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.