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Marc Tucker: Why Charter Management Organizations Are Not a Model for the Nation

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Marc Tucker recently wrote a post in which he responded to a question from Mike Petrilli of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Mike asked why Marc didn’t look at charter management organizations as models of systems that work. (I would have added “that work for some,” since charters are free to choose their students and oublic schools are not.)

Marc answered. (I’m always reluctant to post articles behind a pay wall.)

“I can see why Mike would take that view. As charter systems have grown, they have had to do what any well-run business has to do: figure out how to hire, train and support first-rate staff, produce the best possible results at an acceptable cost, find efficiencies and improve productivity. As these charter school networks grow, they have to face the challenge of growing without compromising quality, creating leadership structures that will preserve the culture the founders created without suffocating the initiative of the people on the ground and so on.

“Freed of many of the political and legal constraints that public school systems face, some of these charter management companies have been rather innovative as they have dealt with these and many other challenges. It would be natural to see them as a test bed for better ways to organize and manage public school systems. Why, Mike wanted to know, was I so uninterested in viewing them that way? A very reasonable question.

“Part of the answer is the strategy I prefer to use to search for better ways to organize and manage school systems at the scale of a state or nation. The approach that makes the most sense to me is to start by ideinitifying the systems that produce superior results and then try to find out if there are common principles that inform the structure of those systems that distinguish them from less successful systems. I know of no top-performing systems at the scale of a state or nation the success of which can be attributed to their charter-like characteristics. There are top-performing systems that feature choice, but choice does not explain their success. What does explain their success is their adherence to principles that they share in common with systems that do not have strong choice-oriented policies. The Netherlands and Flemish Belgium are good examples of such countries. So is Hong Kong…

“Because choice for parents and students among significantly different alternatives is the core principle of the charter idea, the question we should be asking about the charter idea is not whether any one charter school is better than the typical public school serving a comparable student body, but whether charter schools as a group produce better student performance than regular public schools as a group, when serving comparable students. It is, of course, possible to find very good charter schools but it is no less possible to find equally outstanding regular public schools. When we look in the aggregate at all the charters in any given state, and compare them to all the regular public schools in that state serving the same demographic, virtually all studies show no conclusive advantage for the charters.

“But my reading of the data produces a more troubling conclusion. Both in the United States and abroad, choice policies tend to exacerbate racial and socio-economic segregation. The minority, low-income parents who have the time, education, drive and cars to take advantage of the choices offered, do so and those who do not have these things, do not. The result is that the low-performing schools are drained of the students and parents who have the desire and means to take advantage of the options offered, leaving behind those who don’t, leaving in their wake schools that are even more isolated, chaotic and desperate than they were before…

“I have not given up on our public schools, in our inner cities or anywhere else. It is not just the lowest-performing schools that are in trouble. The students in every quartile of performance in the entire country are behind their counterparts in the top-performing countries. I would spend the rest of my career studying charter school management systems if someone could present any evidence that implementation of charter systems at scale would lift the performance of American students to globally competitive levels. But I have yet to see that evidence.”

I agree with most of what Marc says but I don’t accept international test scores, as he does, as the measure of our students or our schools. Our problems as a society are far greater than what test scores measure, and what they do measure is far too narrow to capture the dynamism of our youth.

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