Charter Schools and the Education Reform Agenda: Fabulous or Failures? Why Top Down Reform Will Fail and Bottom Up Teacher/Parent Driven Reform Will Succeed.

“As charter schools continue to expand, new research indicates liberal opponents are failing to make effective arguments aimed at curbing the education reform movement.”

In a peer-reviewed article in the Policy Studies Journal University of Michigan political scientist Sarah Reckhow finds,

“Conservatives outnumber liberals in this country, and only liberals tend to oppose charter schools. They are failing to persuade even fellow Democrats who are more moderate…. Those who want more regulation of charter schools will have to find more effective ways of persuading people because their base is small and their arguments are falling on deaf ears.”

The 2014 midterm elections were a Republican romp; Republicans strengthened their majority in the House and pummeled the Democrats to seize control of the Senate. The national education debate was not around charter schools, the debate centered around excessive testing, Common Core, and, generally, the expanded role of the federal government in the formation of education policy

Charter schools are popular among conservatives primarily, according to Reckhow, due to their anti-union bias, as well as among the large swaths of progressive Democrats. At a recent panel of former Clinton staffers one of the speakers, who had a high-ranking policy position in the Clinton White House, praised Clinton for his support of charter schools. Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) actively campaigns within the Democratic Party for the “reform” agenda: charter schools, weakening tenure, abolishing layoff by seniority and generally weakening the power of unions.

The consumers of charter schools, inner city parents of color, routinely flock to charter schools in lieu of the local public school.

What is particularly distressing is that the “evidence,” piles and piles of research, shows that charter schools are on a par with public schools, or have slightly better data, many stumble and fail, and this is in spite of their obvious advantages, few students with disabilities, fewer English language learners, high rates of “pushouts” and expulsions, and a recruiting system that favor parents with “social capital.”

Joshua Corwin, “Charter Schools: Fabulous or Failure,” takes a deep dive into the research findings,

Depending on whom you ask charter schools may be either an important solution to persistent educational inequality, or a misguided attack on public schools as Americans know them. Both sides are firmly entrenched in this debate, which remains one the more polarizing arguments in American education.

Corwin parses the studies that differ in their conclusions. Although not part of the Corwin’s article New York City is a good example, the large charter networks, Success, Harlem Children’s Zone, KIPP and Uncommon Schools perform reasonably well while the hundreds of single entrepreneur charter schools frequently underperform neighborhood public schools. The article concludes,

The answer then to the question of whether charter schools provide opportunities for students in struggling public schools appears to be “yes, but…”

The important word here is “opportunity.” For some students, attending certain charter schools may lead to significant improvements in their educational experiences. How those effects occur remains a matter for debate; explanations for charter successes and failures are as varied as the results themselves.

In the realm of cyberspace there are enumerable blogs critical of charters and the so-called “:reform” agenda, there are over 200 bloggers within in Diane Ravitch’s Network for Public Education churning out post after post and thousands upon thousands of tweets. Are the anti-charter school bloggers and tweeters talking to each other or impacting opinion in the public sphere?

One of the main arguments of the anti-charter school, anti-reform folks is that they are fighting against the corporatists, the “rich and powerful,” the Bill Gates, the Eli Broads, the donor community, who are funding the support of charter schools and the reform agenda. Reckhow in an earlier book, Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics, examined the role of foundations in influencing education policy.

Jay Greene, a scholar on the conservative side, in a review of the book wrote,

Reckhow confirms that total foundation giving to K–12 education may exceed $1 billion … Reckhow shows that large foundations have recognized the need to focus on influencing how public monies are spent, and that they are now devoting a significantly larger share of their giving on policy advocacy … Reckhow extends this analysis by warning us that shifting to policy advocacy won’t necessarily result in policy success, especially on an enduring basis…

Without building authentic and lasting support among local constituencies, philanthropic dreams of policy change may be ephemeral … New York City may have been easier, faster, and cheaper for reform-oriented foundations to accomplish their goals, but that speed came at a price. The support for reform policies is so narrow in New York City that Reckhow doubts it will survive for long after Mayor Michael Bloomberg leaves office. [And, yes, many of the Bloomberg era policies are eroding]

If large foundations can build and control a national machinery to shape education policy nationwide, then they have no reason to worry about how broadly based support is for their preferred policies. As long as national elites favor their agenda, they hope that the national machine they are constructing can force policies from the very top all the way down to every classroom.

Reckhow’s implication is that this national reform machine is doomed to fail. Both state and local education authorities will resist the national reforms before they can be completed, or they will ignore and subvert policies that actually go into effect. Millions of teachers and thousands of schools cannot all be monitored and compelled from the top. Reckhow’s lesson is that enduring and successful reforms require a broad and deep base of support, which top-down reform efforts are failing to develop.

… there is an alternative to trying to convince the education establishment to buy into reform. Donors could mobilize the most important yet most ignored constituency of all: parents.

Reckhow thinks donors should court unions, community activists, and local leaders…

The top down reforms, i. e., the Common Core and testing is the subject of grassroots parent advocacy, the “opt-out” movement is spreading from state to state and the reauthorization of NCLB is seriously considering moving away from annual student testing. On the ground parent advocacy may be turning back the climate of testing that has dominated the education scene.

Twenty years ago, David Tyack and Larry Cuban wrote, “Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform, they were also sharply critical of top-down public school reform efforts,

“… we suggest that reformers take a broader view of the aims that should guide
public education and focus on ways to improve instruction from the inside out rather than top down … To bring about improvement at the heart of education – classroom instruction has proven to be the most difficult kind of reform … and it will result in the future more from internal changes created by knowledge and the expertise of teachers than from decisions of external policy makers”.

One of the most interesting experiments in “inside out” change began in New York City, the new teacher contract allows for wide latitude in changing provisions of the contract and management regulations. The project, called Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence (PROSE), began with 63 schools and the application process for next year is underway, schools took on a wide range of projects,

Staff members of these schools created a range of plans, including staggering the school day to meet student needs, changing contractually required student-to-teacher ratios to allow for a combination of small group learning and larger lecture-style classes, and using portfolios of instructional strategies to help rate teachers. In close collaboration with their teachers, school leaders in PROSE schools will drive continuous innovation as they look to change some of the basic rules and regulations under which they have historically operated.

Critics of charter schools and the reform agenda are vociferous in their opposition and light on alternatives; except for more funding. Yes, poverty has a severe impact on families and children, however, to imply that poverty is an excuse for struggling schools is no salable. On the other side of the argument, to offer charter schools as a “fix,” to claim that teacher unions, tenure and seniority equals failing schools is equally foolish.

The American Federation of Teachers uses the term solutions-driven unionism and, I was taught when I come to the table always come to the table with solutions. I ran monthly meetings of union building reps, (in NYC called chapter leaders); my one “rule” was no one could bring up an issue that those at the table couldn’t resolve.

Inner city schools with similar students have widely differing results, school leadership and teachers can make differences. The differences may be small, they may be incremental, however, lower suspension rates, better attendance, and a rich engaging curriculum provides a platform for progress.

The large high school in which I taught “competed” with three neighboring schools for students one was a modern building with highly innovative “block scheduling” with an independent study option, another school included a highly selective screened program. The assistant principal in my school who was in charge of guidance services also led the student recruiting efforts. We hosted a lox and bagels breakfast for local middle school guidance counselors, produced a lovely folder advertising the school’s achievements, attended every middle school open house, every community organization; we lobbied elected officials for physical upgrades to the school building and entered every imaginable competition, we were activists and we successfully attracted families. A nearby school complained endlessly that we were “stealing their kids,” which, in a way, we were. One school, with no special circumstances, except their staff successfully retained neighborhood kids and attracted kids from surrounding neighborhoods thrived; the “complaining” school eventually was closed due to poor performance.

A colleague was waiting to meet with a principal, and began to pester the school secretary who kept on telling him the principal would not be available until the second period. “We have other schools to visit; can’t he meet with us now?”

The secretary responded, “No, he can’t meet with you, he’s teaching.”

The visitor, somewhat surprised, “He’s covering a class?”

Secretary, “No, he teaches gym every day first period so teachers can meet and plan.”

My colleague said he was embarrassed, the school leader and the teachers came up with a “fix,” an innovative way of allowing teachers to plan collaboratively…

I thought the PROSE program, as described above, would have many applicants, unfortunately too many schools abjure (“Don’t Move My Cheese”) change. For a dozen years under the Bloomberg/Klein regency teacher voice was diminished, in fact, outspoken teachers were punished.

Teacher, parent and student voice matters: fighting along with parents and students to improve a school and to improve society builds a school community, engages and produces students who are the kind of citizen that enable our city and our nation to prosper.

3 responses to “Charter Schools and the Education Reform Agenda: Fabulous or Failures? Why Top Down Reform Will Fail and Bottom Up Teacher/Parent Driven Reform Will Succeed.

  1. It is difficult to understand why Mayor Deblasio has failed to keep his campaign policy statements on charter Schools. The Mayor has the power to control the New York Public Schools. The Chancellor, appointed by the Mayor, has extensive power. Some Chancellors know how to use their power and others do not. The Governor’s statements on public schools in recent weeks are nothing more than talking points provided by hedge fund contributors and by“so called reform organizations” determined to destroy the public education system.

    The Mayor must during the remainder of his term move aggressively to upgrade and increase the number of experienced education advisors and the Governor should do the same.

    It is no secret that former Governors of New York were prone to disagree with the Mayor of the City of New York. Sometimes it is best to discuss the issue. Instead of using a baseball bat to make your point.


  2. There should be no such thing as a for profit charter school. Period. The reason is part of what taxes are collected for–and why the ‘state’ does not compete with private industry. By definition, profit making institutions are free to make profits– the tax payers are not in the business of supporting their efforts to do so,
    Charter schools are public schools. They are paid for by the state, that is by taxes, and should be overseen in a logical and useful way. Chaos is not what the public should expect from any public sector effort. Why are “charters” not viewed clearly on a case by case basis? Why are they favored or hated without regard to their ability to provide educational environments to either students or their staffs? Why are their policies and practices not open to public review? We need to look at charters with open, candid, and honest assessments. The NYS Department of Education is the over seeing body– they should be doing a more thorough job!


  3. Charter Schools in NYS must be not-for-profit, the sponsoring organization must have 501(c)3 status, in other states charter schools can be for profit.

    The charters are for five years and the Department and State Ed examines the school’s data in detail prior to renewal: – see one example in the link below:

    Click to access CulturalArtsAcademyRenewalReport201415_FINAL.pdf

    You will note State Ed only renewed the charter for 2.5 years, instead the standard five years.


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