colleges than those in the rest of the country. He concedes that there simply aren't enough of those types of teachers - what he refers to as "human" capital - to take "no excuses" nationwide.
He suggests a Peace Corp-type program that would send graduates into classrooms for a couple of years before they move on to "the more lucrative professions for which they are typically destined."
Teach For America, the current incarnation of that approach, already is seeing the problem with such a system. New teachers are thrown into classrooms without realistic ideas of conditions. By the time they figure it out, they're off to their "lucrative professions."
For those who do stick around, "no excuses" gives them the privilege of working like a dog during a school day that runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. In one Boston school, they're expected to be reachable by phone if students need help with their two hours of homework every evening, Wilson wrote.
Even Wilson admits that's a heroic effort that's not sustainable, though he says higher starting pay for teachers would help. Officials can do that by increasing classroom size because "there is no empirical evidence" that students benefit from smaller classes.
While it's unclear how empirical that evidence should be, it is clear from study after study that smaller classes do improve students achievement. Do "no excuses" schools show greater improvement? Like so many things in the public versus charter debate, there's no clear answer.
Yes, we can learn from successful charters. MATCH, with two hours of daily mandatory tutoring for all students, probably gets it closer to right than the classic "no excuses" model that virtually guarantees teacher burnout.
But to point to "no excuses" - or any other charter school philosophy - as the answer without closely examining how and if it really works will serve only to create more "islands of excellence" for a few that leave too many of the rest of the students flailing about in the open seas.