So Why Don't They?

The people who say that we need charter schools have no trouble pointing out the obvious fact that the bulk of our public schools don't work for the students, particularly minority students, students from low-income homes, students with IEPs, and English Language Learners.

The people who say that we don't need charters respond with two powerful arguments:

1) We don't need charters to develop and implement strategies that are effective with these populations. the public schools have license to do these things. We can point to a number of public schools that have reorganized around more effective strategies and have shown strong results.

2) There is no reason to believe that a charter school will do any better than the public schools with these challenging populations. The simple fact that the school is a charter does not mean that it will do anything different or better than what a public school does.

I have made both of these arguments myself. Usually I make them to charter school supporters who aren't really very bright or very well informed. Usually they are incapable of overcoming either of these arguments. I have also tried to make them with charter school advocates who ARE bright and who ARE well-informed. They have a response and it's a damn good one.

They acknowledge that public schools are, in fact, capable of doing everything that successful charter schools do. But, they ask, "So why don't they?" Why is it that I can quickly name all of the exemplary public schools in Seattle? Why can I count them all on the fingers of one hand?

Well, I say, the fault lies with the district administration and with the school principals who lack the vision and the sense to implement these strategies. And, to be honest, there are some teachers who are reluctant to change and might not get onboard with some of the changes that would come with these strategies. There are people at all levels - classroom, school, and district - who have opposed truly inclusive classrooms. There are people at all levels - classroom, school, and district - who have not been willing to step up to the responsibilities that come with a "no excuses" perspective - even when granted the authority that has to come with that responsibility. Anyway, I say, it is the people who design and maintain the system. We just need to either get them to change or replace them and then the public schools can be fixed so that they will actually serve these populations. Our focus, I say, should be on getting those changes, not on a charter school crapshoot I could then point to my own decade of advocacy trying to move the District to make these changes

And that's where they have me. I have been working for these changes for over a decade. Have I seen any change - at the District level? No, I have not. Have I seen anything that makes me confident that change is coming? No, I have not. I have seen anything that even allows me to optimistic that change is coming? No, I have not.

Well, then. What difference does it make if the District has the license and authority to make the changes that they need to make, has plenty of excellent models for the changes they need to make, and has all of the data for the changes that they need to make, if the District remains simply unwilling to make the changes? If we are not going to be able to overcome this institutional barrier to change, then doesn't it make sense to simply go around it? If the state or district bureaucracy is the impediment to designing schools so that they actually serve the students, then shouldn't it be perfectly reasonable to simply detour around them?

It is at this point that I must become very quiet and ponder the question. It is a damn fine question.

My only response is fairly weak. I see your point, I say, but most charter schools don't take any better advantage of their opportunity and aren't really any different from traditional public schools in their approach. The institutional resistance is at the school and classroom level as well as the state and district level. Also, why go around the problem instead of attack it directly? Why put a few in lifeboats (which may be no more seaworthy than the sinking ship) when we could simply patch the hole in the ship?

I really sell that line of thought, but it is a weak one. The very fact that even a fraction of charter schools do take advantage of that opportunity provides better odds for students and families than they can get from the district. Which school in southeast Seattle does a great job of serving students with IEPs? Which school is getting great results for students living in poverty? Any chance for success has got to look better than what the District is offering: which looks like guaranteed failure. If anything, the district is doubling down on their mistakes. Their solution is to do more and more of what doesn't work and to shut their ears to any ideas from the outside. Let me be clear. I'm not saying that our public schools, as a whole, are failures. I'm saying that they generally fail at serving students outside a narrow range, and that failure in built into the design.

My burning question has nothing to do with charter schools; it is about public schools. They can make the changes that are needed to serve the groups of students who are not well served by conventional school practice. They have the authority. They have permission. They know what changes to make. They have the models. They know it can work. They have the data. So why don't they? Why don't they create real inclusive classrooms that work for students with IEPs? Why don't they redesign the school experience so it works for minority students and students from low income homes? Why don't they create schools that work better for English Language Learners? What is the impediment?

I once said that even if I agreed with Education Reformers on some points (and of course I do; no one is always wrong) I simply couldn't stand to appear alongside some of those folks. So how is it that I have allowed my anti-Reform position to make me stand with some district traditionalists who hold even more despicable positions?

And here's a bigger question: Why do we tolerate it? If Mr. Banda does not create revolutionary change, and if the school board does not demand revolutionary change, then why would we consider keeping any of them for so much as a year? If Wendy London doesn't advocate and start pushing for revolutionary change, shouldn't she be fired and replaced by someone who will? Same for all of the Executive Directors. Same for all of the principals. Why would we tolerate one more day of the system that we know doesn't work?


Sahila said…
i agree with you on this 100%, Charlie....

the only reply I have to charter people is that what they offer - what ed reform offers - is WORSE than what is available to our children in public schools...

why would I throw the baby out with the bath water, upend, abandon public ed IF what is being offered only has a 17% chance of being better AND locks out even more of our disadvantaged students than public schools do?

You are right - we need a revolution in public education, but the current menu being offered by ed deformers is not it...
Teacher Sally said…
I too struggle with the same question Charlie, which is why I can't completely walk away from the idea of charter schools. Why don't they? For starters, to make that sort of change principals would need real autonomy over their schools- both over their staff and their adopted curriculum, something they do not currently have. They would also need to have the option of getting rid of perfectly good teachers who resist their vision for change. There are MANY obstacles in place in our current system to keep schools from changing and you can't point the finger at any one group: school boards, teachers, administrators, unions, students or politicians. The beauty of charter schools is their authentic autonomy. I think charters could have been the answer, but unfortunately the entire movement has been hijacked by for-profit groups. I dream of the uncorrupted charter could have been great, but that is not what we have.
Maureen said…
Charlie says: The very fact that some charter schools do take advantage of that opportunity provides better odds for students and families than they can get from the district.

Please name a system of charter schools that has (verifiably) done this. Or do you mean provide better odds for some subset of students and families?

For 13 years, I have been associated with a public school that has, at times, had some control over its' budget, its' student/family composition and some aspects of its' curriculum. It is a very popular and, by many measures, successful school but it has not consistently closed the achievement gap. I believe that it has provided "better odds" for, at least, a significant subset of its' students than the average Seattle public school, but no one has ever been able to measure/prove that that is the case. The best measure we have is the size of the wait list. What 'odds' are you talking about?
You miss the point entirely. The issue is not "charter" schools but the who owns all the power.

The other day I was at a picnic and two teachers were talking. One teacher says we should create a foreign language program where kids can study any language at home on the computer with a teacher coming to a school one day a week to work on the kids progress. The other teacher responds "That would be too hard on the teacher and that sounds like blended learning... just won't work." The other teacher was shocked by what the other teacher said.

She's right about one thing... it won't work with that kind of attitude. Blended learning is the work place and essential skill for developing kids. This will not happen in a high tech city like Seattle because we are allowing the power base to make all the decisions.

Our children went to Whitworth elementary before it was closed. We tried to create a international school there. The union got involved and told us there "was not consensus for this so it would not happen." Instead the school was closed for poor performance and teachers lack of desire to create something better.

Our schools are lacking. Charters are not THE Answer but they are part of a mix of options to help change this disaster. If we can do it without charters, great, except what we have seen around the country is that charters have forced public schools to respond to parents demands.

Whether it's the 1% or a district office or a union of teachers NOBODY want to share power. Our kids need new tax revenue from the 1% AND better use of those tax revenues. We as citizens must demand no less for our kids.

PS Sahila stats are not accurate. While far from perfect and a rocky start charters are showing great progress.
Charlie Mas said…
Chief Provocateur wrote: "If we can do it without charters, great, except what we have seen around the country is that charters have forced public schools to respond to parents demands."

Where have we seen this? Is that what is happening in the other 41 states that have charters? If it is, then I haven't heard about it. I haven't heard that the public schools in those states have undergone some sort of revolutionary change.
Charlie Mas said…
This question and this discussion should not be about charters. They are just the most recent and most high profile event that reminds us of the question.

Why don't the people who run our school system fix the deep, inherent flaws in it?

This is a school system that was designed to work (only tolerably well) for a very narrow range of students. So long as the children outside that narrow range were kept out of school, we could tolerate the system's poor function. But a wider range of students have been entering the system since the 1970's and flaws in the system are becoming more and more obvious.

The system has to change, but it has refused to change. As a consequence we have an education design and process that just doesn't work for a significant portion of our student population. That is completely unacceptable.

We need revolutionary change in the system, but no change is coming.

And we have become oddly complacent about all of it. Not all of us, but those who see the fire and are ringing the alarm are discredited for their alarmism which is outside the mainstream. But how can you fail to become extremist when you see the people burning?
"The beauty of charter schools is their authentic autonomy. I think charters could have been the answer, but unfortunately the entire movement has been hijacked by for-profit groups. I dream of the uncorrupted charter could have been great, but that is not what we have."

Yes, to the point of charters but the allure is the promise which, for the most part, is not fulfilled in any real way.

But back to Charlie's argument.

Are you talking about SPS or US education? SPS is easier to answer than US.

Inertia. We have people who are more willing to circle the wagons and then keep going in circles with ruts in the road that prevent them from making that change.

It's the union's fault (look at their increasingly low levels of participation), it's now society's fault for letting a few define teachers (and demonizing them in the process). It's surely the district's fault for not having a clear vision and a clear process of how to accomplish that vision. And it's School Boards that allowed themselves to be buffeted and pushed around by superintendents and staffs.

Now, the electorate has tried but it's hard to get from Board candidates who SAY they want change but then get on the Board and go along to get along.

But charters will not make things better (if we were lucky, we might get one or two good ones in the state in the five-year span in the initiative). They don't have proven results. There aren't a swath of them in every state that has them that are stellar. They don't have great family engagement. They don't give principals huge autonomy.

But at this point, people are desperate.

If this thing makes it to the ballot, I'll write a thread and paint a picture of what will happen. And then we can all stand back and watch it happen and wonder why we didn't make difference choices.

Keep in mind, just from the Seattle perspective, it will make Banda's job almost near impossible to find success.
Charlie Mas said…
Let's be clear. I'm not supporting the charter school initiative. There is nothing in it that makes me think that it would create charter schools that are notably different from traditional schools.

I find the process for selecting the few charters to implement each year to be inefficient to the point that it is nearly random.

This isn't about charter schools or the charter school initiative. If that misperception continues I'll have to edit the original post.
my 2cents said…
In Seattle schools, they're fixated on the reform or facilitated style of instruction where the political correctness of the materials supercedes their quality and content. From math, to reading and writing, to science - how are teachers expected to succeed with such weak materials? Without some refocus on the part of Curriculum and Instruction, I have little hope of seeing significant improvement.

Schools that have been allowed to deviate from the district materials, but still teach to the state standards, are showing greater successes - Schmitz Park and Singapore math, Mercer and Saxon math, TOPS and science, the list goes on.

Who put forward these changes? Was it primarily teachers, supported by their principals? Is that the promise that Charters hold? Why are families unhappy with their current schools? Why were so many families willing to take the leap to K-5 STEM at Boren? The promise of better math and science materials was a large part of it.
Maureen said…
Early in Maria Goodloe Johnson's tenure, she gave the impression that she would align curriculum for struggling schools (so every parent knew that their kid would at least cover state standards), but would allow successful schools "earned autonomy." I thought this would mean that schools (ie, teachers, principals, parents together)that were not failing would be allowed to choose their own materials and method of instruction. That never happened. Instead, alternative and other successful schools were forced to adopt the same low level materials and methods that were adopted to improve the failing schools. At the same time, school choice was diminished through the adoption of the NSAP. This was such a lost opportunity. It seems to me that not many people who think they follow education in Seattle realize that this happened. That we had a choice of schools which provided a variety of materials and methods and we let MG-J dismantle that system.
Anonymous said…
Charter as it is now is part of the status quo. It's the other "public school" system and the results are as varied as tradition public school system. There are some charters that work just as there are some public schools that work. It's certainly not the fixer everyone thought it would be. Charter has been around for some time now....enought time to prove itself as an institution.

In the end, I see it as a system failure. A school can be a charter or a traditonal public, but as long as it doesn't provide and lack the qualities that YOU Charlie (and others), have listed in great details in past threads, we are still pushing that same ol' boulder up hill.

Just as we will have system failure in banking, tax code, immigration policy, and healthcare/SS, our education system from pre-K to higher ed will continue to flail. There isn't a lot of courage or will to DO much of anything these days. The people who are in power are immuned regardless of epic financial or educational failure. They live in a well insulated world. They have more in common with the uber-rich folks from China, Russia, Nigeria, the UK and all the other rich folks from all over the world than with their own countrymen. The people with connection has little to lose personally. It's not like their kids are going to bad schools, live in bad or even so-so neighborhoods, or they are going to be foreclosed on or deny dental/health care coverage.

For my family, we can't take anyting for granted. We know what it's like to be laid off at the same time, trying to figure out COBRA while pregnant, and living off our nest egg of what was our retirement and kids' college savings. We have so much more to lose.

tired parent
Anonymous said…
Thanks for starting this discussion! I know that for our family, we desperately needed above-average teachers for a troublesome year, and we didn't get them. Hoping that next year will be better, or at least less troublesome! Meanwhile, I think that labeling a school as exemplary or not can be a red herring. Some students are doing great in each of the Seattle schools, and some aren't, and the challenge is to provide differentiated teaching to benefit everyone.

- Lurker
Name said…
The failure comes from weak, politically minded principals who don't have the teaching experience to counter entrenched teachers who don't want to adapt. There should be more flexibility in hiring and it should be easier for teachers to relocate to a principal/school environment that matches their talents and values. If no one picks them up then that should be telling that their values are out of sync. Good principals will recognize talent if even if the teacher is stubborn or opinionated. The problem is that we don't have good principals.

Right now I don't trust principals with that kind of power because most of the principals we have now will just look to the ed directors to direct them. Or they have weak skin and want to be surrounded by yes men. They see downtown as their focus rather than the individual children in their schools.

The schools that have success doing things differently have strong, dedicated principals that have been at their post a while. They are not aspiring to the next level of admin so they feel more confident bucking the system because ultimately they know they will be proven right. Its the same with veteran teachers who refuse to go along with what they deem to be weak materials or instruction models. Their students score high so no one bothers them.

Will some good teachers be left behind during a re-org like this? Sure but the improved education of 100s of children outweighs that. There are other districts or private schools. There's always subbing where they can get the attention of a good principal and get a permanant position the following

The kingpin to this system is that principals would need tight accountability for improved outcomes. Too bad we can't trust the district to that properly (see Floe dismissal or the protection of Lute). So the discussion becomes moot because there are too many weak players at every layer and no one has the balls or the stomach to make big changes.
Anonymous said…
My2cents is right. The quality of the curriculum is the key to greater success. More parents are catching on to this, which is why they search for schools with a better math curriculum. Too many parents are not finding it in public schools so they choose expensive private schools instead.

The remedial rate in colleges is unacceptably high. According to the Seattle Times on June 15, in the Seattle Community College District about 70% of entering students need remedial math, according to a national standardized placement test.

It is a major problem that the District keeps discovery math in place in most schools. Past administrators sold it to a lazy School Board who did not do independent research before adoption. Now they (and our students) are stuck with expensive, inefficient textbooks.

On a positive note, both new Directors (McLaren and Peeslee) have strong math backgrounds. Banda has a fundamentally sound math curriculum in his district. If the District can show better results with a revamped math curriculum, then charters could eventually become a non issue.

But they need to take action.

S parent
Anonymous said…
One issue is that change takes time, and systemic change takes even more time.
A principal may come in and make changes, but when that principal is gone...?
When South Korea, Singapore, and Finland made changes in their education systems, they made fundamental changes that were supported system-wide, not the one-sided, punitive changes that Bush Co made. There were systems in place for poor children, systems in place to train teachers, systems in place to train principals, and systems in place to support those changes. They also had a realistic timeline in which to start seeing results, and proper ways to measure those results.
Here the Ed deformers want to see results that year or the next year. They're not in it for the long haul, nor do they really want fundamental change. They want a quick fix so they can go along their merry way with their consciences assuaged that they did something for those poor kids. Charter schools as they are now are not a fundamental change. They are window dressing, a condiment to add to the parental choice hamburger. No charter school I have been in yet has done anything radically different than a traditional public school other than cherry pick it's students. Instruction looks the same, curriculum often looks worse (one school dug the 1970's reading curriculum out of a school district's trash so they could "save some money"). Teachers are frequently treated worse than in public schools, and administrators are often the person who submitted the charter - some business guy who thought he could make a fast buck. Charter schools open and close regularly in places like CA, AZ, and FL. If an operator loses a charter, they just jump states and open a new one - happens all the time. Ben Chavis - who was just accused of millions of dollars worth of fraud in his Oakland charter school - is about to open one in AZ. The charter school oversight groups don't talk and share info about the crooks - they just grant more charters to their buddies.
It is a major problem that the District keeps discovery math in place in most schools.

Banda, Banda, Banda. Call this Friday to signup for the Board meeting next Tuesday. (Sign-ups are Friday because the Board meeting is on Tuesday rather than Wednesday because of the 4th of July holiday.)

Fill that speaker list with parents upset about math. Call him, e-mail him over and over.

He said he had heard about this a lot - make sure he hears about it every single day.
Funding matters said…
Funding matters. A particular elementary school was able to wrap around students of poverty and make great gains.

This school has a low frl population. PTA dollars were used to provide tutoring.

Discovery math was practically ditched.
Dorothy Neville said…
"Charter as it is now is part of the status quo. It's the other "public school" system and the results are as varied as tradition public school system. There are some charters that work just as there are some public schools that work. It's certainly not the fixer everyone thought it would be. Charter has been around for some time now....enought time to prove itself as an institution."

Thanks, Tired Parent. That is fundamental. We do need change to the system. Charlie is right that the current school model worked reasonably well for a narrow band of students. We now attempt to educate a much wider set of children and do it with fewer resources. It doesn't work. The Rhees and Duncans and Gates and Broads and LEVs say they are all for the children and if we disagree with their methods we are the haters who want to maintain the status quo to protect the adults and damn the children. But the "status quo" we are accused of trying to maintain does not exist in states with right to work, with charters, with vouchers. In many states, those are the status quo. So where does *that* status quo succeed?
Annie said…
Exactly right. People say public schools could do all these things, but traditional public schools aren't doing it. Frankly, that's enough to convince me that we need the option of public charter schools.

I read the text of I-1240 and it's well-written to make sure that only high-performing charter schools are operating here. Of course some charters are good and some are bad, but the initiative makes sure that we only get the good ones. We have 20 years of experience in 41 other states to look at, so we get the benefit of the best practices that have been developed.

It's true that IF traditional public schools could be doing better for kids, then they should be doing it. Since they're not, parents and students deserve to have the option of a public charter school that will.
"'s well-written to make sure that only high-performing charter schools are operating here. "

Could you state the page and section where you felt that assurance was there? Because I've read the initiative several times and I find it vague.

How do you know we are getting the benefit of best practices if you don't know what charter schools will be here? The initiative itself has a couple of odd things that aren't in any other charter law. How is that best practices?

You will have an option if charter law passes; whether it will be a best option, the same as what you have or worse - well your odds are 17%, 43% and 47%.
Charlie Mas said…
Annie wrote: "I read the text of I-1240 and it's well-written to make sure that only high-performing charter schools are operating here."

Please let me know where you saw this language. I didn't see it either.

Are we supposed to rely on the discriminating judgement of the authorizers? How will that work when there are potentially over 200 authorizers in the state?

I didn't see anything in the law that granted any such discretion to the state board of education.

In fact, to me, it looked like first-come, first-served.

I'm not sure how conversions would even get into the queue.
And, of course there is the clause where the Charter Commission does not have to follow the checklist that school boards do. The initiative says that but then is mysteriously silent on HOW the Charter Commission would authorize charters.

It's the detail in any law that matters and especially so here.
Charlie, there's this interesting clause that uses the word "simultaneously" and that's where I think the decision gets made about who makes the cut-off to get in.
KatieO said…
I have to disagree with the idea that schools "could" do more, but for whatever reason choose not to. I am a teacher on a child/adolescent psychiatric unit and honestly, many kids are simply too sick to succeed at schools with current funding levels. And for many of my students, they are sick as a result of growing up in poverty. We all know which schools are dubbed "failing"--they are, practically without exception, located in low-income neighborhoods. And in the US, nearly 1 in 4 children are living in poverty.

Unfortunately, poverty matters. Exposure to trauma, abuse and neglect as well as the constant anxiety associated with hunger, homelessness, violence on the streets, lack of health care, all change a child's ability to learn and concentrate. Poverty is associated with higher rates of mental illness and substance abuse. In short, schools alone simply cannot address this.

I work in Chicago, where charters are already well-established. And I have worked with dozens and dozens of students from the charters. They are simply not the sickest kids. Not once have I met a current charter school student who also has a debilitating behavior disorder, significant learning disability, or exhibits truly difficult behaviors. But I have met many students with behavior problems who have been kicked out the charters. Any success those few "17%" of successful charters has is unfortunately mostly due pushing out the most difficult kids. Charters are not doing anything particularly special, just the usual way of teaching can be more effective once all the really tough kids are removed. (I actually think many charters with their inexperienced workforce, scripted curriculum, and "no excuses" discipline policies are often worse learning environments for kids--just all the low performers are gone so their test scores still look fine.)

I do believe schools can be a positive place where we can try and combat the influences of poverty. But to do something truly transformational, schools would need massive amounts of extra funding, resources, and highly-trained personnel.

The focus of "education reform" should be on stopping the trauma of poverty from happening in the first place. As Nelson Mandela said, "Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings." The fight to eradicate poverty is the fight to close the achievement gap.

I think many schools are simply overloaded with the increasing needs of kids and the dwindling resources (and too often the schools with the highest numbers of tough kids get the fewest resources). It's not that schools won't change, it's that they can't.
Teacher Sally said…
Thank you KatieO, I couldn't agree more. .
Thanks for the input, Katie. It's good to hear what is happening in other states.
Charlie Mas said…
KatieO, I don't disagree at all with your explanation of poverty as the primary root cause of academic underperformance.

What I'm saying is that we need to re-design our education system, our school operations, so that they work for students living in poverty. The system is designed around the presumption that students will arrive with middle class affluence and values. We need another model that is designed for students living in poverty, who may not see much value in school, and who may not grant the teacher much authority.

I don't question the debilitating effects of poverty; I'm saying that our current system doesn't recognize it and accomodate the needs of students who bring all of that to school with them - hunger, sickness, pain, worry, fear, instability, violence, crime, substance abuse, and a lack of resources.
Anonymous said…
You already have a model that's been serving students for well over a century - Catholic schools do well for many students living in poverty - it's the combination of a strong community (which provides support on many levels), high expectations, solid academics, and respect for others.

KatieO said…
Charlie Mass,

Thanks for the reply to my comment! I absolutely agree that education needs to change to meet the needs of all students, especially students living in poverty. My point was that charter schools are not the answer, and should not, in my opinion, be a part of any type of solution. (They had promise in the beginning, but due to profit motives and "competition" models of schooling, charters are purposefully not serving all kids. They haven't closed the achievement gap and in some places have exacerbated it.)

Here is a link to a piece I wrote about the kinds of reform my students really need: (you will notice that high-stakes testing, charters, teach for america, and business-model education are NOT on there.)

Also, while yes we should continue to improve schools now starting with the reforms I mention above, I also think we need to work on prevention. If poverty causes the achievement gap, and we want to end the achievement gap, then we need to work on poverty. There is no shortcut. So let's get to work!
Jan said…
reader -- against the backdrop of KatieO's thoughts, could you elaborate on the following: " it's the combination of a strong community (which provides support on many levels), high expectations, solid academics, and respect for others."

When you say "community," to what do you refer? The educational community (backed by a church community to which it may be attached)? THAT you can control. Will that do it? Because, if you also mean the "family" community (which may be extremely dysfunctional) or the "neighborhood" (which may be overrun with gangs, or the town/city community (which may be bankrupt, -- that is NOT something that a school district or teachers can control. Same with expectations and respect for others. I am not trying to argue here. I really don't know the answer, but the current ed reform push has pretty much decided that only teachers and academics matter (which is different than saying -- those are the only things I can afford to fix). From the days when my kids were looking at parochial schools, I had the sense that they, too, were "cherry-picking" to avoid any children who took up more time and effort than they wanted to expend. Virtually none that I looked at (except maybe Kennedy) had any program for special ed kids that would have worked for mine. I would love it if a parochial school system model was truly an answer for what KatieO describes, but I am not sure that is the case.

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