Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Week 21: Charter Schools

Distribution Source: iTunesU
Content Source: Stanford University
Format: Audio
Length: 1 hour, 14 minutes, 20 seconds

This Saturday, I was fortunate enough to share drinks with a group of friends including a young woman who teaches at a charter school. The simple description she gave of her job immediately caught my attention: "I teach underprivileged fifth graders in New York City, I expect all of my students to go to college, and I can be fired at any time if I am not helping them reach that goal." This was NOT what you'd expect to hear from most inner city elementary school teachers. My experience with charter schools prior to Saturday night had been peripheral at best - I know donating to charter schools is in vogue for hedge fund managers and investment bankers. And I know that a group of my fellow jurors vehemently opposed charter schools during a lunchtime discussion a few months ago. Anytime I see such passion on both ends of the spectrum of a debate, my kneejerk reaction is twofold: 1) I want to learn more and 2) the underlying reality probably lies somewhere in between those parameters.

First, what are charter schools and why should anyone care? The why to me is fairly obvious - I believe education represents the single best chance at human progress. As such, our educational system is worthy of intense scrutiny and discussion. For all practical purposes, primary and secondary education in the United States has historically been public - a monopoly. (Yes, of course private schools exist, but a cursory search suggests they make up only about 10% of total students in the US.) As a student of economics, I despise monopolies. They inhibit competition, provide end users with poor choices, and are terribly inefficient. By definition, monopolies are institutions with "sufficient control over a particular product or service to determine significantly the terms on which other individuals shall have access to it." Without getting too political, let's just say that the government is not the institution I'd like defining the terms on which our future minds have access to education. As for charter schools, they are publicly funded schools that are free from many of the onerous regulations on other public schools. In exchange for this freedom, they are expected to perform. The metrics by which performance is measured are outlined in a given school's charter, or mandate. In other words, while they have to meet all state curriculum requirements, charter schools often have an additional specialty or focus (e.g., music or languages). Private funds are often raised in conjunction with public funding (which for charter schools is identical to other public schools), giving charters more freedom to increase teacher pay or fund teaching tools.

Charter schools are intellectually interesting to me for two key, related reasons. The first is the many levels of accountability within most of these schools... accountability at the organizational level in the sense that the schools must live up to their specific charters... accountability at the teacher level in the sense that charter school teachers are not given guaranteed tenure after a few short years, and can be fired if they are objectively bad at what they do... and accountability at the student level in the sense that children are expected to complete their work, finish school and go to college. Because of this accountability at different levels, which some claim is "cruel" to teachers who they say should not have to worry about job safety, students may have marginally fewer uninspiring teachers and more inspiring teachers. I despise the fact that the "compassionate" political push for teacher job safety in many cases creates a system that has no mechanism for eliminating bad apples. And the losers are, uniformly, the children. The second and related part that I appreciate is the schools' intense focus on the kids. Everything revolves around the students. The schools exist because the current system doesn't work well. It is classic creative destruction, which I believe creates innovation and progress. I'm not saying there are no phenomenal teachers or administrators outside of charter schools. It also is not a blanket support for charter school personnel. My point is that if an organization is created with an intense, transparent and pervasive focus on the core issue - student education and success - that framework will over time foster better learning, better teaching and better management than the alternative.

The flipside is that research on charter schools has been mixed. For one, there are very different rules regarding charter schools depending on what state you're in. Furthermore, charter schools are not really bound together by a common thread, other than that they are all nominally charter schools. So there is nothing that ensures a charter school will be a GOOD charter school. According to Wikipedia, 12.5% of the roughly 5,000 charter schools in the United States have closed due to problems (financial, managerial, etc.). To me, this number seems way too low for a system that hopes to challenge the education monopoly. It seems that this is indicative of the still nascent movement - the hope that comes with opening a new school is powerful. But like everything new, it quickly becomes not new. And once something is not new but rather systemic, the associated inertia keeps it in place for longer than it should be (regardless of its initial intent).

Where does this leave us? The goal of the charter school movement is, of course, to promote its students and their education. But the broader goal is to show that by presenting an element of choice and competition to public schooling, a tipping point of sorts will be realized whereby the old, entrenched modus operandi becomes unacceptable. I love the idea, and I love many of the anecdotes the fifth grade teacher gave me about her school. She even invited me to speak to her class next year about finance and possible careers in business. Of course I readily accepted. The charter school movement has clearly gained significant traction in the United States. It is now entering a new phase in which it has to prove itself and justify its existence and its growth going forward. This can only happen over time and by measuring results and strict accountability for those results. Needless to say, I'll be tuned in to the action. For the record, I will be rooting for charter schools and for any other innovative system that attempts to breakdown bureaucracy and any other barriers to what is such a critical issue in a globalized world: giving young people the tools and the opportunity to succeed in life.


  1. One of the things I remember most clearly from my time tutoring at a charter school in Trenton: the school put up banners of different colleges and sort of showcased them to encourage students.. My student had some difficulty with fairly basic schoolwork, yet he knew that if he worked hard and stayed in school, he would be able to go to college. Because the school has that definite focus on excellence throughout the education process, many many parents in Trenton want to enroll their kids in the school..

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  3. Now that is where a great dinner party leads. If our youth needs better schools, our generation needs more dinner parties.

  4. "If our youth needs better schools, our generation needs more dinner parties." Amen.

  5. There is mutiny within as well outside the education establishment.