N.Y. Times misses the real lesson of charter schools

A recent lengthy New York Times article on charter schools, which are deregulated publicly funded schools of choice, came to the conclusion that the record of these schools was mixed, with some charters doing better than regular public schools, while others perform about the same or worse. That’s no surprise since even supporters acknowledge that there are good and bad charters. The real story that the Times overlooked is the ability of charter schools to use their freedom in order to transform themselves if they are not performing well.

In the Times article, reporter Trip Gabriel visited half a dozen high- and low-performing charter schools in Cleveland and New York and noted that while the schools share some superficial characteristics, such as student uniforms and hanging college banners on walls, there were huge differences in how the schools operated. At a high-achieving charter in Brooklyn, the teaching was crisp, demanding and focused on addressing student weaknesses. In contrast, the teaching at a low-performing Cleveland charter was lethargic and aimless. While this comparison is informative, it is also incomplete.

The Times should have looked at charters like Oakland Charter Academy (OCA) in tough inner-city Oakland, California. OCA exemplifies why the charter model holds so much promise. With a largely low-income Hispanic student population, OCA was a poor-performing middle school for years after it was first established in 1994. Recalling those days, Jorge Lopez, the current principal, listed a variety of causes for the school’s past failures.

Pointing to the school’s overemphasis of cultural studies, Lopez said, “They focused on learning about Mexico and Mexican history, and learning Spanish – for a group of Mexican immigrant kids who probably speak Spanish better than the teacher.” In addition, Lopez discovered that students were seated on the floor in “community” circles and spent nearly an hour a day simply talking about their problems.

OCA didn’t use any textbooks for 10 years. Because of the lack of textbooks the school had no structured English language arts program. Any English instruction was done during social studies. Yet, Lopez observed from reading the writing of students that they didn’t even know what a noun was. As bad as this school was, because it was a charter school, Lopez was able to turn it around quickly.

When he took over the school in 2004, Lopez quickly discovered that the school’s personnel were among the biggest reasons for the low achievement of students. He therefore fired everyone, from teachers to secretaries to janitors. “I’m not in this business to create jobs for people,” said Lopez, “I’m in it to run a good school because I believe in charter schools.” He noted that the best thing about being a charter school was the fact that the school wasn’t unionized and he could hire and fire at will.

“Everybody here can go at any time. It’s like a business to me. If [staff is] stealing from these kids, I’m going to fire them.”

In contrast, across California and many other states, it’s nearly impossible to fire incompetent and even lawbreaking teachers at regular public schools because of restrictive teacher union contracts. School districts must spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in due-process costs to get rid of just a single bad teacher, with no guarantee that the teacher will be removed. It’s no surprise then that many school districts simply decide to keep poor-performing teachers in the classroom. A Stanford University survey found that principals and superintendents ranked dismissing bad teachers as the most important change that could improve student achievement.

After he fired OCA’s low-performing staff, Lopez used Craigslist.com and “hired the smartest teachers I could lay my hands on.” He hired honor students from top universities and even hired math teachers from China. He also put in a tough curriculum and established a high-expectations ethos at the school. The result was a huge turnaround in performance.

From its stumbling first decade, OCA is now one of the top middle schools in Northern California. At a school where 100 percent of the students are classified as socio-economically disadvantaged, an astonishing 100 percent of eighth-grade students scored at or above the proficient level in algebra 1 on the most recent state math exam.

There are thousands of really bad public schools in America and the big question in education policy debates remains how to turn them around. Charter schools like Oakland Charter Academy, because of the freedom they have to make wholesale changes when people and programs fail to get the job done, are better positioned to improve than regular public schools that are hamstrung by government regulations and union rules. That’s the lesson that The New York Times still needs to learn.

Lance T. Izumi is Koret Senior Fellow and Senior Director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute and the co-author of the book “Free to Learn: Lessons from Model Charter Schools.”

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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