Charter Schools Uncovered: What We Learned Through Our Own Analysis About the Skewed Comparisons Between Our Schools and the Local Charters
In this era of unforgiving accountability and test scores with high-stakes implications, important lessons can be learned from charter school marketing.
Scrutiny of the regular public schools has never been more sharp-edged. Charter school proponents are becoming increasingly aggressive in promoting themselves as a viable alternative for students--just as a mounting body of research provides little evidence that charter schools, as a whole, are more effective or provide a better education.
Charter school advocates often point to single charter schools, often small ones, to compare to an entire school district. This strategy has been used in my area, Cambridge, Mass., and I've spent considerable time researching the charters' claims and the comparisons.
Several lessons have been learned from the analysis. These findings are generalizable and reveal the highly focused, if not clever marketing strategies of charter schools and their proponents.
At the top of the list of charter school marketing techniques is a focus on isolated statistics or variables such as test scores, often applied out of context, as the selling point for choosing a school. In the charter school's struggles to draw enough students to stay solvent and/or prosper, the narrower the focus on a single program or outcome, the greater the economic return.
Once the charter school's program focus is chosen and pursued, little money and scant facility space are devoted to other areas such as the arts, physical well-being and development, wider course options and extracurricular opportunities. Neither do most charters invest in retaining educators over the long term or in facilities to support a comprehensive education.
A charter school may advertise extensively about student test scores only, an unusual mentoring program or focus on a singular aspect of the school. When the school does this, it often serves as a telling sign that it offers little else and doesn't want to talk about it.
Not one charter school I've seen comes close to the comprehensive intellectual stimulation and programming offered by strong public school systems. The public often does not realize this. For example, the course offerings and extracurriculars at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, the public high school in Cambridge, Mass., are incomparable and marketable. They include courses in world languages and culture, the arts, advanced academic course options, and extracurriculars and varsity sports. In fact, we only recently realized the significant advantage we had in promoting the quality of our facilities. We had taken for granted the value to parents and the public of our dance studio, TV studio, gymnasium, playing fields, cafeterias, auditoriums, art rooms, music rooms and biotech lab. A community survey revealed the pulling power of our facilities today, a surprise to us until we recognized the lack of such facilities in charter schools.
We have been taken by surprise in other comparative aspects as well. After completing comprehensive investigations of charter schools in our area, I believe legitimate and fair comparisons to the public schools are rarely made by charter school proponents in their sales pitches.
In Cambridge, Mass., we have analyzed the comparisons based upon income and racial/ethnic subgroups, selection criteria for enrollment, student contracts and/or requirements for entrance, promotion to the next grade, evaluations offered to us by former students and evaluations offered by former employees.
One school in our area that has received national attention is the Media and Technology Charter High School, or MATCH, located nearby in Boston. While this school emphasizes the use of technology in the classroom, its mission statement announces the goals of the school to send every student to a four-year college, and developing the traits of courage, discipline and perseverance. It was named one of the top 100 high schools in America by U.S. News & World Report last fall. It has been drawing the interest of some of our parents. The school boasts a marvelous record of high test scores by the entire student body, including low-income students and racial/ethnic subgroups. All students continue on at four-year colleges. MATCH statistics outpace our high school in that regard even though in 2006 Cambridge sent 10 percent of its graduates to Ivy League colleges.
But upon a closer look into the claims of the MATCH school, I concluded the school is a good program for a small group of young people and certainly not a good model for public schools here or elsewhere to replicate. The graduating class of 2006, according to the state department of education, was 18 students; the freshman class in 2002 began as 79 students. The senior class of 2007 had 20 students, though 49 had entered as freshmen. The survival rate over four years is extraordinarily low.
The charter school's dropout rate is enormous (24 percent last year, according to the state education website), the graduation rate was 60 percent, and many other students return to the school systems from which they came as they find they cannot survive the grueling system of contracts, demerits, formal conduct rules and performance expectations. Failure to do homework, low grades, as well as "wasting time" and "poor posture," and other infractions are tallied in an ongoing account of demerits until it is clear to many students they cannot be successful.
The school's 2007 Code of Conduct states in bold letters, "Even slight misbehavior at MATCH leads to consequences ... continued or serious misbehavior [either cultural or academic] means that MATCH is not the right fit for that particular student, and that one of the 24 other public high schools in Boston would probably be better." Then at some point MATCH may hold a conference with the student and parents to suggest a different placement, and the enrollment continues to decline grade by grade. The course options and extracurriculars at MATCH are, by their own admission, "extremely limited" compared to those offered in a comprehensive high school, and their staff turnover is enormous. This school boasts of a significant tutoring program and Saturday sessions, but it is evident to me this component did not prevent a horrifying student attrition rate. MATCH may take pride in the "rigor" of its program, but in my view it is "survival of the fittest" for the sake of the school's own reputation, and this is done at the expense of leaving many children behind for others to teach.
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