Is the public school system really broken, filled with incompetent teachers? Are charter schools really a front for a union-busting corporate takeover of the educational system? Amid the flaming rhetoric of the current educational debate, it’s hard to know which side to take.
Because I spent the last year visiting high schools in Los Angeles across the socioeconomic spectrum, I sat in on classes at every imaginable type of school, including charter schools and district schools in the same neighborhood. In my current job teaching after-school enrichment at a non-profit, I work with three groups of high-performing students of color from low-income families; two of the groups attend district schools, while the third group attends a charter school.
Because these groups are demographically identical, I’m getting a slow-motion portrait of different school models in action. Because I have the chance to develop close individual relationships with students, I hear their day to day stories about their teachers, which gives me a unique snapshot of how each system impacts the kids.
I’m struck by consistent differences between charter school and district school educational models in high-poverty communities. Every community is unique, of course, but systems prioritize certain values, and those values impact the experience of students. To lay out these values, and to show you the differences I’ve observed, I’ve created the infographic below. I am aware that the values on the infographic are in fact unquantifiable and that my evidence is anecdotal. But my experience at this point is on enough of a scale, over more than a year and across many schools, that I do think it is significant enough to share.
(I am also aware that the word “infographic” is a bit of hyperbole when I’m really talking about a chart. Branding is everything, right?)
Please note that this infographic only applies to the effect of these schools on students from high-poverty communities, not middle-class or affluent communities, which have more resources. It does not reflect the stated goals of these systems, but what I’m observing right now on the ground. Also, I am talking about schools that are generally considered “good”—there are terrible charters and terrible district schools, but tragically, all terrible schools are alike: chaotic.
|CHARTER SCHOOLS||DISTRICT SCHOOLS|
|Class size||Class sizes usually cap at 38||I’ve seen classes of 50 and heard of classes of 70|
|System prioritizes giving students clear, consistent individual feedback||Usually||Varies depending on individual teacher|
|System asks teachers to present material in multiple ways for students with different learning styles (visual, auditory, kinesthetic)||Usually||Varies depending on individual teacher|
|System prioritizes whole-class participation, using “guide on the side” style rather than “sage on the stage” lectures with Q and A||Usually||Varies depending on individual teacher|
|Instruction is driven by standardized state testing||Yes||Not as much as you’d think|
|School is open to very at-risk kids, including children from foster care||No(except turnarounds)||Yes|
|School offers arts classes beyond bare minimum||No||Yes|
|School offers sports beyond bare minimum||No||Yes|
|School offers many extracurricular activities and clubs||No||Yes|
|At least 10% of teachers are considered by students to be insane or incompetent||No||Yes|
|There are teachers with more than 5 years experience||Rarely||Yes|
|Kids consistently say “all our teachers are great”||Surprisingly often.||No|
|Teachers have adequate resources to meet students’ needs||No||No|
*this observation does not apply to any of the teachers I personally followed—it is based on what I’ve heard from students about their schools in general. The teachers I followed were all excellent—but many times, they were outliers at their schools.
If I had to choose, after a year of observing schools and several months working with kids at these three communities, I’d say that I’m (cautiously) pro-charter. This opinion is practical, not philosophical, because I agree with the holistic, humanistic district-school proponents like Linda Darling-Hammond, who argue that meaningful education reform will only occur when teachers have working conditions that allow them to collaborate and create rich, meaningful curriculum, something that the test-driven state of most charter systems is currently precluding because these systems are currently in non-stop crisis mode as they struggle to survive. Educational leaders such as Diane Ravitch are right: the real issue is poverty, and until we acknowledge that and fund school communities to meet their needs, we will never be providing equal education to all students.
The problem is that right now, I don’t see any of these visions enacted successfully anywhere in high-poverty communities. I, too, believe in that dream—but in public schools, I really only see it enacted right now at magnet schools, which have significantly better funding and by virtue of their byzantine application process, filter out all but the most motivated and system-savvy families. There is a tragic disconnect right now, in my opinion, between this dream and the reality of district schools that are still chugging along doing what they’ve always done while an ever-changing array of demoralized or incompetent administrators cycles in and out, issuing mandates that will be replaced by new mandates next year.
If I were a parent in a high-poverty community, I’d send my kid to the best charter school I could find. Why? Because frankly, I think they’d be likelier to get a solid education and be prepared for college. If they were struggling academically, I’d know they’d get support. My 8th grade students who are going to a great charter school are flat-out getting a better education than my 8th grade students at a district school. The charter school kids love their teachers. They have better grammar, vocabulary, spelling and reading skills. When I ask them how they’re doing today, they tell me about something amazing that they’re learning. When I ask the kids at the district school, the amazing thing that happened is that the ceiling in the multipurpose room caved in, causing them to have class outdoors in 95-degree heat.
Yes, there are serious problems with charter schools. Their track record at “turnaround” schools with very at-risk kids is unimpressive, to say the least. By their own admission, they are only able to achieve results by creating a workload that is unsustainable by most teachers, causing a turnover problem that profoundly undermines communities. And their test-driven school culture, at its worst, privileges short-term measurable results over meaningful learning—as does the absence of sports, arts and libraries. None of this is trivial.
But I’d pick it over the hit-or-miss hodgepodge I’m currently seeing at many district schools, where it’s perilously easy for a kid to get lost. I’m still haunted by the memory of a super-bright, warm, wise funny kid I met at an Adult Ed GED school, who didn’t graduate from his district high school because the academic counselor quit and nobody at his school ever told him the required classes he needed to take. He was stunned and devastated at the end of his senior year to find out he was not graduating. And this was at a school with a good reputation. I don’t hear these stories of systemic failure at good charter schools.
The most serious critique of charter schools is that they don’t meet the needs of our most at-risk students. I agree. But right now most district schools aren’t meeting those needs, either. The core problem is not charter schools. It’s our collective societal unwillingness to acknowledge and address those needs—and fund adequate support for our most at-risk children. I agree that the flight to charter schools is draining resources from district schools. But the fact that large numbers of families are fleeing district schools is not exactly a compelling argument for that educational model.
Charter schools are not a solution. They are a work-around for our national collective state of denial about the near-apartheid conditions in which children in poverty are growing up. They are a way of managing the desperately inadequate funding and resources that schools are given so as to minimize collateral damage—a heartbreaking triage of efficiently meeting the direst need in the most scalable way. Until we pull ourselves out of this state of denial, we will not have meaningful change and we will not have equal opportunity. Let’s acknowledge the real issues of charters as they are and instead of tearing them down or stopping their existence, let’s build from there. Let’s say “what if…?” instead of “No.” Let’s stop taking sides and start working together.