Charter Schools Have Failed as Laboratories

Peter Greene makes an excellent point about the failed promise of charter schools (boldface mine):

One of the standard justifications for the modern charter movement is that these laboratories of innovation will develop new techniques and programs that will then be transported out to public schools. Each charter school will be Patient Zero in a spreading viral infection of educational excellence.

Yet, after years– no viral infection. No bouncing baby miracle cure from the incubator. The laboratory has shown us nothing.

Here’s my challenge for charter fans– name one educational technique, one pedagogical breakthrough, that started at a charter school and has since spread throughout the country to all sorts of public schools.

After all these years of getting everything they wanted, modern charter schools have nothing to teach the public schools of the US.

Both this profile from the New York Times and a teacher interview with Diane Ravitch show that the widely-lauded Success Academy model of New York is based on the emotional brutalization of children and tunnel-vision focus on The Test. This is justified by an ugly lie– that if poor kids can get the same kind of test scores as rich kids, the doors will open to the same kind of success.

Put all that together with a mission to weed out those students who just can’t cut it the SA way, and you have a model that cannot, and should not, be exported to public schools. Success Academy demonstrates that charters don’t necessarily need to cream for the best and the brightest, but just for the students who can withstand their particular narrow techniques.

But then, most modern charters are fundamentally incompatible with the core mission of public schools, which is to teach every single child. Examination of charters show over and over and over again that they have developed techniques which work– as long as they get to choose which students to apply them to. New Jersey has been rather fully examined in this light, and the lesson of New Jersey charters is clear– if you get to pick and choose the students you teach, you can get better results.<

This is the equivalent of a laboratory that announces, "We can show you a drug that produces fabulous hair growth, as long as you don't make us demonstrate it on any bald guys."

Modern charters have tried to shift the conversation, to back away from the “laboratory” narrative. Nowadays, they just like to talk about how they have been successful. These “successes” are frequently debatable and often minute, but they all lack one key ingredient for legitimate laboratory work– replication by independent researchers.

I would argue it’s worse than what Greene states: few of the charter school advocacy leaders would ever subject their children to the methods used at many charter schools. In fact, the schools they send their kids to are often the opposite of the Boot Up the Ass philosophy espoused by some charters.

That should tell us something.

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