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The Great Fire Wall of China

As my regular readers know, I am writing from China these days, and have been doing so four years so far. Sometimes the blog becomes inaccessible to me, making it impossible to post regularly. In fact, starting in late September 2014, China began interfering with many Google-owned entities of which Blogspot is one. If the blog seems to go dark for a while, please know I will be back as soon as I can get in again. I am sometimes blocked for many weeks at a time. I hope to have a new post up soon if I can gain access. Thank you for your understanding and loyalty.

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Schools Gotta Meet the Needs First

The bus service in my town is not great. The director of the local transit company said that when the ridership increases, the company will improve the service (i.e. have buses run in both directions). However, the way it works is when the public perceives the bus is meeting their needs, they will ride.

The same is true of public education.

The latest issue (May 2008) of California Educator, published by the California Teachers Association, blames charter schools for many of public school's problems. I want to address some of the claims made in the article:

1. “(The) influx of charter schools is siphoning off what little (revenue) the state gives us.”

Our district even has to pay transportation costs to take children to privatized charter schools.

Actually, in my experience, charter schools increase the revenue of the public schools IF the public school in sponsoring the charter school. Students who leave the public school simply are not there. Usually they are homeschooling or they are going to a private school. Either way the revenue these students represent is not going to the public schools. In many districts, charter schools sponsored by a public school district must give 15 percent of the state revenue they receive to that sponsoring district.

There is a small school district in Northern California with about 125 students. The district sponsors a charter school with about 800 students and receives that 15 percent cut. The reason for the 15 percent is that the sponsoring district usually provides some services to the charter schools even if only payroll service. Normally the cost of the services is far less than the 15 percent extra revenue, resulting in a net gain for the sponsoring district.

2. “The bottom line of privatized education is money...It's not right to look at things in terms of profit and loss when you're dealing with human beings.”

This charge is untrue and unfair. Admittedly, there are some charter school operators motivated by money. Many, many charter schools are started and run by teachers who are fed up with the system and are willing to take significant pay cuts in order to have the opportunity to provide what they believe is a superior educational experience to students.

In fact, early in the charter school movement, studies generally found that charter school students attained greater academic achievement than comparable public school students. As time goes on, charter schools have been regressing toward the mean. Today the studies find mixed results similar to results in public schools. Just as there are strong public schools and weak ones, there are strong charter schools and weak ones.

3. “Charter schools pick and choose students, and tend to take the cream of the crop...”
The student body of many charter schools, such as the EXCEL chain in Arizona, consists of students who have either dropped out or been expelled. Additionally, parents of students with behavior issues often believe the problem is that the public school bores their children, so the children act out.

(Personally, I do not believe that boredom should ever be an acceptable excuse for misbehavior. Children can be bored and well-behaved. If the class material is so easy that it is boring, that child with the A has a far stronger case for claiming boredom than the child with the F and a string of referrals to the principal).

These parents frequently enroll their children in those charter schools which position themselves as somehow better than the public schools. This positioning may be signaled by words in the name of the school such as “accelerated” or “academy” or any number of such glorious terms. It is NOT true charter schools take the cream of the crop.

Even if the charge were true, it would be a silly complaint. Childhood only comes around once. Most kids have only one chance to get educated. Caring parents do not have the time or luxury of sacrificing their own child's education to society. If parents believe the public schools are not providing the education their child needs, for whatever reason, the parent has the duty if they are able, to put their child in a position to get the education that child needs.

One teacher was characterized as pointing to “excessive testing, unrealistic academic content standards, endless assessment and paperwork, 'teacher-proof' scripted instruction, state and federal money for hiring private consultants, and a high school exit exam that tests special education students” as being used as part of a “crusade to portray public schools as failing” and that the crusade has been largely successful. Supporters of public schools, not just crusaders against, have complained loudly about all those problems.

Most parents would rather have their child in a neighborhood school. Getting their children to a charter school can be quite a daily inconvenience. If the public schools want charter schools to go away, they must provide an obviously better service or the parents who are able will vote with their feet. It is backwards for the public school to claim that if the enrollment increases, then education will improve. Once parents perceive that the public school is providing the education their children need, they will enroll their children.

A teacher asks,
When public education fails, what will take its place? ...Will it be the free market system? And if so, will it work better than the privatization of health care? I don't think so.

I agree, but making charter schools the scapegoats is profoundly unhelpful. Getting rid the the scapegoat will not help either. The problems are deeper and more resistant than that.

Another article in the same publication asserts:
While public schools certainly face challenges, they are, in fact, far from failing. A new report from Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) says California's public school children have managed to hold steady or improve across subjects and grade levels, with graduation rates rising (emphasis original).

It reminds me of a school board meeting I attended a while back. The assistant superintendent presented data from a recent round of standardized testing and celebrated the improvement in test scores as proof that our local district was a high performing district. But examining the data as displayed on the screen, I was perplexed how a 3 percent improvement in “proficient” from 25 percent to 28 percent could be construed as good news. Holding steady at low levels is not a cause for celebration and certainly is not “far from failing.” The adults need to raise the bar higher for themselves.

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