It seems that the country’s gone wacky, at least within the politics of public education. Media roils with attacks on everything from standardized testing, to efforts to align academic standards with students’ needs, to innovative charter schools. It’s as if there’s some strange virus circulating that sends people into paroxysms of nostalgia for the good old days when we could maintain the pretense that the great American school system met the needs of all children.
All I can think of is Galileo, forced by the Church to renounce his theory that the earth is not the center of the universe and, instead, revolves around the sun. “But yet it moves,” he was said to murmur.
Today U.S. Ed. Sec’y Arne Duncan was put in the absurd position of defending annual assessments, which for decades has provided incontrovertible evidence about socio-economic and racial achievement gaps. ( Kate Haycock of Education Trust told the Washington Post that “removing the requirement for annual testing would be a devastating step backward, for it is very hard to make sure our education system is serving every child well when we don’t have reliable, comparable achievement data on every child every year.”)
On Twitter, the new cartoonish meme of those who yearn for the good old days is “Stop GERM: Global Education Reform Movement Seeking to Profit and Privatize from Public Education,” as if global connectivity and collaboration – the whole “the world is flat” thing – is some sort of Machiavellian ruse. The Common Core State Standards, widely-hailed as an improvement for almost every state’s school objectives, is suddenly an object of scorn. Writes Aaron Chatterji in today’s New York Times,
The Obama administration’s Race to the Top program used billions of dollars of prize money to persuade states to adopt several education policy reforms that had been proven to work around the nation. Part of the package was Common Core, which, in part because of President Obama’s imprimatur, is now toxic on the right (and, because of opposition from some teachers, is just as toxic on the left).
Like standardized testing and the Common Core, public charter schools are also under attack, including those that serve economically-disadvantaged kids. And these attacks seem to grow in virulence even as evidence accumulates that poor children are the primary beneficiaries. Adam Ozemik describes today how non-urban charter schools don’t do any better than traditional public schools, but that urban charters schools benefit poor and black students more than traditional public schools.
The charter sectors’ ability to do better for poor students and black students is important given that they disproportionately serve them. I remember when I was an undergrad in the early 2000s, the debates on charter schools were far more theoretical than they are now. Back then I frequently heard the concern that charter schools were just going to engage in “cream skimming”, be a way for middle class white families to escape urban school systems, thus serving as one more form of segregation in this country. This concern has not come true, and currently charters have 53% of their students in poverty compared 48% for public schools. Charters also serve more minority students than public schools: charters are 29% black, while public schools are 16%. So not only do they serve more poor students and black students, but for this group they relatively consistently outperform public schools.
What’s odd is how often these facts go ignored. If the opposite were true, and charters served less minority or low-income students than public schools then it this would be trumpeted constantly and presented as perhaps the most important evidence in this debate. Or if charters showed strong positive results overall but didn’t benefit poor students or black students they would be condemned as institutions that further inequality. I’m not accusing anyone of conscious bias here, but I think if the empirical research on any other policy showed results that charters do for poor students and black students it would be far more widely embraced, and the average effects would be downplayed as less important.
As Ozemik notes, “It’s hard to imagine it another policy being called a failure because it only benefitted poor students and black students.”
I don’t think charter detractors are racist, but merely soldiers of orthodoxy, lashing out at heretical ideas like accountability, innovative schools, and higher-level standards. And us reformers, side-lined for the moment, murmur “and yet it moves” as we wait for the inevitable return of reason.