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The Not-So-Miraculous Charter School Solution
Congratulations to Urban Prep Academy, Chicago’s all-male, all African-American charter high school. For the third year in a row, all of its graduates are heading to college. It is no small feat either, because when the boys enrolled at the school only 4% of them were reading at grade level. The school is in a blighted, segregated part of Chicago known for problems with violence, drugs, and gang activity. With these kinds of results, it must be time to throw out traditional public schools and start building charter schools throughout the country. Ah, but not so fast.
Clearly the atmosphere of high expectations, mantras of self-efficacy and dedication to discipline that characterize Urban Prep Academy are proving effective, and there are lessons to be learned from the environment the school creates. Urban Prep Academy’s achievements are real, and they deserve recognition. But they don’t tell the whole story about charter schools or even about the Academy itself. For example, nearly half of the boys who started their freshman year with this year’s graduating class are not finishing with them. The boys who are not graduating are actually the boys with the greatest academic difficulties, the most behavioral difficulties, and arguably the hardest the reach. They are either high school dropouts or they are back in the regular public school system. They demonstrate what many critics of charter schools regularly point out. When charter schools outperform public schools, they frequently do so by “creaming,” or maintaining the students most likely to succeed. Meanwhile, they simultaneously practice “dumping,” or sending the students that would lower their success rates away, in the best case scenario, back to public schools. Urban Prep Academy wholeheartedly insists that they make every effort to work with every student they enroll, and this is probably true up to a point. However, their nearly 50% dropout rate suggests that they haven’t got the magic touch with the exact same group of challenging students the traditional public schools struggle to serve.
Urban Prep Academy also has a significant advantage over similar Chicago public schools. They have a budget that allows them to spend approximately $12,000 per student compared with approximately $8,000 per pupil for students attending typical public schools. One of the things that the school does with its money is continue to reach out to the boys after graduation even as they attend college. This extension of support has allowed them to boast another accomplishment, college retention. Of the 100% of Urban Prep Academy graduates who enrolled in college in 2010, 83% of them are going back for a second year of college. That’s higher than the U.S. college freshman retention average of approximately 77%. If all public high schools could continue to keep in touch with their students for years beyond their graduation, providing support and encouragement from familiar mentors, the college retention rate across the nation would skyrocket. But Urban Prep Academy is graduating less than 100 students per year, and most public schools do not have the resources to dedicate that kind of time to individual students.
Charter schools as a whole have been studied by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University. They found that, in fact, 17% of the nation’s charter schools were similar to Urban Prep Academy, outperforming public schools across a number of achievement measures such as graduation rates, college enrollment rates, and test scores. However, the bulk of the charter schools (46%) that were studied performed exactly like traditional public schools. Most alarmingly of all, 37% of the charter schools were described as performing “significantly worse” than regular public schools. This research shows that while some charter schools indeed produce better results than public schools, a far greater number put students at risk.
Despite the questionable successes of charter schools, they are frequently more expensive than traditional public schools. When one elected official, New York State Senator Bill Perkins, representing Harlem, began to demand more transparency and accountability for the financing of charter schools in his district, he was lambasted by the press and advocates of charter schools. In his defense, Professor Diane Ravitch, testified at a local hearing. Her testimony is shared by Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, and it is well worth reading. To summarize it, Ravitch spoke of how one of the men who launched the modern idea of charter schools in 1988 came to be horrified by how his idea had morphed into an anti-public school phenomenon. They had directly positioned themselves to compete with and outdo public schools rather than working toward their original mission as experimental, supplemental schools designed to help the neediest students. She described how some charter schools had turned into profit-making enterprises. Some had marketing budgets greater than the U.S. Secretary of Education is paid. All of this while operating outside the bounds of oversight by public officials despite very often taking public money.
A recent article by David Sirota outlined many of the numerous other issues with charter schools that critics have raised. Research by the National Education Policy Center has also shown that charter schools are also likely to be more racially segregated than public schools, even being accused of racial discrimination in some school districts. In addition, they are less likely overall to serve poor or special education students.
Urban Prep Academy does for students what a lot of the best public schools and elite, private schools do for students—gives them a sense of their own capacity to succeed and then provides them with the academic tools to accomplish their goals. It manages to attain these achievements by receiving sufficient resources, an overall small student body, and a significant dropout rate. While the school needs to be appreciated for its successes, they have to be understood in context. Most importantly, those who advocate charter schools as an alternative to public schools will use the school as an exemplar to argue that charter schools have an advantage over other public schools. This perspective has to be countered with facts and complete information to prevent the undermining of traditional public education.