charter schools, and some unpleasant reminiscences

November 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Yesterday, at a restaurant, I ran into a girl who bullied me in middle school. That mean, narrow-eyed face. Her voice like talons in my larynx. We did this so hard.

If I’ve ever hated anyone in my life, it just might be her. I hope she sucks boba down the wrong tube one day and dies, the talentless bitch.


The Myth of Charter Schools, by Diane Ravitch, for the New York Review of Books.

S. works in a low-income school district. Today she told me about “kids who are being threatened to be sent to foster care because their aunt or uncle doesn’t want to take care of them anymore, children who are physically and emotionally abused, children who don’t have money for basic school supplies, children whose parents can’t help them or chose not to help them with their school work, parents who don’t tell their children that it’s important to go to school and [discipline them] when they get in trouble for misbehavior, parents don’t do anything to support the school, parents who work all day and night and don’t have time to take care of their children and instead have 10 year olds babysitting 2 year olds and doing all the house work, children who don’t have food because their parents don’t provide them with meals, parents who are going through a divorce yet neither wants to take their child so the child gets sent off to live with another relative and bounces between homes, parents who don’t provide livable conditions for their children, i.e., allowing their dogs to poop and pee all over the house creating unsanitary conditions and only cleaning up when the social worker is due for a visit.” These are kids she works with everyday.

I was thinking about the charter school debate. As I was telling S., it’s funny — or rather, unsurprising — how the media can really dictate your opinion about certain issues. I’d heard about Waiting for Superman and Michelle Rhee before, and read Steve Brill’s hair-raising article about NYC’s public school system*, as well as a small portion of his newly released book, Class Warfare. So prior to reading the NYbooks review I was under the impression that public education deserved a big F- on its scorecard and charter schools were the best hope for underprivileged children. But really the issue is much more nuanced than that.

Ravitch debunks the widely held notion that charter schools are so much more efficient at educating slash raising the test scores of poor kids by pointing to the results of a study conducted by a Stanford economist. The economist found that only 17 percent of charter schools performed better than traditional public schools. 40% of charter schools did worse and 40% did about the same. She also takes down a couple of charter schools lauded by the film, arguing that the endowment of one allows that school to spend triple the amount that public schools spend on their students, and suggesting that others may eject low-performing students in order to increase their testing averages.

She makes several good points about education and poverty. The rhetoric these days centers around the teachers. If only we could fire them, then our problems would be solved. But is this true? I have no doubt that the unions protect assholes who deserve to be sacked. Those structures and delay mechanisms that keep the worst instructors in the classroom should be reformed. But Ravitch makes a compelling argument about the structural causes of poverty, which, according to research, contribute far more (about 60%) to poor educational results than one’s teacher, no matter if that teacher is a lackwit or a virtuoso. In other words, if you’re poor as all heck, the quality of your teacher won’t matter that much; the fact that your family barely survives on food stamps, that your mom and dad are working two-three jobs each to make ends meet, and therefore hardly home at all, will.

Other points. First: how do you decide if a teacher is a bad teacher? If you judge solely by test scores, wouldn’t poor districts employ a preponderance of bad teachers? And if you fired a bunch of your teachers, wouldn’t you incentivize teachers to go for jobs in more hospitable, already high-scoring areas?

Second: the privatization rhetoric of the charter school prosthelytizers. You hear a lot about the advantages of the private sector: adaptability, ferocious competiveness, innovation, all of this leading to leaner, more efficient operations, and cheaper, better quality goods/services. Capitalism harnesses the drive of the individual and all that. I’m not quite as ready as Ravitch to condemn the private sector as a cesspool of mercenary moneygrubbers — the fact is, the public sector IS slower and more inefficient, and the private sector DOES have good ideas, as well as the freedom to experiment that the unions lack. I would be interested in reading more about what reforms have been or are being proposed by both sides of the table.

*In this report, Brill recounts how the worst NYC teachers, who enraged parents/concerned administrators are trying to get fired, are instead socked away in “rubber rooms” for months or years at a time, while union lawyers and bureacrats attempt to resolve the disputes on their behalves. Meanwhile, they idle, nap, and still get paid. You can see how this stirred up outrage.


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