Thursday, April 21, 2011

Is tide turning against charter schools in U.S.?

This article first appeared in the Alberta Teachers' Association News on March 22, 2011 here.

In 1994, then-minister of education Halvar Jonson pointed to the United States as an example for the Alberta charter school model; however, in the past decade, much has changed south of the border, and the tide is now turning against the charter school movement.

A national assessment by Stanford University (2009), covering more than 70 per cent of students attending charter schools in the U.S., found that students in U.S. charter schools are not faring as well as students in traditional public schools. “Our national pooled analysis reveals, on the whole, a slightly negative picture of average charter school performance nationwide. On average, charter school students can expect to see their academic growth be somewhat lower than their traditional public school peers.” It appears that U.S. ­policy-makers are now accountable for a charter school experiment that has seemingly exchanged increased choice and flexibility for a decline in ­student achievement.

Diane Ravitch is an education scholar and former assistant secretary of education in the first Bush administration’s department of education and board member of several national research groups that influenced government to improve schools through accountability and choice. According to Ravitch, charter schools have undermined the public education system and weakened American society. Once very influential in supporting the charter school movement, Ravitch is now critical of charter schools, identifying them as a faddish trend that undermines public education. In her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010), Ravitch states:

As originally imagined, charters were intended not to compete with public schools, but to support them. Charters were supposed to be research and development laboratories for discovering better ways of educating hard-to-educate children. … Now charters compete for the most successful students in the poorest communities, or they accept all applicants and push the low performers back into the public school system. … It matters not that the original proponents of charter schools had different goals. It does matter, though, that charter schools have become in many communities a force intended to disrupt the traditional notion of public schooling.

Yet despite its failure to ­deliver on its promise, the charter school movement in the United States continues to be making ­progress. Supported by corporate interests and championed by a broad range of politicians, charter schools are seen by many parents as a better alternative for their children than the chronically underfunded and neglected public school systems, particularly in impoverished urban areas.

Holding out charter schools as the solution is easier and more attractive than doing the job that really needs to be done—­rebuilding and supporting public ­education.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I'm with you until the end of your post and then I want you to dig a bit deeper as I have to wonder what you mean by "rebuilding and supporting public schools". The movement in the US that finds expression in being pro-charter school is not one movement but rather multiple entities that agree on only one aspect of schooling: they are dissatisfied with public schooling for avarice, educational, and/or personal reasons. What this force points to is the need to understand schooling and its discontents, to locally debate and reach consensus about what aspects of public schooling need to be rebuilt/redesigned/reimagined, while considering what political, cultural, and economic forces make such change unlikely. And then to act.

    Whereas many progressive educators support public schools given the rather combative climate; we also do a disservice to offer blind support. There are very broken aspects to public schooling in the US. I wish the conversation could be more proactive and less rah rah or mean. Both extremes keep us stuck.


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