Monday, March 28, 2011

silver bullet?

My policy professor gave us an article from Education Week on Detroit's plans to hand over their 41 failing schools to charter operators. Philadelphia did this with seven schools last year and LA announced they would turn seven schools over to charter operators for the 2011-2012 school year. Detroit is just following suite in the newest trend in how big cities deal with failing schools.

The only problem is, not many of the big name charter operators want to come to Detroit. Detroit's funding is not enough to make the charter schools profitable, and there isn't a chance for extra funding from the federal government like there was in New Orleans. The president and chief executive of National Charter School Initiative is quoted as saying, "Chartering schools is not a silver bullet that can solve the long-standing governance, financial, and academic issues that districts like Detroit face." 

Others in the debate also worry that switching the schools to charter schools will not miraculously fix the failing schools as well. Currently there are 9 charter schools in Detroit and only one is considered high-performing. Gary Miron, a professor of evaluation, measurement, and research is quoted as saying, "All the independent research done on Michigan charter schools has shown they aren't as effective as traditional public schools, especially when we control for demographics."

Somehow charter schools have become equivalent to the ultimate solution in fixing failing schools. As though changing the name of a school from "public" to "charter" miraculously leads to a dramatic improvement in scores. Frequently when I talk about the think-tank people ask me if I teach at a charter-school. They seem shocked and, frankly, disappointed, when I say it's just a well-run public school. 

The charter schools know they need more money and better resources than Detroit can offer in order to be successful. They know the structure and initiative they need to build quality schools, and they do not see that happening if they take over one of Detroit's schools. 

I really believe that there is a solution that does not have to involve charter schools.  In some cases charter schools may be the perfect answer- but for 41 schools it seems that a larger problem needs to be addressed. What is causing these schools to fail?  How can that be changed?  Instead of handing over the schools to outside companies that may or may not be better, what can be done within the district to improve these schools? 

By handing their schools over to charter operators Detroit is avoiding the larger questions of how they can truly improve their schools. They are looking for an easy and financially beneficial way out of a thorny problem. If they sat and looked at how to truly improve their schools they might learn something that could impact all of their students- not just those in the 41 failing schools.

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