Tag Archives: Education Reform

Charter Schools vs. District Schools: An Infographic

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.

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.

Lawyers Run the Legal Profession. Doctors Run the Medical Profession. Why Don’t Teachers Run Education?

I’m fed up with the inefficiency of the judicial system! I’m going to become a judge. I may not be a lawyer, but I’ve been a law-abiding citizen all my life, I mean, how hard could it be? I have 20 years of business experience in the TV industry. When I blow into the courtroom demanding accountability, I am going to shake things up! Who needs legal experience when you understand the bottom line?

Wait—no. I’m going to be Surgeon General. Sure, I’m not a doctor, but I’ve seen a million of them!  You should have seen the pair of “specialists” who nearly killed my grandma. It’s time for me to roll up my sleeves and set some standards. Patients first, dammit!

No, you know what? I think I’m going to be a Rear Admiral in the Navy. I grew up right near Lake Michigan, a large body of water, and with my business experience…

Okay, all of these ideas are preposterous. Common sense and business savvy are no substitute for a lifetime of training and expertise. Continue reading Lawyers Run the Legal Profession. Doctors Run the Medical Profession. Why Don’t Teachers Run Education?

Breaking Up (With Ed Reform) Is Hard To Do

Lisa Alva is a dangerous woman.  At least some people think so: last month, she published a blistering piece on the InterACT education website recounting her “broken romance” with some of the leading organizations in education reform.  Lisa had already butted heads with some union leaders by speaking out publicly against their seniority policies and resistance to accountability.  But her association with the reform movement ended abruptly this past December:

I phoned into a conference call that wasn’t what I expected, and it ended my relationships with the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, Teachers for a New Unionism and Educators4Excellence, and put some others in the doghouse…

Listening in to a conference call with the United Way that was supposed to be a talk with education groups but turned into a recruiting session to rally support for LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy, Lisa “felt the hair stand up on the back of [her] neck” as she realized that the groups were brainstorming to throw their support to a superintendent believed by some to be anti-union and currently very unpopular due to his recent expenditure of a billion dollars to purchase iPads for LAUSD students. Continue reading Breaking Up (With Ed Reform) Is Hard To Do

10 Best Education Posts of 2013

It’s been a crazy year in education!  If you’re taking time over winter break to reflect on 2013’s highs and lows, here are the education “hits” that have changed my thinking this year:

  1. Invisible Child by Andrea Elliot, New York Times.  Anyone who talks about the achievement gap in this country needs to read this searing profile of a 11-year-old girl cycling in and out of homelessness in New York City.  If we are serious about addressing the needs low-income students of color in this country, we need to first understand the conditions in which many of our students are growing up.
  2. Educating the Educators by Mike Rose, The Answer Sheet, Washington Post.  Cutting through the hysterical rhetoric of so much of the conversation in education these days, Rose, a professor at UCLA, sheds light on the meaning of teaching with his thoughtful, wise, complex and compassionate discussion of what it means to become a teacher and who ought to be one.  Part One is a re-examination of some of the terms we use to define teaching.  Part Two is a discussion of diversity and what we mean when we say “selectivity.
  3. Continue reading 10 Best Education Posts of 2013


I think often these days of Wilhelm Fleiss.  Who doesn’t? you’re probably asking, but in case you don’t remember: in the 19th century, while Freud was developing the theory of psychoanalysis, his friend Wilhelm Fleiss dismissed Freud’s talk therapy as a lot of windy hoo-ha.  Why sit around listening to people blather about memories, dreams and feelings? Fleiss’ cure for neurosis was swift and conclusive: stick a hot piece of metal up a patient’s nose and cauterize the connection to the brain.

As you can imagine, this technique was not very successful, which is why you never worry about making a Fleissian slip unless you are running around with a piece of red-hot metal, in which case you have much, much bigger problems to worry about.  But for years, before Fleiss destroyed a patient’s nose, causing half of her face to cave in (she later sued him, then became a psychoanalyst), Fleiss’ technique was held in high regard.  Why?  Because it felt so scientific.

Obviously, in retrospect, it was not remotely scientific, since it never worked (though it may have seemed to work in the short term; who could continue to obsess about their emotional problems while in such excruciating nose pain? To be fair, I suspect that his other cure, “cocainizing” the nose, may have been remarkably effective, at least until the buzz wore off or your money ran out.)  But Fleiss’ cure had the trappings of science: the metal instruments, the procedures, the insistence on physical, observable things like body organs.  It makes me think of Stephen Colbert’s word “truthiness” for ideas that feel true even though they’re not.  Fleiss’ technique may not have been scientific, but it had “science-iness.” And that was close enough, at least until the lawsuit kicked in.

I think of “science-iness” every time I hear people refer to our students’ future success or failure as “outcomes.”  Continue reading Science-iness

When You Preach To The Choir, Your Back Is To The Rest Of Us

I’ve never been to a revival meeting, but if I had, I suspect it would feel a lot like Diane Ravitch’s speech at Occidental. “Diane has given us hope,” says L.A. School Board member Steve Zimmer, who introduces her.  “She has given us strength.  She has given us” (waving book) “our instructions!”  Nobody yells “Praise the Lord,” but many times the enthusiastic, mainly white, mainly fortysomething crowd calls back murmurs of oh yeah and uh huh and that’s right.  The central metaphors could have been pulled from Joseph Campbell: Diane is a “fighter,” a “leader,” a “sage.”  There are “forces aligned against us,” forces that are “disgusting” and “immoral.” Continue reading When You Preach To The Choir, Your Back Is To The Rest Of Us

I Don’t Think We Can Make Progress If We Don’t Listen

 I’m going to see a megastar tonight–as long as Matt Damon gets out of the way.  Look, I’m not knocking the guy.  He’s talented, super-hot and admirably willing to play marginally sympathetic, intellectual, uptight oddballs. Plus, I’m gonna be honest: I cried a little when I saw the viral video where he defended teachers because his mom has spent her professional life in the classroom.  His tireless advocacy of teachers is really inspiring to me.  That said, tonight I really hope he doesn’t block my view of Diane Ravitch.

Continue reading I Don’t Think We Can Make Progress If We Don’t Listen