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

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Why Elizabeth Warren Was Right about MA Charter School Expansion

Jonathan Chait has a piece in New York Magazine that attacks Elizabeth Warren's decision in 2016 to support the continued cap on charter schools in urban areas of MA (there is no cap for the suburbs or rural areas).  What Chait knows about education policy in general and charter school policy in particular, he probably learned from his wife, Robin Chait, who did stints as a charter cheerleader at the Center for American Progress and WestEd before landing a job as Director of Performance Management and Human Resources, Center City Public Charter Schools, in Washington, DC. 

As with other disingenuous and/or delusional Democrats, Mr. Chait is promoting the idea that Warren sold out to "special interests" by backing public school parents, teachers, unionists, and small "d" democrats of all varieties who want their public school tax dollars in Massachusetts to support public schools, rather than the charter school industry.

Had Warren sided with billionaire charter zealots, hedge funders, real estate moguls, venture philanthropists, and other paternalist elites who wanted the charter cap in Massachusetts removed, that would have demonstrated, according to Chait, that she is a real progressive.  If Warren were a real progressive, according to Chait, she would be cheering on the efforts of the Waltons, Broads, Fishers, Gates's, etc. to remove all constraints on the spread of "no excuses" charter schools in urban areas.

Chait demonstrates the kind of thought disorder that binds together the neoconservatives at the Fordham Institute with the neoliberals at the Center for American Progress--or the RNC's Republicans for Education Reform with the DNC's Democrats for Education Reform.

Both of these advocacy groups share today the conclusion that Lyndon Johnson reached way back in the 1960s--that there is no appetite among the majority of the electorate to alter the structures that keep the urban poor, poor.  
So if we can't bring ourselves to risk our political capital to 1) provide a minimum income for families in poverty, 2) provide universal health care, 3) end barriers to integrated housing (which would serve, in turn, to integrate schools), minimize income inequality, and 5) institute anti-racist public policies at all levels, then the most viable solution, following Lyndon Johnson, is to focus on education funding and school quality, while offering lip service, at least, to fair housing policy and school desegregation.

The Johnson Administration was not the first to believe, or pretend to believe, in the power of schooling to achieve equality. Horace Mann in 19th Century Massachusetts wrote that education is “great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery.”   

What the Johnson Administration found out (and then suppressed) from James Coleman's massive report published the second year into the War on Poverty, is that more money for schools is not enough to put a serious dent in the achievement gaps or educational inequality.  In fact, more financial resources is not even the most important factor in closing the gaps.  

Six years after the study was published, Coleman said in a 1972 interview  "a child's performance, especially a working-class child's performance, is greatly benefited by his going to a school with children who come from educationally stronger backgrounds. . . . A child's learning is a function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." 

If Jonathan Chait ever heard of James Coleman's research, there is no evidence of it. The research that Chait references to make a case for more charter schools in urban areas examined testing performance in over-subscribed charter schools in Massachusetts that use a lottery to determine student enrollment:
Professors Sarah Cohodes and Susan Dynarski conducted a study proving the massive gains produced by charter school students in the Bay State. Because Massachusetts has a cap on the number of students allowed to attend charters, its students have to enter a lottery to apply. This allowed Cohodes and Dynarski to compare the performance of students who won the lottery with those who lost, a perfectly randomized sample, across a broad suite of metrics. The students who won the lottery and attended a charter outperformed the lottery losers in every way: state test scores, SAT scores, number of advanced placement classes and test scores in those classes, and college attendance.
Test performance comparisons of lottery winners who attended charters to lottery losers who attended public schools would seem to offer an air-tight case  for establishing the superiority of MA charter schools over the public schools.  But when we look again to Coleman's finding over fifty years ago (which have never been refuted), we are reminded of factors that Cohode and Dynarski (or Jonathan Chait) have not considered.  

Both lottery winners and lottery losers represent a self-selecting group of students whose parents obviously are willing to exhaust every avenue in search of better education.  Lottery winners end up attending school with other lottery winners, while lottery losers must return to neglected public schools that have been labeled as failures for the past two decades and regularly targeted for intervention or even closure. 

As Coleman noted in 1966, “if a minority pupil from a home without much educational strength is put with schoolmates with strong educational backgrounds, his achievement is likely to increase” (p. 22).  The social capital that accrues in classrooms with students whose parents are motivated to seek out what they believe to be better options (whether real or mythical) for their children should not be underestimated.  Nor should we underestimate the effect grouping together black and brown children in demoralized, financially-strained school environments with low social capital, low expectations, and minimal support. 

The question researchers and opinion writers should be asking is this: Can higher test score results in over-subscribed "no excuses" charter schools continue to be used to justify taxpayer funding for "no excuses" charter schools' dehumanizing learning and teaching environments, where children are culturally sterilized and neurologically altered to suit the social control program goals of billionaire paternalists?  Are we really willing to continue public support for eugenics-inspired visionaries like Angela Duckworth and David Levin to "fix" those children made unfit by poverty?  

Whether or not Elizabeth Warren knew why she was answering "no" to these questions is of less importance than the fact that she did, in effect, say NO. Maybe by 2020 she will have figured out all the reasons that she was right.


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