OP-ED: Charter Schools are not the Answer to Oakland’s Public School Crisis

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By Dan Siegel

The debate over charter schools is waged on misleading and superficial grounds. According to the dominant narrative, the charter school discussion pits incompetent teachers championed by corrupt unions against sincere, committed parents fighting for a decent education for their children in safe, clean schools.

Reality is much more complicated. Public education is in crisis. Many children, especially low-income children of color, are poorly served by public schools. But charter schools are no better. A recent study concludes that about 30 percent of charter schools out-perform public schools with comparable student bodies, while another 30 percent perform less well than the public schools. We can also identify many examples of successful schools, both public and charter.

But to understand the situation, and the likely result of the move to the large-scale creation of charter schools, people need to pay attention to what is occurring nationally in the charter school movement:

The charter school trend is increasingly dominated by the for profit sector and is receiving massive investments from hedge funds and other investors whose focus is profit, not improving public education.

The primary features of the for-profit model are:

1. Poorly paid, lightly trained teachers whose role is simply to present a simplistic, canned curriculum geared to performance on standardized tests. Few of these teachers will make a career of education, and many charters turn over half of their teachers every year.

2. Limited curriculum that neglects the development of higher order, critical thinking skills in favor of rote learning geared to standardized tests. Some charters actually limit instruction to English language and mathematics, with an increasing percentage of the curriculum presented by computers.

3. Elimination of very poor students, second language learners, and children with learning disabilities, behavior problems, and other characteristics that make them “too expensive” to educate.

The ultimate impact of this model is the re-creation of separate and unequal education systems. Affluent families will send their children to high performing suburban, private, and parochial schools with small classes and experienced teachers who will teach them to think critically, write well, and engage with challenging curricula in the arts, mathematics, science, and foreign languages. Graduates of these schools will be prepared for success in the nation’s best colleges and universities. The charter school graduates will be prepared, at best, to enter the military, community colleges, and the fast food industry.

Our focus in Oakland should be on improving our public schools. Fortunately, we have excellent models based on recent Oakland experience. Oakland Tech, now viewed by many as Oakland’s best high school, was recently a violent, dangerous place with little academic success. Frick Middle School, now a candidate for reorganization, was until recently regarded as a safe, successful school in a severely challenged neighborhood.

Here are some of the elements of a successful school:

1. A strong principal focused on instruction, a teacher of teachers rather than a disciplinarian or fund-raiser. Oakland has many excellent principals and many who should be replaced. When Dennis Chaconas was appointed superintendent in 2000, his first priority was the replacement of 60% of the District’s principals. And then he replaced some of the replacements.

2. Well-paid, well-trained teachers. We need to demand that teachers be paid as much as nurses or police officers, so they can support their families and make instruction a career. The relationship between principals and teachers is clear – good principals attract and retain good teachers, while poor teachers readily leave schools where the culture and peer pressure demands their best efforts.

3, Site-based decision making in the context of accountability for school results. Public schools, just like charters, should be encouraged to develop their own identities and specialties. Public schools could be organized around specialities such as environmental science, African culture, or language arts to provide choices for students and parents.

4. Programs that address students’ life circumstances, including physical and mental health, violence prevention, and nutrition.

5. Active, engaged parent involvement that participates in decision-making as well as support activities.

Over the last 20 years Oakland has enjoyed a substantial number of successful schools at all levels and in all neighborhoods. Concentrating on replicating these schools provides our best opportunities for success.

To fight for successful public schools we need a broad parent-teacher-community coalition with a vision for successful schools and a strategy to make this happen.

Dan Siegel is a civil rights attorney in Oakland.

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