Monday, May 03, 2010

Chartered Flights Away From Accountability

The NY Times did an in-depth look at charter schools yesterday, and there were some interesting observations about the varying quality evinced in these experimental classrooms: "But for all their support and cultural cachet, the majority of the 5,000 or so charter schools nationwide appear to be no better, and in many cases worse, than local public schools when measured by achievement on standardized tests, according to experts citing years of research. Last year one of the most comprehensive studies, by researchers from Stanford University, found that fewer than one-fifth of charter schools nationally offered a better education than comparable local schools, almost half offered an equivalent education and more than a third, 37 percent, were “significantly worse.”

Gee, if you read the NY Post and NY Daily News, however, you kinda get the impression that charters are the road to educational salvation-but there's a good underlying reason for all of the hoo ha. You see, charters are the new pet rock for the swells: "In the world of education, it was the equivalent of the cool kids’ table in the cafeteria. Executives from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, McKinsey consultants and scholars from Stanford and Harvard mingled at an invitation-only meeting of the New Schools Venture Fund at a luxury hotel in Pasadena, Calif. Founded by investors who helped start Google and Amazon, this philanthropy seeks to raise the academic achievement of poor black and Hispanic students, largely through charter schools."

And we also find the Post's Rupert Murdoch as an advocate-but that couldn't possibly be coloring his paper's message, could it? As the Times points out: "In New York, Mr. Legend, the Grammy-winning soul singer, has used his visibility to debate political opponents of charter schools in the news media. “What these people are proving who are running excellent schools is that poor black and brown kids can be successful,” he said in an interview. “Until recently a lot of Americans didn’t even believe that was true, because they saw such persistent gaps in the education outcomes.”  Mr. Legend is on an advisory board of Harlem Village Academies, three small schools that held a glittery fund-raiser at Lincoln Center last week. Katie Couric told the crowd that she was a mentor to students on Saturday mornings. Hugh Jackman, the host, announced a $500,000 gift from Rupert Murdoch."

So there is a class-based bias in all of the charter promotion; but that by itself doesn't mean that creating choices for children is a bad thing. Still, greater oversight is not a bad thing either, since many charters fail to live up to the hype. But the real issue for us is that the charter movement-and all of its media cheerleaders-is being promoted in the same candy coated manner as was the Bloomberg effort to perpetuate mayoral control. It gets our skeptical hairs standing up since we have seen how trumped up the Bloomberg euphoria was-as Sol Stern's seminal critique of school testing in the City Journal dramatizes quite well (now finally posted on line).

We tend to agree with Diane Ravitch on the issue of charters-their merit lies in how much they offer us in understanding what innovations work, and they do more harm than good if they simply siphon off resources from the public schools. That being said, we need to have  an honest educational regime in place in NYC-one without hidden class-based agendas. Until we do, the entire discussion is nothing more than mystification and misdirection.