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Charter school news - Elizabeth Unexplained
Lots of data but no answers
Charter school news
I would have posted about this last week, but life happens. At least I think it was last week that the news item appeared in the local media about the new charter schools that were approved.

As it turns out, the charter school I’m interested in sending my kids to was not among them. I am a bit bummed, but this was their first time applying, and it sounds like they’re going to try again next year, so there’s still a decent chance that it will happen before the 2013-2014 school year.

Of course, none of the major news media actually listed which schools were approved, I had to ask Google about that and click through a couple of places. Most of the stories focused on the differences between supporters of charter schools and opponents of charter schools.

I get irritated every time I hear from the opponents of charter schools. Actually, as far as I can tell, the most vocal opponents of charter schools seem to be the teacher’s unions. That’s hardly surprising since most charter schools are non-union. My bias tends to be that while the teachers union claims to have the interests of students at heart, what they are really supporting is their membership: unionized teachers.

The primary reason I want to send my kids to the charter school I’m interested in is that no traditional public school is going to offer them instruction in Mandarin. I’m going to a moderate amount of trouble to make sure my kids learn Chinese, a school that actually helped with that goal would be a real bonus. I also think that overall they’d get a better education at a charter school, in part because the teachers aren’t unionized.

You might wonder what I have against unionized teachers. What I have against unionized teachers is a very good memory of my own childhood. There was my terrible first grade teacher who had no control over the classroom and rather unrealistic expectations of the behavior and abilities of six and seven year olds. There was the absolutely abominable fourth grade teacher who wasted the entire year running his mouth on irrelevant tangents; I once went off to my in-school viola lesson when he was going over problem 5 of the math homework and returned an hour later and he still hadn’t moved on to problem 6 and was speaking about something totally unrelated to math. There were the team teaching fifth grade teachers who aired their political opinions in class, peppered with gross inaccuracies about the world. Junior high school was just too terrible to go into any detail, bad teachers, an inept administration too lazy to do a damn thing about an actually dangerous situation, and an orchestra teacher who had absolutely no business trying to run a classroom. High school was better only because the honors classes got all the best teachers, but the classes that weren’t on separate tracks had severe issues. There was the French teacher who routinely didn’t teach, and on her best days spent less than half the period teaching. She wasn’t the only one either, just the most egregious. I remember I wrote the essay for my application to MIT during an orchestra period where the orchestra teacher didn’t feel like teaching, so she didn’t. To say that accountability was lacking would be a gross understatement. I can’t help but think that if the teachers and administrators weren’t all unionized that perhaps some of the worst offenders could have be fired; at least I knew that as things stood teachers were only let go when there were budget cuts, and that was done solely on the basis of seniority. I don’t want my kids to have to suffer through wasted years or class periods where they fear for their physical safety because their teacher has zero control of the class. I want my kids to have teachers who are held accountable for their performance, and to me that means they have to be non-union.

Another thing that you’ll hear opponents of charter schools say is that charter schools bankrupt the district schools. All I can say to that is: working as intended. When a child goes to a charter school instead of a district school, their share of money goes with them. I am considering sending my kids to a charter school that plans to locate in downtown Boston and have a 8am to 4pm school day. The logistics of this would mean that if I do this I am going to have to get up at 6am, get everyone ready for the day, and probably be out the door by 7:15 in order to drive my child to school, then get myself to work. Then I or someone else is going to have to pick them up at 4pm. There’s a local elementary school a block and a half down the street we live on. I am not planning of braving morning rush hour in Boston daily on a whim. If I go with the charter school it’ll be because they are worth the hassle, and if they are worth the hassle it’ll be because they are doing a whole lot better with the same amount of money per student than the district school. It may be that the old style schools will all have to close and go away, and to my mind that might not be a bad thing because I don’t exactly have fond memories of the local school district of my childhood.

One argument that a friend used on me against charter schools was that if all the parents who cared about their kids moved to charter schools then kids whose parents didn’t care about them would be left in the even-worse-off public schools. I agree that such a situation would be unfortunate for the kids whose parents don’t care about them. On the other hand, I think if you’re a kid whose parents don’t care about you you’re pretty much screwed anyway, and telling me that I can’t be given the tools to have a more of a say in my kids education because not everyone is a good parent is really, deeply unsatisfactory. Isn’t it generally a good idea to reward positive behavior? The reward that parents want for being good advocates for their kids is better schooling for their kids, not to just be told ‘it’s good that you take such an interest in your child’s education’. Usually if you reward good behavior appropriately, good behavior increases. Also, I’d like to think that most of the parents out there really care about their kids, and if there were more school choice available then the failing public schools wouldn’t be viable anymore and the kids with bad parents would get moved to better schools anyway.

I am interested in what other people think, especially if you disagree with me and are willing to say why you disagree. So many times when my friends disagree with me they remain silent, or approach the subject obliquely and I find that frustrating.
20 comments or Leave a comment
sorceror From: sorceror Date: February 24th, 2011 12:24 am (UTC) (Link)

Hmmm. From the context here, I assumed that a 'charter' school must basically be a private school, but from the Wikipedia article that isn't a good equivalent, exactly. And they only started in 1991?
greyautumnrain From: greyautumnrain Date: February 24th, 2011 01:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
A charter school is basically a public school that functions like a private school, but obviously with non-discrimination rules.
sorceror From: sorceror Date: February 24th, 2011 04:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
And here, non-discrimination means that they choose their students by lottery, rather than by entrance exams or auditions or something?
astra_nomer From: astra_nomer Date: February 24th, 2011 03:01 am (UTC) (Link)
There are public schools in Maryland that teach Chinese:
But that doesn't help you, I guess. :)
greyautumnrain From: greyautumnrain Date: February 24th, 2011 01:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
There's also a charter school in Massachusetts that does Chinese immersion already, but they're out by Springfield, and a two hour commute each way isn't really doable for kindergarten.
psychohist From: psychohist Date: February 24th, 2011 04:03 am (UTC) (Link)
With respect to unions, I would note that unions don't always have the interests of their entire membership at heart; sometimes the interests of union leaders diverge from those of members, and sometimes they favor some groups of members over others. Some Teachers' unions that operate based on strict seniority, for example, are actually disliked by members who would prefer that performance be taken into account. Of course, that's an example that supports your underlying point that teachers' unions tend to decrease the effectiveness of schooling.

I also agree that parents shouldn't be prevented from being good parents just because bad parents exist. I agree more strongly with the idea that most, if not all, parents would be good parents if they could. Indeed, one of the primary justifications for charter schools is to make the equivalent of higher quality private schooling available to people who want to get their kids the best possible education, but don't have the money for private school. Indeed, this is likely why black politicians, like Obama and Patrick, tend to favor charter schools.
greyautumnrain From: greyautumnrain Date: February 24th, 2011 02:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
On the unions thing, I was simplifying for the sake of brevity. My mom had to pay union dues when she worked at the airport as a condition of employment, and the union quite evidently didn't have her best interests at heart. "Why I think unions are evil" is a whole post of it's own.
From: (Anonymous) Date: February 24th, 2011 02:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
The public school system has had good times and bad times and right now for many school districts it is a bad time. There have been changes over the years, some good (more support for learning disabilities etc) some bad (it is harder to discipline students). I would be interested in a charter school if I felt it was in the best interest for my child and the traditional public school was not. But I see that as my role as a parent (well at this point a potential parent, still working on it) to find the best for my child and if it is a charter school then great.

I would not automatically assume that a charter school is better but I would do my research as it appears you have done for yourself. I also would not assume that a public school is better.

Just because something was done a certain way for a long period of time doesn't mean that it is still the right way to do things. There are advancements and societal changes which means that sometimes it is best to change. Right now I think that a lot of schools systems are Ford Pintos, they can get you where you need to go but there are some questions and concerns. Some Pintos were fine, some where not, but why not look for an alternative with a better reputation if you can?

And as a side note, I also feel that most unions have outlived their usefulness as economic and legal realities have changed through the decades. And unions for jobs that are essentially desk jobs seems down right silly, where is the inherent danger working in the city or town clerk's office that would necessitate a need for "protections" from unsafe working conditions? But that is probably a debate for another post.
greyautumnrain From: greyautumnrain Date: February 25th, 2011 02:57 am (UTC) (Link)
It's true, not all charter schools are good, and not all traditional schools are bad. A parent need to do their homework, but as you so rightly point out, that's in the unwritten job description.

Just to complicate matters, good student test scores don't necessarily mean that good teaching is happening in the schools. If most of the parents in a district are college professors or professionals the fact that their kids do well in school doesn't mean that they have great teachers. It's a complex situation, to be sure.
firstfrost From: firstfrost Date: February 24th, 2011 08:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't like judging unions as a whole based on single teachers. When I was in public school, I had generally quite good teachers, with a couple of junky exceptions - that was California early and Virginia late. I think all my junky exceptions were in Virginia, which is traditionally quoted as one of the non-union states, but I also had a lot more teachers there than California. But anyway, that's anecdata, not trends.

Pro-union forces wave the "the least unionized states have the lowest scores" stat a lot, but I think that's much more about income than unions. There's been some (not a lot) studies trying to correlate union numbers with actual teaching metrics; there's a Harvard Educational Review article from ten years ago that tries hard to separate out all the other factors and finds a small positive correlation between unionization and SAT/ACT scores.
kirisutogomen From: kirisutogomen Date: February 24th, 2011 09:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
Attempts to identify an empirical causal relationship between unions and teaching outcomes are interesting, but difficult. Without the paper in front of me it's hard to say how well they did at it.

I do know, though, that I pay less attention to empirical studies that don't offer an even vaguely plausible mechanism for the causal relationship. Pure theory unbuttressed by evidence is not too convincing, but statistics without at least rudimentary theoretical underpinning aren't persuasive either. I'd be curious to know how unions could improve educational outcomes.
firstfrost From: firstfrost Date: February 24th, 2011 09:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'll send you the PDF if you like.

I'd be curious to know how unions could improve educational outcomes.

Unions pushing for smaller class sizes, or higher salaries recruiting better teachers, are two possible causes that they mention, but then they say "but then we tried to correlate with that and that didn't seem to be it, so it must be something else, like these other things that are harder to control for, like increased professionalism."
greyautumnrain From: greyautumnrain Date: February 25th, 2011 03:06 am (UTC) (Link)
I admit, I dislike unions. It's not based on a single teacher, though, but the entirety of my experience with unions. That's a whole 'nother post. The fact that the teachers unions in this state routinely rail against charter schools is one of the things that tends to make me anti-teachers-unions.

I'm curious about your experiences with good verses junky teachers. By junky do you mean 'not very inspiring or good at teaching' or do you mean 'routine didn't even bother trying'. It's the latter that I think is a union-related problem. If a teacher doesn't show up in the class room until 15 minutes after the period starts, that says that there's a problem beyond teaching ability.
izmirian From: izmirian Date: February 25th, 2011 03:19 am (UTC) (Link)
I have to admit that although I'm pretty liberal on a lot of topics I'm not very enamored of unions. Some of that is from personal experience, though not with teachers.
countertorque From: countertorque Date: February 28th, 2011 05:27 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm afraid of charter schools because it sounds like the people who care are going to bail on an institution that we should all be working harder to fix. I think the counter argument is that if we create a market where everyone is choosing to bail, then the crappy schools will cease to exist. Maybe that's true, but I'm still afraid of it. I might simply be afraid of change.

We're going to send our kids to a private school because we want them to have bilingual Mandarin and English. It sure would be nice if we could take our tax money with us.
psychohist From: psychohist Date: February 28th, 2011 07:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think the right way to look at charter schools is as a method of fixing the problem. You may view it as an out of the box solution, but that kind of solution may be what it takes. I will note that early indications are mixed.

Personally I'd like vouchers applicable to private schools even better, but isn't that just a more extreme form of bailing to good schools rather than fixing the default schools?
countertorque From: countertorque Date: March 1st, 2011 05:42 am (UTC) (Link)
I believe that the root cause of the problem is that there's no way to reward good teachers or punish bad ones. But, I am slowly coming around to the idea that charter schools may be a way to fix the problem. If we can't control the management of the teachers, but we can deny them customers, then they will be forced to change on their own.

Yes, my comment about taking my tax money with me was a separate thought. That wasn't me trying to fix the system, just me lamenting the costs of the course we've chosen.
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 2nd, 2011 02:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
But didn't charter schools really start to come on and be a presence because many people tried to fix the system for years and rather than getting better it is getting worse?

I certainly believe so, I believe that many people have tried to fix the system from within but there are so many structural problems in the system that it calls for greater action. I don't believe that we can prop it up and add re-enforcements, but it is time to rebuild elsewhere.

Change is scary but what we have is kind of scary as well. It really is up to each parent to advocate for their child, and if that means a charter school fine, if it means private or public that is fine as well.
enugent From: enugent Date: March 4th, 2011 08:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
You might be interested in this article about teachers in a Chicago charter school trying to form a union.
psychohist From: psychohist Date: March 11th, 2011 03:12 am (UTC) (Link)
I don't know if anyone is checking this post any more, but obviously teachers' unions are involved in the well publicized situation in Wisconsin. Most of the coverage has been pro-union, but here's a rebuttal from the Governor who wants to restrict the unions somewhat.

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