School Culture and Charter Schools

August 1, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

An episode in the first season of the “The Wire” opens with Wallace, a  teenage boy who works for drug dealers, getting grade school kids ready for school. Parentless, they all live in a boarded-up building, electricity tapped from elsewhere by a long extension cord. Wallace gets the kids up, drops a juice box into each kid’s bag, and pushes them out the door. Then he too goes outside and sees the brutally murdered body of another young man involved in the drug trade.

I thought about that moment when I read Joel Klein’s op-ed (here) in the Wall Street journal crowing about recent test scores in New York City’s charter schools. Klein is the former head of New York’s public schools and a big supporter of charters.
Although the traditional public schools in the city have about the same ratio of poor children—and a significantly smaller ratio of black and Latino children—the charter schools outperformed the traditional schools by 12 points in math and five points in reading. Those are substantial differences.
Klein is overstating the case. Not all poor, minority children are alike, and there’s good reason to believe that the charter school population and the regular public school population differ in some important ways. For one thing, the charter kids all have parents who are involved in these new schools. Some charters make a considerable effort to reach these parents. The Success Network charters – the ones that Klein mentions specifically – spent $880,000 recruiting students to its four schools and another $1.3 million on “network events and community outreach." [source]

Those kids on “The Wire” will not be applying to the Success Network.

Charter test averages also benefit from the lower proportion of special-ed pupils and pupils who are not fluent in English. Perhaps most important, charter schools can and do get rid of “difficult” children – those who are discipline problems and those who do not perform well academically.  And when such a child leaves the school, the charter can just leave the seat empty rather than putting in another student. The regular public schools do not have the luxury of these options.

But let’s suppose that even controlling for these factors NYC’s charter school kids did outperform the traditional schools. The obvious question is why. Klein’s answer is all about the “culture” among the teachers. Charter teachers “thrive in a culture of excellence, rather than wallow in a culture of excuse.” 

Maybe so, but kids themselves, who far outnumber the staff, play a large part in a school’s culture.  Every school, including universities, has a “student culture” that differs from the culture the staff would prefer. The question is in what ways does it differ, and why.

The day after the Journal ran Klein’s op-ed, the Times columnist Joe Nocera  also wrote (here) about schools in neighborhoods with high levels of poverty.  He quotes Dr. Pamela Cantor, a psychiatrist, who found that many of these kids showed symptoms we usually associate with trauma and high stress. 
If children are under stress, the ways they respond are remarkably similar.  They get sad, distracted, aggressive, and tune out.
Nocera summarizes what she found in high-poverty schools.
Chaos reigned. The most disruptive children dominated the schools. Teachers didn’t have control of their classrooms — in part because nothing in their training had taught them how to deal with traumatized children. Too many students had no model of what school was supposed to mean. “These were schools that were not ready to be schools.”
In a school where chaos reigns, even the good kids – the ones who entered the charter lottery but lost – will not learn as much.  

Klein attributes the success of charters – their “culture of excellence” – to the absence of “oppressive union contracts.”  But that success may have more to do with the absence of those most disruptive students – the kids whose parents are unable or unwilling to be involved in their child’s education, the kids who, if they do get into charters, are forced out. The real importance of charter selectivity is not that getting rid of some low scorers raises the average. It’s that even a small number of difficult, thuggish children can change the learning environment for all. If all those children are removed from charters and put in traditional schools, the effects can be profound.

What if this were like a football match where the teams switch sides at the half?  What if the regular public schools could recruit and select students and get rid of their most disruptive admissions mistakes, and the Success Network charters had kids like the drug-dealing Wallace and the abandoned kids living with him in the abandoned building?

* * When I said that Klein was a “big supporter” of charters, I did not mean only that he liked the idea of charters. His support was much more material. He helped Eve Moskowitz, head of Success Network, get financial help for her schools. And he pushed traditional public schools out of buildings in order to give the space to Success charters. As the Daily News story headline put it, “Eva Moskowitz has special access to Schools Chancellor Klein - and support others can only dream of.”

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