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Racing in Circles for Education Reform

Listening to school-choice cheerleaders you'd swear charter schools were the magic answer. The Way out of the "crisis" in public education.

So I was surprised to learn last week the Stanford New Charter School made the Golden State's preliminary list of "persistently lowest performing" schools.

The idea that charter schools aren't what they're all cracked up to be we've heard from traditional public school educators for a while now, though the criticism is often written-off as jealous jaw-boning to distract from the failures of the Old School way. But, as it turns out, charter schools aren't necessarily what they're cracked up to be - at least not most of them. And those aren't teacher union talking points.

Ironically, at least for the Stanford New Charter School, it was the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University that conducted the first national assessment of school choice options, raising questions about the charter-school mania sweeping the nation.

The study, "Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States," compared math and reading test scores of charter school students with those of their traditional public school peers.

According to the study, 37 percent of charter school math score gains were far below what students would have achieved if they went to a traditional public school, and 46 percent of charter schools with improved math scores were statistically indistinguishable from the average gains seen in traditional public-schools. If you do the math, that means only 17 percent of charter schools outperform traditional public-schools in raising math proficiency. And when it comes to reading, charter school students, on average, were found to be indistinguishable from their public-school counterparts.

It's worth noting because charter schools - and "ensuring not only that teachers and principals get the funding that they need, but that the money is tied to results" - play a key role in President Obama's "Race to the Top" (RTTT) initiative. (States are disqualified from receiving RTTT dollars if they don't lift charter school caps).

In comparing Obama's "Race to the Top" with W's "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) the only real philosophical difference I can find is that Bush used a top-down stick approach; while Obama prefers carrots - a bottom-up, states-can-opt-out program with a supposed emphasis on "research-based" and "data-driven" policy. (The carrot-stick dichotomy seems to be the only foreign policy difference between the two administrations too, but that's another column).

Apparently, neither Bush or Obama got Alfie Kohn's carrots-and-sticks-are-for-jackasses memo. As a parent of three children - one of whom with a year of college under her belt - I know that getting a good education is about self-motivation and self-discipline. External rewards and punishments to induce desired behavior may get you a short-term boost but more often creates harmful long-term consequences, a phenomenon Neil Postman sees as the reason kids go into schools as question marks and come out as periods.

And you don't have to be John Dewey to know the most important variables in academic achievement are good pre-natal care, a normally-functioning brain, healthy diet, and a stable home environment - a garden that nourishes a child's inherent sense of curiosity. And that has more to do with economic security and family life than policies that hold teachers accountable for something they have little control over.

In a market-driven society, if you want the best teachers and a "Race to the Top," shouldn't we start paying them at least as much as firefighters and cops? At a minimum, if we're going to attract quality teachers presumably motivated by non-market incentives, we've got to stop paying lip service to good teaching while incessantly insulting the entire profession, as if teachers aren't trying hard enough or that by tying test scores to job advancement will suddenly make them try harder.

Holding teachers accountable for the classroom environment or for material that should be mastered is fine. Holding them accountable for the results of a self-directed process that lies entirely within the student is foolishness.

To take a page from the GOP playbook on health care reform, why not scrap both NCLB and RTTT and start from scratch? Until we find a way to ameliorate what market forces do to working-class families (e.g. eat up family time, force kids to bounce from school to school, limit access to health care and good nutrition), the education "crisis" will persist, no matter what brand-name "ed reform" policy-makers dream up.

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