For years now, advocates of the “no excuses” brand of charter school have denied the obvious. While loudly proclaiming the test scores and graduation rates of the students who remain at their schools, they have denied that their application processes combined with the harsh discipline environments that emphasize extreme conformity to extreme behavioral expectations are forms of “cream skimming” designed to drive out students less likely to burnish their reputations as “miracle factories.” As time has gone by and evidence piled up, this has become much harder for them to deny with even a hint of honesty. For example, Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University, presented the reports of an insider at the New York City department of education on the extreme attrition at most of the so-called “miracle schools”, and demographics of these schools differ greatly from their fully public neighborhood schools. Part of this comes from charter schools using extreme in-school discipline tactics that emphasize how only a certain type of child is welcome in the school, and discipline is often coupled with overt and covert pressure for parents to transfer struggling students out. The evidence is by now substantial that charter schools in the “no excuses” category seek different applicants to their schools via complicated procedures prior to admissions lotteries, and once students enter they quickly seek to push out students who will not fully and promptly comply with their expectations.
Defenders claim that this evidence is misrepresented. They claim that their attrition rates are comparable to the district schools (but they fail to mention that district schools backfill any seats vacated by children who move or transfer while many of the charters do not). They claim that their demographics are comparable to district schools (but they tend to compare themselves to entire communities instead of the specific neighborhoods in which they locate and the fully public schools in which the co-locate). They claim demand for their kind of school environment leads to massive waiting lists, but when students do leave, somehow the waiting list students do not move into the charters in any great numbers. For years, the supporters of these brands of charters (Success Academy, KIPP, Uncommon Schools, etc) have defended them by obfuscating the issues of cream skimming and selective attrition and by changing the subject on the very different demographics their favored schools serve.
And then there’s President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute Michael Petrilli, who broke the first rule of ed reform club: he talked about ed reform club.
The New York Times ran this “Room For Debate” piece on the question of whether or not charter schools are “cherry picking” the students they want despite their supposedly “open” lotteries for admission, and, surprisingly for the New York Times in the past few years, the balance of the authors represented the balance of the evidence: yes, charter schools HAVE been pushing out large numbers of students and their “successes” need to be evaluated with that in mind. Mr. Petrilli did not try to deny this evidence. Instead, he embraced it, and he declared that this was by design and desirable:
Because these are schools of choice, they have many advantages, including that everyone is there voluntarily. Thus they can make their discipline codes clear to incoming families (and teachers); those who find the approach too strict can go elsewhere.
This is a good compromise to a difficult problem: Not all parents (or educators) agree on how strict is too strict. Traditional public schools that serve all comers have to find a middle ground, as best they can, which often pleases no one. Schools of choice, including charters, need not make such compromises. That’s a feature, not a bug.
It’s not too strong to say that disruption is classroom cancer. It depresses achievement and makes schools unpleasant, unsafe and unconducive to learning. We need to think long and hard about taking tools away from schools — especially schools of choice — that allow their students to flourish.
There have been excellent responses to the ease with which Mr. Petrilli assures us that it is okay to make so-called “disruptive students” somebody else’s problem. Blogger Sarah Blaine notes that Mr. Petrilli is essentially “writing off ‘those kids'”:
Is it really okay to openly advocate for charter school discipline policies that weed out a significant portion of the student body (without, in most cases, replacing those expelled or “counseled out” students, of course)?
Is it really okay to say that our public schools are places of compromises that please no one?
Is it really okay to imply that public schools truly are the schools of last resort, that their highest and best purpose is to serve as dumping grounds for those students who are not good enough (or malleable enough, or terrified enough, or controllable enough) to succeed in charters?
Ms. Blaine also reported that on Twitter, Mr. Petrilli asserted that fully public schools should be allowed to force out disruptive students and that those students could always end up in alternative schools:
Ms. Blaine keenly notes what allowing schools to behave this way will result in:
Presumably in an all-charter system this will mean dumping the unwanted students into low-performing charters until those charters either kick them out or are closed and a new batch of substandard charters arise to take them on. In a mixed public/charter district, this will mean dumping those kids back into the traditional public schools, further damaged by the alienation, sense of failure, and disruption that go along with getting kicked or counseled out of a charter school. But according to Petrilli, there is no need to worry about that, since bringing stability to the lives of students with anger or behavior issues is apparently not a priority. And stratification of students in publicly funded schools is apparently “a feature, not a bug.”
Peter Greene of the Curmudgucation blog adds to this argument by pointing out just how much of a betrayal of fundamental American values Mr. Petrilli commits:
The fundamental promise of US public education is that we will educate every single child for as long as there are children in this country. The fundamental promise of modern charters, as deftly delineated by Petrilli, is we will educate the students we feel like educating for as long as it suits us to do it. That is probably the smallest promise that any culture has made to its children in the history of ever; even elite medieval schools promised to stick around till the job was done. Charters have tried to claim success by redefining success, and their new definition is tiny and unambitious.
This is also emblematic of another forgotten American promise. Modern charters are predicated on the idea that we will no longer try to fix things. They are predicated on the idea of “escaping” bad neighborhoods, bad conditions, bad poverty– which of course means we have no intention of addressing those issues. We are standing in front of a burning building with no intention of putting the fire out. We’re just going to rescue a few kids. The right kids.
Ms. Blaine and Mr. Greene do excellent jobs highlighting the amorality of Mr. Petrilli’s position and the reality of charter school practices. His position does not withstand scrutiny in other ways as well. First, he claims that national polls show that up to a third of teachers “know someone” who left teaching because of “discipline problems” at his school, but this does not match what we know are the key issues cited by teachers who leave the profession, especially in the early years of their careers. It is not a very high bar to say that, among all the teachers in your school, that someone left because of not being able to implement classroom management. Meanwhile, solid research from Harvard’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers found that no student demographic characteristics are significant to young teachers’ decisions to leave teaching in high poverty schools when school culture issues are taken into account. While how the school manages disciplinary issues certainly factors into school culture, the teachers in the Harvard study focused primarily upon principal leadership and support for teaching and the quality of their collegial relationships. Teachers wanted and valued administrative and collegial support in disciplinary matters, but they did not cite a need to be able to expel or push out students like at “no excuses” charter schools.
And we should rightly question just how many children Mr. Petrilli thinks all public schools, fully public district schools and charter schools alike, should be able to drive away. Mr. Petrilli says that the attrition is a “feature not a bug” and he wants to support district schools in doing the same, but the schools he is supporting have genuinely alarming rates of student disappearance. Success Academy 1 began its first class with 73 students in 2006, but only 32 of those students made it to complete 8th grade in Spring of 2014. North Star Academy in Newark is part of the Uncommon Schools Network and likes to brag how 100% of its seniors graduate, but what they advertise less is that only half of their students who enroll in 5th grade ever make it to 12th grade. This kind of attrition is replicated across these networks and across cities nationwide. Keep in mind: these are schools that are losing up to or more than half of their students who come from a lottery pool of parents and guardians who sought these school out for their children.
And how is it that schools manage to drive away this many children? All schools have some attrition, but “no excuses” charters employ not simply discipline, but discipline that ensures large numbers of families get the message that they do not belong. In the same “Room For Debate” page, Ms. Marilyn Anderson Rhames, a charter school teacher in Chicago, explains how she discovered the extreme discipline that effects the children she works with:
Take, for instance, one alumnae who passed all her classes in the 9th grade but was retained because she “failed behavior.” She was extroverted and a bit rebellious as my middle school student, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that she had broken her charter high school’s arbitrary rules (with 37 detentions), which among other things prohibit dying hair an unnatural color (say, pink or green), wearing dangling earrings instead of studs and talking in the hallway between classes. I was shocked, however, that the punishment was to hold her back, making her take the classes she had passed again to make her attitude “college ready.”….
…The principal told me that if my former student wanted an “easier” high school, someplace that doesn’t prepare kids for college, then she was free to leave. That sounded to me like “cherry-picking,” but in reverse.
If readers express little sympathy for a “rebellious” teen, then take the case of Matthew Sprowal, a Kindergarten student in Success Academy 3 in 2008. Young Mr. Sprowal can be easily distracted and while he was never disciplined for acting out in 3 years of preschool, in S.A. 3, he was subjected to so much behavioral “correction” that by one month in he was throwing up most mornings and asking his mother if he was going to be “fired” from school. Mr. Sprowal is hardly an isolated case, and the Success Academy chain has discipline and suspension rates far eclipsing their fully public district peers.
Since he has stated on Twitter that he believes that district schools should be allowed to discipline in ways similar to the “no excuses” charters, and he has said that “disruption is classroom cancer,” it is worth asking Mr. Petrilli just what percentage of children in fully public schools do you think should be suspended until they drop out or transfer? What percentage of students do you think are the equivalent of carcinogens?
I will never assert that alternative schools are never an answer for some children because, as Peter Greene notes here, some of them are genuinely innovative places that work very well with the hardest to teach children (which was supposedly the original mission of charter schools). However, if Mr. Petrilli is to be taken at his word that the disciplinary procedures and student attrition rates of the “no excuses” charters are things to be replicated at fully public district schools, he has to accept that he is saying a vastly larger percentage of children do not “deserve” to remain within the traditional schools OR the charter schools.
Finally, Mr. Petrilli’s position demonstrates a staggering lack of imagination. In essence, he is arguing that some students are unable to or unlikely to conform rigidly to the disciplinary expectations that he deems “necessary” for serious learning, and that it isn’t just charter schools that should be able to punish and pressure them until they leave for someplace else. He has no answer for them; he just sees them as the “carcinogens” that create the “classroom cancer” of disruption and wants them sent away from the “good kids”.
So what is left unexamined and unadvocated for?
- Community health and nutrition programs with greater reach than current models
- Universal, high quality pre-K
- Smaller class sizes
- Co-teaching models
- Teacher mentoring and phased entry to the classroom for novices
- Building capacity for principal leadership
- Embedding community services such as social workers, medical, and mental health care within the school
- School within school programs for high achievers AND special needs/at risk students
- Fully funding federal special education legislation
“Send the trouble makers back to district schools and then to alternative schools” explores NONE of these options, all of which are more likely to extend educational opportunities than a charter school model that is predicated on refusing to accommodate even KINDERGARTEN children who do not readily adapt to extremely narrow disciplinary expectations.
Of course, these policies will cost more money than we are currently spending, and they might require that the top 1% of income earners, who have pocketed 95% of the income gains made since the 2009 recession ended, pay more in taxes. These same 1% denizens, just 4 of whom earned more money last year than every single Kindergarten teacher in America combined, would much rather take their money and “invest” it in growing charter school chains that give them a return on their investments via tax credits than pay any more of it in taxes that would go to help all of our nation’s school children.
Thanks, however, to Michael Petrilli, they can no longer claim that they really care about helping all of America’s students. At best, they just want to help a handful of the neediest whose successes will make them look good. At worst, they are cynically manipulating the problems of educating in communities with inter-generational poverty to run up a new investment bubble until they lose interest, cash in, and run off to ruin something else — maybe our public water works.
So, thank you, Mr. Petrilli for your honesty.