Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Few Thoughts on Charter Schools

I recently read a few articles that mentioned mismanaged charter schools, one that I recall specifically being one in Florida based on Scientology "study tech" which did worse on the FCAT than a school for students at risk for dropout, and reading the subsequent comments it seems the failure of these charter schools is inevitably used as an argument against privatization1. It seems as inevitable as every warm day being used as proof of global warming2, that every failure of a charter school is seen as proof of the foolishness of privatization. Of course, being as strongly in favor of eliminating all public education as I am3 -- along with all other aspects of government beyond protecting life, liberty and property4 -- I feel I must rebut these arguments, although in the process I must also show why (1) charter schools are not the same as true privatization, (2) such "privatization" schemes as vouchers and charter schools, or the nominal privatization of social security5, can create new problems and (3) that true privatization would be quite beneficial.

I suppose first, to be completely accurate, I must point out the factual problems with both sides of the privatization argument. The conservative love affair with charter schools, as well as the school board fascination with them, came about because a number of charter schools took funding far inferior to that given to ordinary public schools and produced miraculous results. In many cases, working with the normal cross section of local students and relatively meager funding, they produced results comparable to private schools with more selective admission standards6. There are many ways in which this was accomplished, and even the experts do not agree what allowed the success stories to take place -- flexible content, giving teachers more freedom, parental involvement, reduced union involvement, reduced school board interference, smaller classes, and so on -- nor does it matter for our purposes. What matters is that there were numerous very successful charter schools, and many continue to be successful. And so it is nonsensical to argue "privatization" fails in education, at least on the grounds of some bad charter schools, as a number of others continue to succeed.

But that leads to the other side of the argument, that being that it is equally foolish to argue that charter schools are uniformly successful, or that privatization is a panacea. As we have seen from the articles I read, and the arguments against privatization based on them, privatization/charter schools can lead to disastrous results as easily as wonderful ones. Once the state has thrown open the faucet of government funds, it seems almost inevitable that many will seek to drink from it who have nothing to offer, who can provide nothing but empty promises or fraudulent schemes. And so, just as I argued in the case of vouchers7, simply funding any and all comers is a recipe for disaster. Even establishing some sort of loose guidelines, as was the case with most charter school programs, it is simply impossible to create a program in such a way that it reliably excludes all potential frauds,  as well as incompetent or ineffective schools.

So, why do charter schools succeed, when they succeed? And why do they fail when they fail? And why do I argue that neither outcome tells us much about privatization? Or, to put it in more practical terms, why do I argue that charter schools cannot show us a true path to public education reform? In short, why can we have success in some charter schools, yet find it impossible to replicate those results system-wide?

Actually, two of those questions can be answered at once, as they relate to one another. The reason that charter schools sometimes -- perhaps in the majority of cases -- succeed, is explained by the same mechanism that tells us why it can never become a universal solution. Charter schools enjoy, in a massively bureaucratic and standardized system, the status of being an exception. It is the same reason that "magnet schools" in many school systems enjoy similar success, or why a few traditionally rigorous and prestigious schools in certain districts continue to thrive8. In both cases, charter or magnet schools, because the schools were considered experiments, exceptions, they were allowed to deviate from the rigid formula forced upon the rest of the public school system.

In some cases, this included the ability to select the best and brightest students, which clearly gave such programs an edge. In others, entry was open to any who sought it, but such a system still self-selects for more ambitious students, or more involved parents with higher aspirations for their children. But even when enrollment was not so biased toward those with various academic advantages, where students were assigned by lottery, or based upon their residence, there was still a tendency for many of the charter schools to better their more mundane public school peers in student performance. And that is attributable -- as are, ironically, the somewhat less numerous charter school failures -- to nothing but their status as an exception.

To begin, let us look at one fact, which is rarely stated, and runs contrary to almost all of the assumptions behind public school curriculum. That is the simple fact that education is not a precise, formulaic process. It cannot be carried out by rote while following a rigid schedule of reading from a fixed script. Were that the case, anyone could become an excellent teacher by simply finding a script written by an expert, and schools could hire anyone to teach once they found that successful script for each subject. Similarly, were education a mechanistic, deterministic process, then, excepting the variations due to the quality of students, every class which followed the same lesson plan would produce the same outcomes. In short, education would be a predictable process producing easily predetermined results9.

Unfortunately, such a belief in deterministic education lies at the heart of public education.

That is not so say that anyone in the system truly believes it. The administrators, school board, principals, curriculum experts, teachers, no one really thinks that a predetermined script, rigidly followed by each teacher, will produce identical results. (Or, perhaps, to be more accurate, I should say very few truly believe it, as I am sure there are a few true believers out there.) But as I have said before, schools are run on bureaucratic rules10, and for a bureaucrat the primary consideration, in all things, is to avoid anything which might produce negative attention11. The moment one group gets something another does not, there is groups for complaint, for protests, for lawsuits, and that is the greatest fear of most low and mid level bureaucrats. And thus, above all else, the schools must ensure that education is uniform, that across whatever tier they control12, all students receive as uniform an experience as possible.

We can see this most notably in those areas where the schools actually allow for some nominal variation. For example, in classes for the gifted, or advanced placement, or whatever other special "accelerated" classes exist. In a few cases, especially when such programs are new, or limited to a very small pool of students, they tend to work the same way charter schools do, they accept the best students, attract the teachers most inclined to innovation, and follow flexible lesson plans, and thus produce generally better results.

Until, that is, they become successful. At which time, they become more widespread, draw in more students, require more teachers, and, being a larger part of the school system, they are absorbed by the desire to standardize. Part, of course, is the general desire to produce generic, predictable education, the same impulse that produces excessive regularity through all the school programs, but here there is another influence at work. Once these programs begin to produce exceptional results, the impulse is to use them as a template, to use them to show other teachers how to get the same results, and thus, rather than allowing other programs the flexibility that actually produced those results, school boards tend to take a snapshot of the curriculum at one point in time, and enshrine it forever as the formula for success, passing it along to less innovative, less inspired (and less inspiring) teachers, and produce a cookie cutter version of what they think "gifted" classes should be. The result, inevitably, is to produce results no better than the standard, standardized curriculum13.

And that is one of the potential ways in which charter schools could be absorbed, and made worthless, were they to be implemented on a widescale basis. However, there is another, far more likely fate awaiting a broader use of charter schools, and, sadly, it follows the same pattern I predicted for general use of vouchers in my essays "Why Vouchers are not the Answer", and "You Don't Drown in a Glass of Water - Vouchers Revisited".

Were the school board truly to decentralize, to allow each school to follow its own course, or allow each district to create its own school program, it might seem, at first, an outcome which I would support. After all, I constantly talk of the benefits of distributed authority, of federalism, of keeping power as local as possible14, so why wouldn't there be considerable benefits to establishing what amounts to charter schools in each subregion, or even each school? Would that not end the many harms I attribute to excessive standardization?

At first, perhaps there would be some small benefit. Admittedly, ending the lock step regularity of lessons many districts impose would allow for teachers to tailor classes to their students, and may allow for some improvements. On the other hand, given that many teachers have accepted a regime which denied them any opportunity to innovate, it is questionable how much novelty many of the existing teachers would bring. (Not to mention the possibility of variations between schools being seen as a basis for suits or at least political complaints, pushing schools toward reestablishing a more standard regime.) But, assuming that the schools manage to avoid the pressures to return to rigid conformity and the teachers rise to the challenge of creating a unique school program, I agree there is a potential for improvement.

However, the problem still remains that schools are, within their region, effective monopolies, supported without reference to outcomes, with no competitors, and so, even worse than with vouchers, there exists the very real potential for terrible outcomes, mostly due to a lack of accountability.

The main problem here is that there are few ways to measure the outcomes of education. Testing works to measure some specific results (whether students know specific information, can perform specific tasks), but tests do have the downside that, when given too much emphasis, they tend to encourage "teaching to the test". That is, teachers tend to drill on those things that will help pass tests, while ignoring not only any facts not on the test, but also many higher reasoning abilities, which tests have a hard time identifying. Thus, many schools which test well still have students who perform poorly in higher education, or in real world situations, as they are skilled at producing specific facts, or applying a set of specific algorithms, but often do not know why to apply them, or when, much less comprehending why those algorithms work and so on.

And, of course, if school districts are serious about implementing charter schools, or allowing some other form of autonomy, then such testing is likely to raise serious objections, not the least being, quite rightly, that extensive standardized tests are, in effect, a means of covertly imposing a specific curriculum, as the list of facts tested will determine at least some part of the subject matter, and thus, the more comprehensive the tests, the less room there is for variation in subject matter taught. And so, any effort to evaluate through testing is likely to run into objections from those who seriously support variable content and method, or, on the other hand, will put a damper on innovation, and thus eliminate some part of the benefits that variation is supposed to bring.

Other methods of evaluation suffer from even worse problems. For example, the use of grade distribution suffers from one serious drawback, that the assignment of grades is in the hands of those being evaluated, which presents them with a quandary. Do they engage in "grade inflation" to make their work appear successful? Or grade honestly and appear to be doing worse than those who do choose to inflate? Not to mention that the schools themselves may produce differing results simply due to the rigor with which they evaluate their students. For example, a "B" from MIT is often taken to imply a greater understanding than an A from a community college. (Whether or not that impression is fair.) Similarly, schools which choose to challenge students may produce overall lower grades than those which do not. And thus, using grades to evaluate schools is a foolish venture.

An alternative to using grades sometimes proposed is to use statistics from the students' subsequent careers, such as admissions to colleges, or their performance at college. But these too present many issues. First, and most notably, they are terribly lagging indicators, especially if we use multiple years of grades. By the time we have evaluated the students, they have been out of the schools being evaluated, at least one year, often as many as four. Even if the school being evaluated has only 3 years, that would mean the performance of 10th grade is being evaluated three to six years after its students have left, by which time both teacher and curriculum have often changed one or more times. Not to mention that it is difficult to tell how much praise or blame one should assign to any specific grade, class or teacher. After all, each student likely had multiple teachers during his stay in school, yet there is but a single outcome, making it hard to determine which teacher played which part in producing the specific outcome15.

But even if we allow for this shortcoming, there are problems using, for example, admissions. The first of these being how to judge what is a success. For example, if none of the students apply for admissions, what does that mean? How does that compare to a class where all applied to ivy league schools but only half were accepted? And what do we do when one school has students who applied to only one or two schools and failed to be admitted, while at another the students regularly applied to many schools and were thus admitted in greater numbers? And how to judge the relative merit of the admissions? If one school has half as many students admitted to college, but at schools generally considered more competitive, how do those compare? And what of cases where students do not apply upon graduation, but who are admitted to colleges later, after a semester or a year outside of school? As you can see, college admission figured may make for good material in a school brochure, may even given a general impression of a school's performance, but they provide a very poor means for comparing schools, much less determining which are succeeding and which are failing.

The same is true of college performance. (Or, for lower schools, performance in high school.) Not only does it present the same problems as admissions, such as how to count those who do not enroll, or delay enrollment, it also combines the problems mentioned above with using grades as a measure. After all, universities are not uniform, any more than secondary or elementary schools, and thus an A at one is not the same as an A at another. And if even comparing the same grades is problematic, how much more so comparing different grades. How does an A at Rutgers compare to a B at Cornell? And when we mix in the many different majors, and the wide variety of courses, the question becomes almost meaningless. Is a student with a C in Intermediate Geology at one university doing better or worse than another with a B in Romantic Poetry at another?

I mention all of this, and make such a big deal about it, because one of the most significant problems in moving from a centralized, uniform system of education to one with variation from school to school, is that there is a need to determine which of those variations is working. In a free market, this is not a problem. Schools are paid based upon the satisfaction of those buying their services, and those which succeed earn money, those which fail don't and must close.

Public education undermines this model. The success or failure of a program is determined by the school board, whose performance is evaluated by voters during periodic elections. Obviously, it does not allow for as fine tuned control as the free market, as one school board sets the agenda for an entire district, but since education is uniform across that district, it still provides some sort of evaluation and control.

However, if each school is free to do whatever it wants, then the school board is in a bit of a bad situation16. They are still the public face of the schools, the only means for parents to change the content of their children's education. And yet, without a way to measure the success or failure of each school, the board cannot tell what is or is not working, and may be taken to task for failures they never knew existed. After all, freedom in school, as with all freedom, means not just the freedom to make good innovations, it also is the freedom to make mistakes. The problem being that the school board may be blamed for mistakes which result from the mistaken beliefs, poor implementation, or even incompetence, of local schools.

Actually, let me make this even more plain, as the problem here is simple. The difference between private schools and a district full of charter schools is the difference between wage earners and teenagers with their parents' credit cards. Private schools and charter schools are both free, but private schools are also responsible to parents, while, under universal charter schools, charter schools would be accountable to no one. Thus, where private schools would need to listen to parent input, deciding in each case if they should accept a given criticism, or if the point is important enough to other parents to sacrifice the tuition of that one student, charter schools will be paid regardless, and can pursue whatever ideas, novelties, madness, whatever, they choose, as they are doing it on someone else's dime, and that dime will get replenished no matter what they do.

Which is why, in the end, I doubt we will ever see a universal movement to charter schools, or, if we do, it will be a token movement, akin to many in-name-only deregulations, with charter schools being covertly regulated as much as the rest of the school district. And I honestly can't see any alternatives. Just as I worry vouchers will mean little more than turning voucher schools into a new tier of public education, universal charter schools, without some strong regulation, would be little more than chaos, a sink for government money funding whatever idea strikes the fancy of a local administrator. And, in the end, such an outcome could not last long, as it would be the death knell of the politicians responsible. And so, over time, charter schools would either vanish, or be drawn back into the regulated fold. Either way, I doubt we will ever see public education moving far from its present, regulated and rather rigid state.


1. The S&L crisis was similarly misused. See "How to Blame the Free Market", "Government Quackery", "Perverting Self Interest" and "Greed Versus Evil".

2. See "Global Warming Watch, Again", "Global Warming Watch" and "Odds and Ends".

3. See "Never Ascribe To Evil, A Discussion of Education", "Why Vouchers are not the Answer", "You Don't Drown in a Glass of Water - Vouchers Revisited", "Reforming Education", "Non-Governmental Communal Solutions", "The Dishonesty of Transportation Spending" and "The Glory of Eisenhower?".

4. See "My Vision of Government", "My Vision of Government Part II", "The Case for Small Government", "Minimal Reforms", "The Political Spectrum", "Deceptive Spectra", "A True Conservative Platform", "The War of All Against All" and "Collective Ventures Versus Government".

5. See "Social Security is Not Insurance", "Selling Yourself Cheap", "Minimal Reforms" and "Not Quite True".

6. No quite equal, perhaps, but still far superior to the performance of public schools teaching the same selection of students. Of course, when we think about the money given to many public schools, many private schools do much the same, since their tuition -- though appearing to be higher than public schools -- actually produces per student funding less than many public schools. (When I attended private school in the 1980s, Montgomery County Maryland paid twice as much per student as my full tuition payment. Granted, that was the highest funding in Maryland, but there was not one county spending less per student than my tuition, and the majority spent a good deal more, most 150% or so of my full tuition payment. How much made it to the students, and how much was eaten up in administration, salaries, overhead and so on is a good question, but the point remains that Maryland could have saved money by sending every student to an "expensive" private school.)

7. See "Why Vouchers are not the Answer".

8. In Baltimore City, Poly and City both enjoy, or at least did at one time (I am not current with my knowledge of city schools any longer) a reputation for higher academic standards and consequently better student performance. I have heard similar stories in various cities and counties. In some cases they were schools in affluent areas -- where many attributed success (often wrongly) to better funding and more involved families -- but in many other cases, they were in regions every bit as destitute and disfunctional as those supporting far inferior schools.

9. The government still has a nostalgia for late 19th century positivist thought. The same philosophy which had experts measuring every movement made by assembly line workers, hoping they could create a mechanistic and repeatable formula to optimize production. I saw this myself when working for a company seeking CMM certification to help obtaining government contracts. The CMM assumes, quite wrongly, that creative programming work can be made formulaic in the same way an assembly line can, and as a result, it so heavily bureaucratizes the process that only top-heavy, overpaid government contractors can truly implement it. But that is a topic for another essay.

10. See "Reforming Education", "Never Ascribe To Evil, A Discussion of Education", "Why Vouchers are not the Answer", "You Don't Drown in a Glass of Water - Vouchers Revisited". , "Collective Action and Government", "Some Thoughts on 'Summerhill'", "Asking the Wrong Question", "In Defense of Zero Tolerance, or, An Examination of Law, Common Sense and Consistency", "'...Then Who Would Do it?'", "De Gustibus Non Disputandum Est", "Big Government, Arrogance and Part-Time Psychopathy" and "Best Practices and Resistance to Change, Bureaucracy and the Free Market".

11. See "The Inevitability of Bureaucratic Management in Government Enterprises", "Organizations as Filters", "Bureaucracy and Arbitrary Power", "Grow or Die, The Inevitable Expansion of Everything", "Fear Driven Enterprises", "Adaptability and Government", "Best Practices and Resistance to Change, Bureaucracy and the Free Market", "Bureaucratic Management and Self-Policing", "Killing the Railroads", "Bureaucratic Management", "The Bureaucratic Mind", "Bureaucracy Revisited" and "The Wrong Solution to Bureaucracy".

12. In general this means that a given county or incorporated city will have a uniform curriculum. State schools boards try to enforce state uniformity as well, but counties seem to have enough independence in most states to resist state domination, meaning there is state-wide uniformity only in a few select areas the state considers most important. Likewise, federal education programs have even less power, and thus federal uniformity is mostly expressed in uniform testing, though that does tend to produce some nation-wide uniformity in terms of preparation for those tests.

13. Back during my very brief time in public high school (I also attended a public kindergarten), we joked the difference between AP History and standard History was that you had to type your papers, and AP students had to use exact dates. Sadly, that was not too far off. The AP classes used the same textbooks, followed the same schedules, even seemed to have the same questions on exams, which makes it difficult to tell exactly what AP meant.

14. See "The Benefits of Federalism", "The Case for Small Government", "Of Ants and Men" , "Why Freedom is Essential", "Single Point of Failure and the FairTax", "An On Demand World", "A Quick Question", "The Era of the Cocky Know It All", "Redundancy as a Protective Measure", "The Importance of Error", "Adaptability and Government", "Inflexibility and Bureaucracy" and "Skewed Perspective , or, How Big Government Becomes Inevitable".

15. This also points out a problem I think plagues all school evaluation schemes, that students have a role in their outcomes as well, and no amount of aggregating data will completely hide that. I grant, a good teacher can often inspire students, but every student is still an individual with free will, and can choose to apply himself or not, regardless of how well a teacher does. And, at times, a given class may, by pure chance, be more or less ambitious than others. Even over multiple years, it is possible for some schools to simply get a run of bad luck. And when we figure in environmental factors, such as parental apathy, the local attitude toward education or hard work, and so on, it is easy for some specific schools to have a harder time than others. Thus, even with the best teachers, and the best plans, outcomes can still fall short. (And, conversely, some schools can do very little, and still have successful students, mostly because of active parents and outside supplements to education.) Patterns of good or bad outcomes may, in some cases, tell us little or nothing about the actual performance of the school.

16. In some ways, it is analogous to the situation discussed in "Chaotic Government" and "Follow Up on 'Chaotic Government'".

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