In review: Charter school mythbusting | Arkansas Blog

Sunday, August 21, 2011

In review: Charter school mythbusting

Posted By on Sun, Aug 21, 2011 at 7:36 AM

Today's reading assignment for those interested in education reform and the Billionaire Boys Club drive to charterize public education (and destroy teacher unions in the few places they exist):

It's a New York Times review of Steven Brill's new book "Class Warfare," an anti-union, pro-charter school effort. The interesting thing is the review, by Sara Mosle, a Teach for America alumna and now a teacher in a reform academy. She brings a balanced view to the subject and in the process points out some of the things that Brill overlooks in singing charter school praises and condemning unions. Like:

* Even a study funded by the pro-charter Waltons found no significant general advantage to charter schools over conventional public schools.

* Successful charter schools (think KIPP) though undoubtedly worth studying and emulating, are just about impossible to replicate on a broad scale and enjoy built-in advantages of relatively better qualified students and more motivated parents. Not to mention the ability to dismiss families who don't meet standards.

* There's no objective showing of the presumed ills of teachers unions. Many good districts have them; many bad ones don't. Union evil is merely an article of faith to the billionaires, who otherwise insist on the empirical perfection of test scores and other "objective" measures of teachers (a subject on which the reviewer also has some comments).

Brill cites policy advocates who argue that students who have top quartile teachers several years in a row could (at least theoretically) make remarkable gains. Absent other proven criteria for determining the most effective teachers, these reformers conclude that schools should base hiring, firing and promotion decisions, at least in substantial part, on teachers’ ability to generate year-to-year gains on their students’ test scores.

Brill, however, glosses over an important qualifier to such research. Teacher quality may be the most important variable within schools, but mountains of data, going back decades, demonstrates that most of the variation in student performance is explained by nonschool factors: not just poverty, but also parental literacy (and whether parents read to their children), student health, frequent relocations, crime-­related stress and the like.

* The review notes that even Geoffrey Canada, featured in the charterites' cinema Bible, "Waiting for Superman," and a recent visitor to Little Rock, says KIPP alone isn't the answer.

Canada decries KIPP’s approach as a kind of reverse “quarantine, walling off the most promising kids from a sick neighborhood’s contagion,” in Tough’s paraphrase. In fact, though Brill and the filmmakers never acknowledge it, Canada’s philosophy is actually diametrically opposed to KIPP’s. Canada insists such charters can’t succeed, at least not with all inner-city children, including those who may be disaffected from school, without substantially increased investments in wraparound social services, which Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone provides.

Check it out, Luke.

My hero Diane Ravitch (prolific Twitterer) has been busting Brill's chops for days. Her turn against "reform" sent him into a rage of ad hominem attacks on Ravitch. Best he's come up with is that she's taken some speaking fees from teacher's unions (and reform groups, too). He'd find nothing amiss at all, I'm sure, in the Waltons' underwriting of the work of the pro-charter, anti-union "reform" professors up at the UA-Walton Campus in Fayetteville. They're objective because they agree with him.

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