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.

10 Replies to “The Not-So-Miraculous Charter School Solution”

  1. This illustrates my biggest concern with charter schools: creaming. In most charter schools, the child who is difficult to educate, for whatever reason, is returned to the public schools. Over time,this would tend to cluster the more difficult to educate students in the public schools, while the easier to educate student is in charter schools. I don’t blame the parents. Many public schools have major discipline problems largely due to laws which make it difficult to remove a student from the classroom. But the public schools continue to be compared, unfavorably, to the charter schools. I’m afraid it will mean that funds to the public schools will be cut, “because they are doing so poorly”. It will work to put the difficult to educate students back where they were in the early 60s… home or on the streets.
    Yes, we should carefully examine any successful program for ideas. Yes, we should maintain an attitude of we can make things better. But, in my opinion, charter schools are not the “golden ring” that will solve all our problems.

  2. This reminds me of the Houston TX school districts years back. They decided to pay teachers based on student output(graduations). The dropout rate shot through the roof. It seems teachers were handing out answers with the tests. They were not spending time with the students who were learning nothing and leaving school. However those that stayed graduated with good marks(as would be expected)

    My opinion of charter schools is this. If people remove their kids from public schools they should pay for that schooling. Fully. That should give the parents the push they need to pay attention to there kids schooling. Then charter schools would succeed and graduate the best kids. I think tthat’sgreat to prepare the right kids so well for college. Charter schools do not want poor kids or kids that don’t excel. Also this way there would be no comparing charter to public. Because they are not to be compared.

  3. Funny thing is that a lot of the poor kids do really well in college (when they get the chance), while often the rich ones barely make it.

  4. I agree, but they will still have the chance in the public school system that millions of college bound kids have right now

  5. Thirty years back, I taught ESOL to Haitian refugees detained at Krome. These were adult men, some no longer young; some, who had been able to afford high school, were better educated than many of our college graduates, while others were learning to read and write English before their own language. All, however, were good, devoted, diligent, and extremely well-behaved students. Why? For them, education was a privilege to be cherished, just as it is for financially-struggling American college students, while rich kids take college for granted as a place to park and party.

  6. Charter schools…a bane to educators and especially children with difficulty learning for whatever reason. Charter schools have the advantage of picking their clientele and still, they are no better than public schools. We get to teach every child, regardless of the socio-economic or academic level and still beat the charters.

  7. I live in Atlanta and on the south side of the city where there is a stark difference in public schools between that area of the city and our more affluent neighbors to the north.

    I’ve also had my children in both public and charter schools. My oldest is 33 and my youngest is 12, so I’ve had a good deal of experience dealing with the Georgia public school system.

    I hear the railing of charter school from those on the left and I believe part of the opposition to charter schools may lie in the immediate aversion to anything that originates out of an idea championed by the right. I consider myself a progressive, but when it comes to this issue, I have to disagree with the position held by most.

    This is what I want people to understand. When you live in an area where the schools are crumbling, the teachers and the school administrators don’t care or have other career ambitions other than the vocation of teaching, your school board representative are ineffectual or dysfunctional due to infighting, you have a disengaged or non-involved parental community and all I want is for my child — for whom I don’t get a second chance at giving a decent education — what do you expect me to do but to be attracted to a school that can offer what my local public school cannot, will not or isn’t yet ready to?

    We have been talking about the problems with our public schools for many years now and that’s pretty much all it ever amounts to. Talk. We never quite seem to get around to actually doing that, despite the money we’ve thrown and here in Atlanta, we had a nice little standardized test cheating scandal that was mostly contained to the areas where quality teachers were needed the most.

    There is no difference between the needs of a successful charter school or a public school. They both need an active and engaged parental community and educators who are there because they love their chosen vocation and aren’t there because jobs are scarce and the school district is paying better than what they can find in the job market. They need a school administrator who won’t be a tool of the local school board who operates more like a Wall Street CEO than an administrator of an institution of learning. They both need governing boards who aren’t granting contracts to their business cronies or making other questionable expenditures that have nothing to do with the betterment of their students and the community.

    I’m tired of every time my child moves to another level such as from elementary to middle school, I have to perform the “Southside Shuffle” and find a school where my child can actually have instructional time that dedicated to learning and not discipline. If a charter school comes along and can provide me with what is lacking in my area, I sure am going to take advantage of it, as I can no longer wait for a public school to improve and compromise my child’s education in the process.

    Granted, charters aren’t for every community, but for those hwo have been waiting for so long for those elusive improvements that never seem to appear, they allow an option and one that I and others in my community have no problem taking advantage of. For years, I risked arrest by sending my children to a school outside of my district until the backlash of minority students in affluent areas precipitated a crackdown and harsher penalties, even though it was all in the same county district in which I live. I don’t apologize for it one bit.

    Give me a public school that’s ready to do what it has failed to do and I’ll put my child in it. Until then, I want a choice and if most charters are doing as well as or for some, even better than charters, then perhaps it’s time for public schools to raise their game, start looking at what charters are doing right and implement instead.

  8. The argument is not against charter schools per se, its against the push to drop public schools altogether and only have charter and private schools for profit.

    If that occurred, you would see possibly 2 things happen. Millions of kids who do not fit the profit model uneducated and or a failing of charter schools exactly as people say public schools have is all kids are allowed to stay in the charter.

    I would be willing to bet that across the US, the failure of parenting is far more of an issue than the teachers or the public schools are.

  9. That’s the students that drive us crazy. “Is this going to be on the test? If it’s not, I don’t want to hear about it!” (and then they pull out their cell phone or computer and start playing games). They’re also often the ones who buy papers to submit… gets them nearly every time, but they still try (or they try to get students to take home the tests and sell them to them or to take notes and sell them – also cheating).

    They barely squeak by, and then get mad at us because we don’t give them A’s. Well, jackass… if you earned a D-, you GOT a D-.

    I really like the international students we get, because they’re serious about learning and easier to get along with as well. I rarely hear of “party animal” foreign students, but American rich kids… in fact, when I helped teach the field school, I learned that American students wealthy enough to study abroad had a horrible reputation for being out-of-control drunks – so bad that every school who had a study abroad program was paranoid about students dying from alcohol poisoning – and was told that there are at least one or two deaths a year from it (and many more hospitalizations).

    They ranted at the kids who came to our field school about drinking to excess, and it still got so bad that we almost had to send some of them packing.

  10. I used to work at a crappy charter school (*cough* SABIS *cough*). Colleges love to bring in minorities to help their minority enrollment rate…nothing wrong with that at all. But the charter only cares about “teaching for the test” to pump up its own graduation rate, and their students are woefully unprepared for the real world of study. What they also wont tell you is that while the graduation rate might be good, there are large numbers of graduates who then drop out of their college of choice during their freshman year because they simply can’t cut it. Just another hidden story of the bum job charters generally do. (Did I mention I worked at *cough* SABIS *cough*?)

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