With the release of the NAACP’s Task Force on Quality Education Hearing Report came an opportunity to move forward in an honest way to meet our education obligation to all children. This report followed the civil rights organization’s call for a moratorium on the creation of new charter schools last October. The moratorium was not a condemnation of charters, or government action or policy. It was just a “weighing-in” on the issue and an opinion on how we should move forward. Surprisingly, there was backlash to the NAACP’s call for better, and more honest school choice. Where does that come from, and why?
1. The NAACP Calls for Better Schools for All
First off, know that the NAACP has acknowledged the need for better schools to serve the neediest students in the most under-served areas, but felt the expansion of the charter industry should happen under the four conditions outlined in it’s moratorium:
- Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools.
- Public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system.
- Charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate and
- Charter schools cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.
Far from refusal to support charter schools, or an undermining of quality education options for parents and children of color, these conditions advocate for the very things school choice proponents demand: transparency, accountability, commitment to the students being served… And since it’s common for pro-charter school and parent choice advocates to decry unacceptable “school to prison pipelines”, exclusion and/or segregation by zip code, inability or unwillingness of traditional schools to provide services and resources, …I believed these four conditions would be embraced and there would be a united demand that policymakers step up and do right thing by all communities and all schools.
Boy was I in for a surprise.
2. The Opposition to Better Schools for All
There was no unity cry from the reform crowd. The conditions weren’t well-received by outspoken charter school defenders, but the criticisms they’ve mustered have been weak, circular, and unconvincing. To summarize the opposition to better schools for all:
1) You can say these bad things happen at charters, but you can’t really prove these things happen.
2) Okay yes, bad things happen at charters but those things happen at all schools.
3) Where has the NAACP been while parents and poor children of color are stuck in traditional schools that don’t serve them well?
4) Since the NAACP wants more honestly run charter schools, they must oppose poor parents of color and their children.
A closer look at these opposition points:
The “You can’t prove it” maneuver
Most often this response refers to a supposed lack of evidence that charters are guilty of “creaming”, or the screening out, of lower performing students in order to bolster charter results by bringing in those more likely to perform well. This is a common allegation, and insinuated in the NAACP’s moratorium, but in his reaction to the NAACP Chris Stewart writes:
The NAACP implies that charters are “creaming”—screening out low-performing students in order to boost their overall test scores. Here again there may be anecdotes, but there is no data supporting this claim, and therefore no ability for the charter sector to “meet” this expectation.
The “no data” link is to one paper, which based it’s results partly on information gathered from one “anonymous major urban school district with a large number of charter schools”, and focused on one issue of why schools might pressure out students: because of grades or test scores.
The concern, though, isn’t about looking at a spreadsheet of test scores and selecting or de-selecting-it’s about an intentional design of a more subtle form of filtering up front, with more intentional exclusion/removal as a backup. According to the same “no data” paper:
If students are being pushed out, it is more likely to occur in subtle ways—for example, through counseling students and their families to seek a better fit for their needs or having more stringent disciplinary consequences or requiring certain commitments that are associated with higher student achievement such as family involvement and student attendance requirements.
The Conclusion section states:
Together, the ongoing debate as well as the previous research suggests that an aggregate examination of charter schools as well a more micro analysis of charter schools is warranted to inform whether the “push-out” argument could be a strong argument against charter schools in general and whether there should be greater scrutiny imposed upon individual charter schools, which could occur at the reauthorization of charter schools.
So on “creaming” and “pushing out”: to say that there is “no data” is misleading, and to follow up with “therefore no ability for the charter sector to ‘meet’ this expectation” is not a Perry Mason closing moment deserving the word “therefore” between the premise and conclusion . If we agree that “creaming” is wrong (Do we?), agreeing to not do it isn’t impossible. Imagine me saying “You can’t really prove I’ve ever stabbed a kitten before, so I have no ability to promise to not to do it in the future.” It’s not as if I have “no ability” to meet the no kitten stabbing expectation.
2) The Bad things happen at all schools gambit
“It’s wrong, but you do it so we can do it too,” just sounds bad to begin with. But it is a dishonest argument as well. Traditional schools do suffer from some unintended consequences of self-imposed (to an extent) and externally imposed burdens (both of which I am more than willing to admit and discuss) that limit the ability to serve all students in a way that meets their needs. I have watched as access to needed resources, personnel, and services gets further beyond reach and classroom teachers are expected to be more than just the teacher to students coming to school needing way more than to simply be taught. The economic, social and political forces are beyond the truly public school’s purview, without a loosening of the reins on the mission of public schooling. As is, schools are left to respond to the damage and hope students survive and maybe thrive.
But charters can under-serve or avoid serving some by internal and intentional design. Their model is to enroll students that simply need to be taught, do good work with them, and then wear the (hopefully) better stats as a comparative prize ribbon. Maybe some “See, we told you those schools are failing and we are better!” theater.
In terms of the “intentional design”, on the front “creaming” end where students are taken into a charter school: parents need to sign off/sign up to get their child into a charter school. The traditional, open-enrollment public school is the default compulsory public education option and if there is a child that doesn’t show up to the school he or she is linked to: a parent/guardian risks getting charged with educational neglect for truancy. So to actually remove a student from that option and enroll him/her in another school “choice” really does take some active parent choosing. Hopefully there is some research into the options, maybe there’s a lottery, a waiting list, a qualifying test score or principal recommendation, interviews and/or references… It takes some intent and the will to execute an enrollment plan; it takes awareness and motivation; and it takes parent involvement. It may take prerequisite student success/dedication and it most likely takes ongoing involvement.
Now while one weak-ass study that misses the mark to begin with is definitely no proof that “choice” schools don’t cream or do the choosing themselves to allow only the most likely to succeed, the one thing we definitely do know: Involved parents are likely to have more successful students. Charter schools know it too, and must know that their selective schools benefit from this type of “creaming” because research shows that, among many other positive impacts, when parents are involved:
- Children tend to achieve more, regardless of ethnic or racial background, socioeconomic status, or parents’ education level.
- Children generally achieve better grades, test scores, and attendance.
- Children consistently complete their homework.
- Children have better self-esteem, are more self-disciplined, and show higher aspirations and motivation toward school.
- Children’s positive attitude about school often results in improved behavior in school and less suspension for disciplinary reasons.
For the pushing out or counseling out of students, it’s the “two wrongs make it right for us” defense. Students get suspended from traditional schools too, sure. But what, really, might get a student suspended or pushed/pressured out of a traditional school versus a charter school?
Success Academy’s code of misconduct is six pages long with 65 infractions ranging from minor or Level 1 violations such as slouching or failing to be in “Ready to Succeed” position, to middle or Level 2 misconduct like forgetting to bring a pencil or pen to school…
As a career teacher in traditional schools I could tell you about kindergartners who come to school and to a general education classroom still pooping and peeing in their pants. They stay in school and for as much as possible in the general education setting because it’s the “least restrictive environment“. I could share stories about second graders who rage to the point of throwing chairs around and emptying the classroom for everyone’s safety, or about third graders threatening to stab another student, her family- and her cat (just for good measure, I suppose). They stay in the school and in classroom for as long as possible. I could tell you stories about parents who come to conference reeking of dope and asking if they could volunteer to come in to help sometimes because “they could use a little learnin’ too”, or custodial grandmothers who show up in the newspaper’s “police beat” for cooking meth and possession of heroin…I could tell you so much more. If you have never taught, or taught temporarily so you could pretend to understand teaching, you might not get this. If you don’t know what “mandated reporter” means, you might not get it either.
But then again, I am white, and have lived my whole life and taught in a rural area. It might be that violence, crime and drugs are only a country-white problem that mostly impacts rural families, children and schools and isn’t really a problem for families with children in the cities and their schools. Help me out with this because I don’t know. What I do know is that highly promoted and praised charters have a very low tolerance for behaviors that are hardly even “on the radar” for public schools and the seasoned teachers in them. As an example, note Alan Singer’s description of what a “violation” is at this “choice” school:
“Success Academy’s code of misconduct is six pages long with 65 infractions ranging from minor or Level 1 violations such as slouching or failing to be in “Ready to Succeed” position, to middle or Level 2 misconduct like forgetting to bring a pencil or pen to school, to more serious Level 3 infractions like play fighting or repeated littering. The most serious Level 4 infractions include continued violation of the lesser misbehaviors, bullying, and “blatant and repeated disrespect for school code.” In-house and home suspension from school starts with Level 2 infractions. Penalties for “scholars” accused of Level 3 or Level 4 infractions include immediate expulsion from school.”
So parent involvement on the way in, strict student compliance- or you’re out. Should our “failing schools” adopt the more successful policies of this charter to be more successful? When choice advocates eagerly attach words like “results” and “high achieving”, why do they sometimes relish critical comparison to traditional schools while avoiding full disclosure of charter mechanisms?
3) Where has the NAACP been?
I can’t answer this, and wonder why anyone asks. The economic and social crisis of class division and diminishing opportunities and returns has been been ongoing and the those with the least continue to suffer the most. Not coincidentally, it is the wealthiest who benefit the most and try to leverage their political voice and control to define “reform”. Do you think their goal is philanthropic and willing to give up any of their control or share; to empower either economically or politically a massive population waking up to how they have been and are being divided and exploited? To allow the middle class and lower classes to unite and demand real substantive reforms?
While even “school choice” advocates are starting a soft-sell of their own version of segregation (or separation), and while filtering away students with involved parents and the ability to adhere to draconian conduct policies can create some stats that investors like and politicians can ride during campaign season, we have to ask what the overall benefit of separating students based on their personal resources is, and if we shouldn’t be demanding more economic and social support for integration. Not necessarily based on race, because it seems a hard sell and I see little belief that that is an achievable goal in the nearest possible future- but integration based on poverty and economic status. In this Frontline interview, Richard D. Kahlenber explains:
It was always that low-income students of all races do better in an economically mixed environment. … Their classmates had parents with higher education levels, which was related to higher aspirations. In middle-class schools, parents usually have more flexible jobs so they can volunteer in the classrooms. They have cars to get to PTA meetings. … [Meanwhile], when you integrated low income and working class African-Americans and whites, there were no achievement gains.
We all benefit from having a higher education level among all students, and we want to tap into the talents of low-income students, African-American, Latino, Asian and white students. And we all, as a society, benefit when those investments are made.
4) Who really opposes the empowerment of poor people of color, The NAACP or the millionaires and billionaires controlling policy and defining the parameters of “reform”?
You have to know that this kind of childish attack gets us nowhere if doing right by children is the goal. So if you want to talk about opposing poor parents of color and their children, there are far deeper, more endemic and systemic harms being done and/or being ignored. As rich white guys make millions and billions steering public policy and weighing in on how exactly how and what the poorest people need to learn and do to be “ready”, they also benefit enormously from:
- Taking and sending jobs and resources out and away from our poorest communities and families,
- Using their political leverage to segregate populations, isolate resources, gentrify neighborhoods and further limit opportunities,
- Numbing the collective mind of our nation with perpetual soul rotting media, junk food, and disposable, consumable technology and goods that keep us perpetually spending, wasting, replacing…
- Polluting our air, water, food and souls while ensuring that their corporations are seen as people, their money as speech and our interests and votes mean little in the end.
“God is watching,” a wise man once said, noting how we have tainted children’s water with lead.
So, with God watching (if you believe he is):
If we are going to do education reform, school choice, accountability, and do them right, there is much more important work to do than helping the wealthy tear down what is left of the middle class, public institutions, a profession, unions… There is a better path than letting millionaires, billionaires point away from their greed and deciding for us what the poor will be allowed. Instead of letting a charter industry protect it’s interests, let’s provide parents with honesty and simple information about charter schools, and create charter schools that serve any child who might attend them.