Sunday, October 24, 2010

The (Shifting) Truth about Charter Schools

October 23, 2010
The (Shifting) Truth about Charter Schools
By Paul Thomas

"There is no compelling evidence that investments in parenting classes, health services, nutritional programs, and community improvement in general have appreciable effects on student achievement in schools in the U.S.," concludes Whitehurst and Croft in their appraisal of the celebrated Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ), adding: "Indeed there is considerable evidence in addition to the results from the present study that questions the return on such investments for academic achievement."
Whitehurst and Croft's study (July 20, 2010) for the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings prompted a New York Times article to reveal "Mr. Canada and his charter schools have struggled with the same difficulties faced by other urban schools, even as they outspend them."
However, just about a year and half earlier, David Brooks, also writing in the New York Times, had sparked the claims of "miracle" surrounding Canada's HCZ which fueled a series of media outlets praising these charter schools, including "President Obama institut[ing] a Promise Neighborhoods Initiative intended to replicate the HCZ in 20 cities across the country. The program received a $10 million appropriation from Congress in 2010, under which 339 communities applied to the U.S. Department of Education for planning grants to create Promise Neighborhoods."
From the President to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to Oprah and 60 Minutes to the controversial Waiting for Superman and the media blitz surrounding that documentary, the charter movement has been experiencing an unprecedented level of support across the political and popular spectrum.
Along with Whitehurst and Croft's cautions, however, other cracks in the move toward charter schools have been expressed, although not nearly as well publicized as the praise.
In an excerpt from the book, Ohio's Education Reform Challenges: Lessons from the Front Lines, included in Education Next, Terry Ryan, Michael B. Lafferty, and Chester Finn Jr. admit: "Sobered and a bit battered, Fordham continues as an authorizer of Ohio charter schools. . .and a vigorous participant in the state's larger education-policy debates. . . .Meanwhile, we've learned a lot about how much harder it is to walk the walk of education reform than simply to talk the talk, and about how the most robust of theories are apt to soften and melt in the furnace of actual experience."
What, then, is the truth behind the shifting support for charter schools?
• "Charter school" as a term and a concept has been co-opted by education reformers who support school choice and market forces over public education. The Whitehurst and Croft arguments against the HCZ being cost effective is placed against Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools: "There are 3 KIPP schools represented in the graph. All score higher than the HCZ Promise Academy." In short, charter schools of a certain kind, quasi-private schools, are welcomed as the next phase of school choice initiatives that have failed when promoting vouchers and tuition tax credits.
• Charter schools are mechanisms for promoting the claims that schools can reform society, and thus a mechanism for discounting the impact of poverty on the learning and lives of children. Whitehurst and Croft proceed to discount efforts such as the HCZ and traditional federal programs such as Head Start: "In contrast to disappointing results for Broader, Bolder initiatives, there is a large and growing body of evidence that schools themselves can have significant impacts on student achievement." Corporate reformers are fully invested in branding public education as a failure while simultaneously arguing that schools can overcome social forces, despite evidence to the contrary.
• Charter schools are often closely associated with alternatives to traditional teacher certification and an avenue to circumventing teachers unions. Teach for America (TfA) in charter schools is one such alliance, including being represented in Waiting for Superman and standing to reap significant boosts if federal policy helps fund and support more charter schools with faculties drawn largely from TfA recruits. Focusing on bad teachers and demonizing teachers unions as the status quo have roots in corporate agendas, not school reform.
• Charter schools also help promote "no excuses" ideology ("new paternalism") and deficit perspectives of children living in poverty that perpetuate classist dynamics in the schools, thus exacerbating the inequities of children's lives in the schools themselves. These corrosive ideologies are further wrapped in compelling rhetoric such as the "soft bigotry of low expectations," despite the practices themselves institutionalizing racism, classism, and elitism.
By supporting charter school initiatives that reinforce corporate agendas that seek to hide social failures such as poverty, the Brookings Institution and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute are unwittingly exposing the mask that is charter schools because their research and admissions about the complexity of educational reform confirm what we know to be the truth about charter schools--they are no better than public schools: "And yet, this study [from CREDO] reveals in unmistakable terms that, in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well as their TPS [traditional public school] counterparts. Further, tremendous variation in academic quality among charters is the norm, not the exception. The problem of quality is the most pressing issue that charter schools and their supporters face."

Author's Bio: An Associate Professor of Education at Furman University since 2002, Dr. P. L. Thomas taught high school English for 18 years at Woodruff High along with teaching as an adjunct at a number of Upstate colleges. He holds an undergraduate degree in Secondary Education (1983) along with an M. Ed. in Secondary Education (1985) and Ed. D. in Curriculum and Instruction (1998), all from the University of South Carolina. Dr. Thomas has focused throughout his career on writing and the teaching of writing. He has published fiction, poetry, and numerous scholarly works since the early 1980s. Currently, he works closely with the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) as a column editor for English Journal, Challenging Text, and the SC Council of Teachers of English (SCCTE) as co-editor of South Carolina English Teacher. His major publications include a critique of American education, Numbers Games (2004, Peter Lang); a text on the teaching of writing, Teaching Writing Primer (2005, Peter Lang); and books in a series edited by Thomas, Confronting the Text, Confronting the World--his most recent volume being Reading, Learning, Teaching Ralph Ellison (2008, Peter Lang). He has also co-authored a work with Joe Kincheloe (McGill University), Reading, Writing, and Thinking: The Postformal Basics (2006, Sense Publishers), and Renita Schmidt, 21st Century Lieracy: If We Are Scripted Are We Literate? (Springer, 2009). His next books include Parental Choice? (2010, Information Age Publishing) and the first volume in a new series he edits, Challenging Genres: Comics and Graphic Novels (Sense Publishers). His scholarship and teaching deal primarily with critical literacy and social justice. See his work at:

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