Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Charter schools

Matthew Yglesias has a post up about Excel Academy in Boston, a charter school which--like KIPP--takes the brightest students from inner-city schools and requires family commitment contracts. Not surprisingly, it gets good results. Yglesias concludes that poor kids need more and better instruction without confronting the fact that the schools "cherry-pick" students.

He's right--more and better instruction is important. Yglesias's commenters point out that the problem isn't as much with academically capable kids from the inner city, but with those with families that don't know or don't care about a good education. Also true. (Note Finland's secrets to success).

Where I taught elementary, one of my colleagues who taught Vanguard (the gifted-talented kids) was perpetually frustrated by KIPP, which tried to recruit her brightest kids. Her feeling was that she'd rather have the kids in public magnet schools than KIPP, which she thought was needed for the kids who might not have been as naturally bright, but were still academically oriented. I tend to agree. Meanwhile, there's still the issue of behavior problems disrupting everyone left behind.


Paul said...

I teach at another charter school in Boston and have the following comments:

1) Charters are not allowed to "cherry-pick" the "brightest" students. All charter schools in MA accept students from an open lottery that can only be restricted by geography (for Excel that means preference goes to kids in Boston and Chelsea). To "apply" parents need to fill out an application that includes name, age, sex, address, etc. The only schools that cherry-pick in Boston are the exam schools (BLS, BLA, O'Bryant). We lose a large chunk of our 6th grade class to those schools every year, despite the fact that our seventh and eighth graders tend to score higher on many tests than kids at BLA and O'Bryant.

2) Parents of charter school students may be more motivated than the average parent, but what does that mean in practice? My sense is that most charter school parents choose charters because they are safer, have a uniform, have more discipline, have a longer school day and seem less chaotic that public schools. I think going the charter route is often a vote of no-confidence in the district re: safety. I think hard-core academics are less of a concern, though many parents are attracted by the idea, too. Most of my students' (7th graders) parents claim they can't help their students with the work we assign - it's not like most of them were super successful as students themselves. Also, many work multiple jobs and aren't around for their kids out of necessity.

3) A key thing to notice about many of the successful charters in Boston (no, not all of them work) like Excel, Roxbury Prep, Boston Collegiate, Boston Prep, Edward Brooke, and Pacific Rim, is that their scores tend to start low (proving that they are not getting some super advanced set of kids in their lotteries) and rise as students are in the school longer. Some people argue that the cause is the fact that some students don't make it into the higher grades because of low skills or behavior problems, are retained, and then leave the school. Though I don't have numbers to support this, at the two charters I have worked at significantly more students leave for exam schools in 6th grade every year than ever get retained.

Alex said...


Thanks for your comment--it was very informative.

First off, I guess "cherry-pick" doesn't convey the correct meaning. I think Texas has similar rules regarding charter schools selecting students. When people say "cherry-pick" I think they mean that in general charter schools at least get kids whose parents are willing to make some sort of commitment, and if they don't, the kids can be gone. The term is therefore not really correct. At any rate, this is not an option at public schools. I feel that without my most disruptive student, I could have achieved 15 percent more this year, and there wasn't anything I could do about the kid. Charter schools don't have to deal with that...

I definitely agree that charter schools are a great thing for the kids who get in--I think of one specific child from my class this last year who's headed to KIPP--and I'm glad we have teachers like yourself who are working with them. I guess my main quibble was with the assumption (made by Yglesias) that what works for all the kids at the charter schools will work for all the kids who aren't at them.