"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

What the "Free" Means in Free (Charter) School

I am beginning to think "free" school is a better descriptor than charter school.  For Brits looking at the American model for inspiration, "free" most often means

free to collect public dollars without public oversight, 
free from democratic governance, 
free to not admit special ed or ELL children, 
free to push out low scorers or those who challenge the totalitarian regimen, 
free to not offer children libraries or gyms or lunch rooms or school nurses or art facilities, 
free to hire and fire at will with no due process rights for teachers, 
free to pay CEO principals 4 to 5 times as much as public school principals, 
free to set up penal pedagogy systems that middle class parents would never allow for their children, 
free to offer the lowest cognitive levels of test prep curriculum, 
free to hire teachers who aren't certified or qualified, 
free to ignore accounting rules that public schools must abide by, 
free to engage in open nepotism and preferential treatment of employees, and 
free to thumb their noses at citizen requests for openness and transparency.

Here's proof that the Brits have learned something from the American and Swedish experiences with "free:"

Don't buy the hype from Michael Gove - or Arne Duncan. 

Arne Duncan, Obama's education secretary and the man who invited the US military to run local schools during his controversial tenure as chief executive of the Chicago state school system, is in London visiting our very own Michael Gove. The latter, of course, has been ultra-keen to push his agenda of academies and "free schools" since taking office in May, and has become fond of citing the Obama administration's support for so-called charter schools. (Interestingly, on a side note, Gove and the Tories have very little to say about Obama's position on deficit reduction, which is closer to the Labour Party's view than the coalition's).
From the Guardian:
Gove said: "America is a bigger country and there are differences between us, but I have been impressed by what Race to the Top has done, and impressed by many of the things that President Obama and Arne Duncan have been fighting for."
It's worth noting the cynicism, however, of Gove's approach. At first, the Education Secretary championed free schools by pointing to the supposed successes of the Swedish version, which is said to have been the original inspiration for the Tories' education reforms. But, as emprical evidence emerged over the summer that challenged the Swedish model, Gove and his outriders began pointing instead to America's experiment with charter schools. Hence today's visit by Duncan to the UK.

As the Americans reject the Obama administration, the coalition embraces one of its worst ideas. Peer-reviewed academic research suggests charter schools ain't as good as their well-funded and high-profile advocates make them out to be. Here's what the CREDO National Charter Schools Study at Stanford University discovered last year:
While the report recognized a robust national demand for more charter schools from parents and local communities, it found that 17 percent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, while 37 percent of charter schools showed gains that were worse than their traditional public school counterparts, with 46 percent of charter schools demonstrating no significant difference.

It's also worth bearing in mind the view of Diane Ravitch, a leading historian of the US education system, former assistant secretary of education in the administration of George H.W. Bush and one-time supporter of "school choice". Writing for the Wall St Journal in March, in a piece entitled "Why I Changed My Mind About School Reform", Ravitch observed:
Charter evaluations frequently note that as compared to neighboring public schools, charters enroll smaller proportions of students whose English is limited and students with disabilities. The students who are hardest to educate are left to regular public schools, which makes comparisons between the two sectors unfair. The higher graduation rate posted by charters often reflects the fact that they are able to "counsel out" the lowest performing students; many charters have very high attrition rates (in some, 50%-60% of those who start fall away). Those who survive do well, but this is not a model for public education, which must educate all children.
So please don't buy the hype about charter schools - not from our Education Secretary or, for that matter, Obama's.

If you're looking for more information on US charter schools then I highly recommend the website, Charter School Scandals. My favourite story from that site is the Denver charter school which "broke a new state law by offering families $400 worth of gift cards if they brought new students to the school before the day the state takes a student census" because "state money follows students into the classroom -- an average of about $6,600 per pupil across Colorado, according to the Colorado Department of Education."

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