Five hard truths about charter schools
Many people get too excited about the latest hot education innovation. They lose their sense of perspective. It has happened even to me once or twice. When we wander off like that, we need someone with a sharp intellect and strong character to pull us back to reality.
One such person is Paul T. Hill, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and John and Marguerite Corbally Professor at the University of Washington Bothell. He has written a short, wise book, "Learning As We Go: Why School Choice is Worth the Wait," which provides the clearest explanations I have seen for why independent public charter schools need more time to develop. Hill believes it is worth waiting for charters to make what he thinks will be widespread positive impact on the quality of education. He thinks they are more promising than a renewed fondness for strengthening bureaucracy and standardizing instruction that seems to be bubbling in some foundations and national advocacy groups.
Hill makes five simple points and more or less devotes a chapter to each. Here is what he says, with some fussing and worrying by me. If you want to add your ideas to these, or explain why these are nonsense, the comments box below awaits.
He talks about what he calls "schools of choice." This includes both vouchers and charter schools, but mostly he means charters.
1. They are hard to run. "Principals from district-run schools are often not ready to make the financing, hiring, firing, admissions, and self-assessment decisions that fall on them" when they move to charters, Hill says. "Some learn but others don't. Those who take the 'my way or the highway' attitude celebrated in district-run schools come into conflict with school founders, parents, and those who had definite reasons for choosing the school."
I get his point, although it does not apply to charter networks that are careful in principal selection and do not pick people who are out of sync with the organization's values and goals. I have visited enough charters to know that most of them, including some with good reputations, do have leadership problems. They seem to go through principals quickly. That's not good.
2. They are demanding places to teach and aren't for everybody. Teachers who move from regular to charter public schools "become partners in an enterprise that must sink or swim depending on performance. Hours, assignments, pay, and job security can't be guaranteed by a deep-pocket school district, but are products of collaborative effort at the school level," Hill says.
That does make it more difficult for charters to grow, but it is pretty much the reason why they have a better chance to raise student achievement than regular public schools, so there is not much to be done about it.
3. They can't complete successfully with district-run public schools unless they get as much money for pupils they educate. "Early hopes that choice would lead to schools that were both cheaper and better ignored the fact that schools of choice must compete for teachers and instructional materials in markets where the prices are set by school districts," Hill says.
Again, this is likely true for most charters, but I know several that do more with less money than the regular schools get. Hill knows much more about the details of school finance than I do, so I will accept the implication that the exceptions to this rule are unimportant.
4. They need to prove themselves on the same tests and other outcome measures as other schools. "Early hopes that charter and voucher schools would be so obviously great that no fine outcome measures would be needed have been dashed," Hill says.
Hmm. HIs assertion is absolutely right, but I don't get his explanation at all. My impression is that both the charter and voucher movements believed that they would have to show student achievement growing to survive.
5. They are hard to reproduce, even when particular schools are successful, and well known. "Organizations trying to run many schools of choice struggle with costs and quality and can reproduce inefficient school district central offices," Hill says.
That's quite true. Hill's book has several suggestions for supporting the growth of charters. These include more funds from innovative school districts, better efforts to recruit recently trained teacher through closer ties with education schools and better state laws to eliminate unnecessary burdens like required union membership for teachers.
No matter what any of us think or say, charters are certain to keep growing as long as so many regular schools continue to stifle educator creativity. Just what they will grow into is difficult to predict, but if I keep taking those baby aspirin maybe I will still be around to see it.
Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.
| April 16, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Trends | Tags: Paul T. Hill, charters hard to reproduce, charters hard to run, hard truths about charter schools
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