A Smarter Charter: A Response to Kahlenberg and Potter

First, thanks to Rick Kahlenberg and Halley Potter for correcting my math on teacher mobility. Happily, the revised version makes an even better point: Not only has the gap in mobility between charter and district teachers shrunk, it’s done so mostly because fewer charter teachers are “moving” or “leaving.” That’s what one would hope to see in schools that are maturing and coming to terms with the work/life issues the authors raise. But can we please stop referring to “working longer hours” only as a problem? Charter teachers work longer hours because their schools stay open later, and some ask teachers to be at the other end of a phone when students are stuck on a homework problem.  Sure, teachers should be compensated appropriately, and some will find the hours too much. But the practice is driven by students’ interest rather than adult convenience.

I salute the authors (again) for their extensive reporting on how charters are solving some of the toughest problems on their plate. My quarrel is that in order to justify their proposed remedies, they portray chartering as a nearly-terminal case, rather than as a robust movement that falls short, makes mistakes, and works hard to do better. The mood is set right in the book’s introduction:  “In our view, the charter school movement, once brimming with tremendous promise, has lost its way.” That strikes me as an overly pessimistic conclusion, based on a narrowly Shanker-centric definition of what its “way” should be.

As to the proposed policy of requiring a union vote in every charter school’s first year, I have two problems. First, teachers already have the right to organize if they want, but generally don’t choose to do it – as the book concedes.  Second, there are purely pragmatic problems with this idea. Getting a new school up and running is tough enough without adding a mandatory and potentially divisive union vote in that fragile first year.

Kahlenberg and Potter’s argument about the relationship between diversity and achievement relies on  a “half century of research” showing that “high-achieving, high-poverty schools are rare.” No question about it, that’s a long-established and lamentable truth.  But little of this research involves charter schools, and it doesn’t address the question I raise: How do charter schools change that equation?  The record is far from perfect, but there are many charters that serve non-diverse, low-income populations and get great results. We could spend an entire EdNext volume arguing over the CREDO results alone, but I think some things are clear: one, nationally, low-income kids gain faster in charters than in district schools; two, many of CREDO’s state and city-specific studies show very strong comparative gains for low-income charter students; and three, the movement as a whole has made significant progress by doing exactly what the model calls for and closing low-performing schools. (And by the way, there’s also the “compared-to-what” question.  If the billions invested in School Improvement Grants had generally moved schools “from disappointing to average,” Arne Duncan would be doing cartwheels.)

Finally, about how Al Shanker would view today’s movement:  Let’s not get too fixated on that topic. It took many smart people, coming from many perspectives, to create the charter school movement. While Shanker’s Press Club speech was a landmark in popularizing the concept, those who actually hammered out the laws and founded the schools weren’t bound to follow his script. There were good reasons why legislators changed the essential model from “program” to “school” and why they dispensed, in many cases, with input requirements like teacher certification and a union card.  Innovations rarely stay in the same form and serve the same purposes for which they were originally created – -and the road for charters has many new turns ahead. Let’s solve current and future dilemmas rather than worrying about deviating from holy writ.

– Nelson Smith

This blog entry is a response to “A Smarter Charter: A Response to Nelson Smith,” by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter. That was a response to Nelson’s Smith’s “Criticizing Charter Schools for Lacking Diversity and Unions Misses the Point,” a review of Kahlenberg and Potter’s new book, A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education.

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