I hear Diane Ravitch’s critique of charter schools, but as a special education and ESL teacher at public charter school in DC I feel I must defend the work that I do. In her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, Diane Ravitch opposes the establishment of charter schools, privatization, and school choice/voucher systems. She argues that charter schools continue to foster segregation by using funds to create increasingly specialized and selective programs that outperform public schools on assessment. As a result, traditional public schools are forced to operate with increasingly limited funds. In addition, they serve students who are often categorized as special education or English Language Learners. According to Ravitch, the real failure of education reform poverty and segregation.
I am certainly no expert on the national implications of the charter school movement. However, I do know that currently 40% of schools in DC are charters, and there is little chance of that percentage disappearing. So rather than continuing to beat on the drum of charter school failures, or debating whether or not charter schools should exist, I think we should encourage charter school possibilities.
We need to recognize the variation among charter schools. In many ways it is easier to make broad, sweeping statements against charter schools rather than to defend them. I agree with Ravitch that there is a real danger when educational reform is led by business-like, exclusionary charters that can quickly turn students into commodities driven by the desire to meet standardized accountability measures. Many, including Ravitch, may argue that this is the function of most charter schools. Maybe it is. But, just like traditional public schools, for all those poor charter schools, there are a few excellent charter schools. Drawing from my own experience, we should reconsider how charters can use their autonomy to granularly address the root causes of the achievement gap — segregation and poverty — at school.
For example, my charter school population is extremely diverse with a mix of races and affluent and low-income students. According to the book, A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education, by Richard Kahlenburg and Halley Potter, evidence shows that diverse student populations with socioeconomic integration and a balance of several ethnicities helps raise student achievement. Kahlenburg has been previously critical of charter schools but explains that they could be an avenue of ameliorating patterns of segregation if their enrollments are diverse.
Charter schools also have the autonomy to change narrative on equity and equality. Patterns of American history show all major civil rights shifts began as grassroots movements. So with a nuanced approach, a charter school (with less bureaucracy and increased flexibility) can generate a localized shift in discourse. I experience this each day. Not only do we have extensive equity training but continually think beyond quantitative measures. We care about student success as well as test scores. Yet, we simultaneously offer a variety of wraparound
services, promote collaboration, maintain inclusive practices, and support children’s ongoing social-emotional development. In fact, bettering inclusivity and building social skills to improve academic learning in early childhood basically sums up the entire purpose of my job. As Soo Hong explains in Cord of Three Strands: A New Approach to Parent Engagement in Schools, rather than dwell on dysfunction, the core to school reform is the induction, integration, and investment of the community, no matter how impoverished. Through this approach, a single school can stimulate dialogue built on relational trust and equalized distribution of power. If a charter school can develop an inclusive, reflective and equity-driven school culture, then the benefits of a well-run charter outweigh the detriments.
Ravitch, D. (2010). The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Kahlenburg, R. & Potter, H. (2014). A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education. New York, NY: Teacher’s College Press.
Hong, S. (2011). Cord of Three Strands: A New Approach to Parent Engagement in Schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.