Tuesday, December 18, 2012

In the Debate About School Choice, Relevance and Evidence Lose

During the recent “Impact of Charter Schools in Chicago” panel discussion presented by Catalyst Chicago, proponents and opponents of charter schools came together for a brawl that ended in every side (including the moderates) only further entrenched in their viewpoints.  Though no one “won” the debate, there were two clear losers: evidence and reality. While every side presented evidence in support of their argument, no one was willing to acknowledge evidence that was not ideologically aligned with their own viewpoints. Charles Payne, University of Chicago Professor, mentioned some research though he explicitly cited CREDO’s 2009 study of charter school performance. Though, Dr. Payne’s more reserved assessment of charter schools in Chicago included the CREDO study due to the mixed results from the study. Andrew Broy, President of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, cited Caroline Hoxby, a free-market economist who has studied competition in education in great detail. Hoxby’s findings typically support free-market reforms, but are also contested. Broy also mentioned certain findings from CREDO’s study of charter school performance, though ignoring some of the larger findings to focus on those favorable to charter schools. Jackson Potter, a representative of the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU), also blatantly ignored any studies with inconvenient findings, only to mention Diane Ravitch (not any particular study, just mentioned the historian’s opposition to charter school expansion). Though the debate was chocked full of claims, there was little evidence to support the claims being made by either Mr. Broy or Mr. Potter.

Another loser of the debate was the acknowledgment of the systemic inequities facing our nation’s schools, especially those in cities like Chicago. For the proponents of charter schools, in this case Andrew Broy (Teach For America alumni turned law student, turned lawyer, then finally self-actualizing as an education expert), market competition that pits individuals (students, teachers, schools, and districts) against each other in the spirit of neoliberalism is the best approach to solving inequality.  Fundamentally, this approach negates the obvious realities of competition – there are winners and losers.  In fact, it is this very type of competition that has created a society where we have, and largely tolerate, systemic inequality of winners and losers (haves and have not’s).  For Broy, and the likes, what is missing in our society is school “choice.”  That is, our schools are not performing well because they have no market incentives to “outperform” some other school (and their students) – and in lacking that, these schools reproduce a stratified economy.  For Broy, injecting market competition into what has traditionally been public and democratic (well, at least in theory) is the best way to fight for what he, and the other neoliberals, deem the “civil rights” issue of our time.
           Juxtaposed to Broy’s insistence that market ideology is the best route for reform, was Jackson Potter (Chicago Teacher’s Union).  While Potter did not make it a pivotal point of his argument, he did mention twice (once in the beginning and then again at the end – if you watched that long) that the greatest decrease in the so-called “achievement gap” occurred during President Johnson’s Great Society.  For those who point out that the achievement gap is nothing other than an opportunity gap, this is the quintessential argument.  That is, schools are not the source of inequality; rather, it is society that creates and perpetuates inequalities that predetermine the types of education that students have access to and ultimately realize.  For Broy, this point is understood in that poor students have access to bad schools – so, what they need are “better” schools.  For Potter, and most educational researchers, what matters most are not the brick and mortar schools that students attend; rather, the homes that they come from and go back to after school.  If they followed the research, the panelists – and even venture philanthropists at the Walton Foundation – would put less stock and money into school “choice” and more into ensuring that parents had access to a livable wage, affordable housing, access to healthcare, etc.  Dr. Payne, Mr. Broy, and Mr. Potter used little evidence in their assertion there is an achievement gap while ignoring the larger opportunity gap.


Unknown said...

Due to an error made by the moderator, Joshua Kilroy made a comment that was deleted. I apologize to Joshua for the error. He wrote:

"We agree that there is a large and growing "opportunity gap" and support aggressive measures to combat it. However, schools do not have the luxury of waiting until broader social wrongs are addressed. And as many of the charter schools in Chicago and elsewhere have shown, we can be doing more right now to help improve children's education."

T. Jameson Brewer said...

Peter Sacks (2007) argues that,

“The unavoidable policy implications are that good schools can go only so far in raising the achievement levels of disadvantaged children and that attacking the problem with policies that improve the social and economic conditions of individuals and families will be more effective than creating policies aimed just at schools” (p. 14).

My worry about what many charter schools are doing is more akin to cultural indoctrination rather than promoting educative and liberating experiences that are (I agree to a portion of your thesis) part of the process of fixing systemic inequalities. Many charters, including the poster-child of charters KIPP, for example, are guilty of this ideology. Horn (2011) points out that,

“As long as the focus remains on fixing the insides of children's heads while ignoring the conditions these kids must return to after their ten-hour days [referring to KIPP schedules] of working hard and being nice in their apartheid schools, all manner of indoctrination and extraordinary educational renditions may be deemed necessary and appropriate to achieve KIPP goals. At its unacknowledged core, KIPP [I would also include most charters] remains an intervention aimed at cognitive and behavior control that occurs when we use the happy-talk manipulations of corporate psychology as a means to turn poor minority children into the White Ivy League teacher's version of the middle-class children” (p. 98).

Further, Grace Boggs (1970) points out that as long as we approach fixing systemic issues by trying to fix students we simply create a brain drain of a community that is faced with generational poverty. Imagine you buy a house – sort of a “fixer-upper” – you redo some holes in the walls, lay new carpet, paint the inside, fix the leaky bathroom sink, put in a few window box planters, and paint the outside (adds to the curb appeal) and you rest easy knowing that you’ve done everything you could and should have done. However, while your house looks nice you will be surprised when your house crumbles because you failed to inspect and fix the foundation of the structure. Unless you fix the foundation, you can make a house look all manners of good and nice. Charter schools, at some times, tout high test scores as you might brag about the paint color choice of your neatly painted – yet dilapidated and doomed to fail home. We need good schools – no question. Public schools. But I’m in agreement with Sacks that the best way to end opportunity gaps is to end opportunity gaps…not apply Band-Aid fixes that really only seek to concentrate money and power among the reformers and their venture philanthropist backers (Saltman, 2010).


Boggs, G. L. (1970). Education: The great obsession. Monthly Review.

Horn, J. (2011). Corporatism, KIPP, and cultural eugenics. In P. E. Kovacs (Ed.), The gates foundation and the future of U.S. "Public" schools (pp. 80-103). New York, NY: Routledge.

Saltman, K. J. (2010). The gift of education: Public education and venture philanthropy. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillian.

Sacks, P. (2007). Tearing down the gates: Confronting the class divide in American education. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

T. Jameson Brewer said...

What is more, I am not a favor of the status quo of public education – that is why I got involved in education policy. I do not want a returning to what schools were pre-charter. But it appears that all of the bad things that crept into public education over the last few decades (e.g., testing) are the focus of charter schools. Increasing test scores does not equate to a testament that educative experiences were had. Nor does it follow that systemic inequality will be solved by a generation of good test takers. Charters want to be the best at what is the worst in pedagogy.