Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Charter Schools: The Walmarts of Education

The American educational system is in a crisis. If one listens to the pundits and some of the politicians, he or she hears how American students are failing, teacher unions are keeping bad teachers in the classroom, and classrooms around the country are overcrowded and in schools that are dangerous. The solution some are proposing are privatizing our public schools and creating charter schools in their place. Many hear the term ‘charter school’ and think they know what they are and believe the rhetoric that these are the saviors of education. What is not said, though, is far more sinister and far less educational than the public realizes. Charter schools are businesses run using taxpayer dollars. Their business is to indoctrinate students into learning a set and many times rote set of skills that do not encourage much in the way of creativity or thought. It is education in a box. Another way to think of it is to see charter schools as the WalMarts of education—lower costs, cheaper output. There are many reasons why they are this way, but I will touch on only a few.

First, let us start by naming the primary corporations that run charter schools in the United States. Charter Schools USA and Academica are two of the largest players in the area. Other major charter school management companies are EdisonLearning, Mosaica, Achievement First, and Aspire Public Schools. It needs to be noted that these are companies who are accountable to an extent to school boards, but not to the same extent as public schools are held accountable. They are free to select students based on applications and even lotteries to determine which students may attend school at their managed operations. Public schools do not have the option, as they are required to accept any student zoned for their particular school. Essentially, charter schools are private schools using taxpayer dollars to run them, but can use that money with little say from the taxpayers on how they are run. Again, they are an educational business rather than a school.

The following is taken from a document produced by a group called The Philanthropy Roundtable entitled, “Investing in Charter Schools. A Guide For Donors.” It defines a charter school as the following:
·         is a public school funded with public money.
·         is tuition-free for all students.
·         is non-sectarian, non-religious, and may not discriminate in student admissions.
·         is chosen by families.
·         is semi-autonomous, operating under its own charter—hence the name—and thus exempt from many of the regulations and collective bargaining agreements under which traditional district schools operate.
·         is free to be a unique school designed to meet the needs of the students it intends to serve.
·         is required to meet the same graduation standards as other schools.
·         is responsible for improving student achievement and adhering to its charter contract, or face closure.
·         receives discounted funding (in most, but not all, states), thus making it partially reliant on philanthropic support.
·         can be a stand-alone school or part of a network of charter schools.
·         can be nonprofit or for-profit  (page 11).
Now, while most of this sounds good, note that charter schools are “exempt from many of the regulations and collective bargaining agreements under which traditional district schools operate.” That means that teachers and staff who work there are not allowed in many cases to negotiate their contracts, their working hours or conditions, or other benefits that traditional educators have. This would also include protections from termination without just cause. Therefore, if the administrator comes in and does not like a particular worker, then they can be fired on the spot with no recourse as would occur in the majority of the jobs, especially in states with “Right-to-Work” laws. It would also include situations where students may not be moving along at the pace required by the standards, which could be caused by the fact that children are individuals who learn at different rates and different styles or their socioeconomic conditions, where the teacher would be held at fault for the student not making learning gains and thus subject to disciplinary actions including dismissal.

This document goes on to call for a priority in “Priming the Human Capital Pipeline” in the form of encouraging more people to teach and lead their charter schools. The exact words they use are that donor are an important source in “supporting the development of a well-primed pipeline of talented human capital for charter schools and helping fund the development of innovative technologies that can decrease the dependence of the sector on finding ever more sources of talent” (21). In plainer English, it is up to those donors to bring people in from wherever they can find them to teach and lead students without relying on colleges and universities to educate their “talented human capital” (21). Teachers and administrators are no longer people, but “talented human capital” (21). Sounds like a business rather than a school, doesn’t it?

It does not stop there as they go on to call those who start up charter schools “education entrepreneurs” (24). Even some of the charter schools are praised for having created a “brand” (25) by which they are known. They make a comparison between industry and charter schools by stating that “consumers come to know a brand and what it signifies…Brands have proven very useful in the marketplace….Charter Management Organizations (CMOs” are the ‘brands’ of the charter sector, with quality control and cost efficiencies” (29). One further aspect they state in this document concerns the differences between these CMOs and their counterparts called EMOs or education management organizations. CMOs are non-profit while EMOs are for profit. One particularly damning piece of evidence states:
…it is important to note that many education reformers believe that EMOs hold real potential for revolutionizing public education. If investors in EMOs are able to deliver consistent student achievement and create a profitable investment vehicle, they will have discovered a highly attractive and sustainable model for charter schools specifically and public education generally. (30).
Did you catch what was said as well as what was not said in that statement? These people believe that education needs to be a business with investors and profits. The goal of the charter movement is to see public education be corporate operated and run. There is no mention of students learning aside from their wanting the delivery of “consistent student achievement”. Consistent does not mean improvement. It does not mean creativity. It means a steady keeping of the status quo. It means having the same results over time. If only 55 percent of the students pass on a consistent basis, then they succeed. Consistency not progress is the key for them.

So, just how do charter schools measure student success? One of the largest donors to the charter school movement is The Walton Family Foundation, founded by the family of Walmart founder Sam Walton. The director of the foundation’s K-12 education reform, Jim Blew, stated in this document that the foundation is very straightforward with our grantees that we expect them to dramatically increase student achievement, as measured by standardized tests in math and reading. We understand that there are other ways of measuring quality—attendance rates, graduation rates, etc.—and we want to hear about those, too. But, at the end of the day, we want to know that grantees are actually raising student achievement. (79)

Student achievement is not based on anything but how well students score on a standardized test. That is it. They are not deemed successful if they create something new. They are not deemed successful if they finally master something they worked on. They achieve if they can pass a test. World-class bubble fillers are the key to America’s success according to this supporter of charter schools. If a student can fill-in the correct answer, regardless of whether they actually understand why it is the correct answer, then they have learned. Learned what, you may ask. Well, how to fill in the correct answer because that is all that is needed to succeed in life. That is all that is needed to make America great again in the world. Well, at least really good at working in a Walmart where all that is needed is to follow the rules and do what management tells you to do.

Charter schools are not good for the education of our students. They are standardized test mills. As long as students can pass the test, they are okay. If the student cannot, well, they can currently be tossed back into the public schools. How long that will last is yet to be determined by policy makers and the donors to them. That is unless you who are reading this find the idea of having your child treated like an assembly line worker and their teacher treated like human capital as appalling as many other people do. If that is the case, it is time for you to take a stand as a parent or as a teacher against this movement to privatize our public educational system. Our children are not all the same; therefore, we cannot allow them to be taught or expected to learn the same way.

Here are some ways to combat this growing trend of charter schools and even reliance on high stakes standardized testing. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a small start.
1.      Get active in your local schools. Go to school board meetings. Volunteer in classrooms and/or the school office. It does not matter if you have kids there or not so long as you pass a criminal background check and care about the future of our country.
2.      Stay informed. Do not rely on the media outlets to tell you everything you hear about our public schools or even charter schools.
3.      Attend local public school events. Cheer on the sports teams. Cheer on the non-sports related groups and organizations as well.
4.      If you are a parent, find ways to opt out of standardized testing.
5.      Look into how the state tests are organized. Speak out if they only cover items that are rote memorization based. Multiple-choice tests do not measure thought, only if the right answers were memorized.
6.      If you are a parent, demand more essay tests or tests that allow your child to choose an answer and defend it with logical reasoning skills.
7.      Support your teachers. They work far more than what many believe they do. They do not have summers off as they spend that time planning as they do nights and weekends during the school year.
8.      Teachers, defend your rights to teach. Abide by your negotiated contract, but if need be, do no more than that if you are not being heard.
9.      Administrators, especially those of you who once taught in a classroom, go back into the classroom. Plan a period every day of the year to keep teaching. If you keep teaching, then you stay in touch with the changes that are happening on the front lines. And do not try to teach just the select students, branch out your roster to include all levels of student abilities.
10.  Political leaders, listen to the teachers who teach in your district. They are on the front lines every day. They are experienced professionals who know their job, their subjects and their students. Remember that standardized tests are snapshots rather than the big picture of what is happening in our schools.

If you would like to read the entire document referenced in this essay, please use the following address:


  1. Part 1 of 2:

    Based on my personal experience, this post is spot on. I have been teaching for ten years, nine in regular public high schools interrupted by one year in a grades 6-12 charter school.

    I am a chemistry and physics teacher. In Massachusetts, by the time most high school students get to those courses, they have already passed their state-mandated MCAS science tests. (Unlike most states, Massachusetts tests students in science as well as ELA and math. High school students must pass a science test as well as ELA and math in order to graduate.) This means I get to teach the empty shells that are left of our students after they have spent a decade in classes with content and teaching methods that are guided by those tests.

    I have taught in comprehensive ("regular") public high schools in low, average, and high socioeconomic status (SES) communities. Across all socioeconomic levels, I have seen a steady decline in high-level thinking skills as I teach students who have spent more and more of their educational years in curriculum guided by the high-stakes tests. This is not surprising, and this observation has been borne out by countless others' experiences. However, in the year I spent teaching in a "no excuses" charter school, I found that the students' high level thinking skills were far inferior to the students I taught in comprehensive public high schools, including my current school, which serves a population with lower socioeconomic status than the community served by the charter school.

    When I teach science, I teach through demonstration, discussion, and hands-on experiments and activities. I use discrepant events (situations in which there is a discrepancy between what students expect and what actually happens) as much as possible to initiate these discussions. My comprehensive public school students can be a little shy at first, but they quickly warm up to the activities and enjoy them. They learn to overcome their fear of being wrong or of not understanding something and they develop a love of learning for learning's sake. (This is what is meant by the edubabble term "lifelong learners".)

    In contrast, my charter school students never developed this. They would sit quietly and attentively, as they had been trained to do, and wait for the teacher to explain everything. When I asked them what they *thought* or *guessed* might be happening in a demonstration (as a jumping-off point for a discussion), they would just say "I don't know." and shut down. Most of them would never attempt homework problems that deviated even slightly from the sample problems I went over in class. They also never attempted problems that required high-level thinking skills, such as a problem that combined multiple topics that we had studied at different times during the year.

    The grading system in place at the school exacerbated the problem. We graded students on each benchmark or standard separately. Each test question had to be tied to a benchmark or standard. We couldn't use test questions that combined benchmarks, because if a student was unable to answer the question, we would not know which benchmark was the problem, or whether the student understood the benchmarks separately and simply couldn't combine the concepts. In other words, the culture at the charter school and the system we used to assess students essentially prevented me from being able to teach high-level thinking skills.

  2. Part 2 of 2:

    Most of the disagreements I had with the administrators of the school had to do with "time on task". The school's policy was that students should walk into a classroom and start working immediately. During every minute from bell to bell, the students were expected to be working or listening quietly and taking notes. If I spent a few minutes greeting the students, letting them settle in, and checking in with them, these were seen as time lost. I was criticized for losing three minutes at the beginning of class--because this would add up to an entire class period over the course of a month. Never mind the reality that students can only learn so much at a time before they need to take a mental break from it, work some practice problems at home, and check in. While one additional class period would have been useful, the students were not going to learn an extra class period worth of content in three extra minutes a day. My curriculum is separated into discrete segments, and it would not make sense and would have confused the students to move the boundaries just because I had a few extra minutes.

    The other "time on task" issue the administration had was with experiments and activities. I teach as much as possible using inquiry-based methods. Inquiry is messy. Students don't necessarily know what they're learning while they're discovering it, and there can be a lot of apparent "down time" while the students are processing what they have learned. This was seen by administrators as students being "off task".

    By the end of the year, the administrators and I agreed that the school was not a good fit for me. I had gone into the year with an open mind, and prepared to like the idea of charter schools. I tried everything I could to make the format and the school work for my students, but the reality was that every time I tried something that would be considered "good teaching" (in most academic circles), I was told "you can't do that here." Every time I tried to be open to students' challenges outside the classroom, probing to find the reasons behind problematic behaviors, I was told that I was being too lenient. (Evidently, I was supposed to just assign detentions, on the assumption that if the punishments cause the behavior to go away, the problem is solved.) Every day, I found myself having to choose between what my students needed and what the school demanded, and being unable to find any common ground.

    I really wanted to believe in charter schools. Unfortunately, teaching in one (and interviewing with two others, where I saw plenty of evidence of the same problems) has firmly convinced me that such belief is misplaced, and that students' real educational and emotional needs are much better served by our traditional comprehensive public schools than by the charter schools that are trying to replace them.