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Topic: "Success Academy and the role of charters (1)"

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Topic started by: Brian Drayton on 5/7/15

Reading about Success Academy, I found myself wondering what charter schools are for, anyway. What role do they play in our educational ecology, both intentionally and unintentionally? No doubt, you, Dear Reader, know much more about this than I, and if so, please bear withthis series of posts as a record of self-education, and skim through them, looking for good links amidst my ruminations.

“Charter schools” have generated a vast literature, including some peer-reviewed research, many many reports in the “gray literature” white papers, reports by agencies, commissions, and “commissions”; blog posts, and books more or less polemical, theoretical, or programmatic.

I will organize my thoughts around three realizations that I have come to in my searches. , which I list briefly before a caveat. Each of these will be addressed in subsequent posts, with links to evidence, and I hope not to lose site of Success Academy along the way.

1. Charters started out as a radically democratic idea, and have now become (by and large) identified instead with market radicalism; I will sometimes refer to this predominant model as “neo-charter.”

2. The neo-charters have not made a compelling educational case for their own existence, in terms of improvements of the educational system, and there is abundant evidence that their role as the alternative-of-choice for public education has invited many kinds of bad practice.

3. The predominance ofmarket ideology in American society is nevertheless driving an increase in the number of charters (both for-profit and non-profit).

The Caveat (consider this an amuse-bouche before the actual dinner is served): There are a lot of efforts called “charter schools” across the country. Some of them are successful on many measures they are experimenting with alternative models which in actuality are used to improve education for all, not just those lucky enough to be in the charter school; they are actually transparent in their operations, and not rapacious in their administrative costs; they do not have an exploitative or adversarial relationship with teachers and parents; they stress inquiry and democratic process, and student growth in other skills necessary for a more just, imaginative, and fearless society not just focusing on individualistic “college and career readiness.” Do you know of any like this? Tell us!

Let’s start with the first item on my list:

1. Charters started out as a radically democratic idea, and have now become (by and large) identified instead with market radicalism; I will sometimes refer to this predominant model as “neo-charter.”

Albert Shanker, long-time leader of the American Federation of Teachers, is generally credited with first sketching the idea of “charter schools,” in a speech to the National Press club in 1988. Actually, the record shows that Shanker was advocating an idea first originated by Roy Budde, a Massachusetts educator who died in 2005.

Budde proposed the idea which Shanker trumpeted as a way to foster teachers’ creativity in the service of educational improvement. In Budde’s (and Shanker’s) view, the charters would be teacher-led experiments, authorized and overseen by the school district, to try out novel pedagogical, curricular, or organizational ideas, on behalf of the district as a whole. This seems to me to be in the spirit of “teacher research,” an integration of research and practice not used widely enough.

It was not long, however, before the idea came to the attention of educators with a different view of what education improvement should look like. As recounted here by one educationalhistorian, Joe Nathan and Ted Kolderie, in the course of writing proposed legislation in Minnesota, transformed the idea into the currently dominant model. For a brief account of the differences, I draw on an interesting article, by Kahlenberg and Potter, which you can find here onthe AFT website.

1. Rather than a charterbeing a kind of inquiry, based on local interest or need, the current version casts charters as products, in market competition (largely) with the public schools. Whereas Budde and Shanker emphasized the way in which charter schoolscould serve as a laboratory for testing ideas that could improvepublic schools, many conservatives saw in charters the potentialto inject greater competition with public schools, forcing themto improve, or (in more radical visions) or be replaced by charters (public or private). As Paul Peterson writes,

Nathan and Kolderie instead proposed that schools be authorized by statewide agencies that were separate and apart from local district control. That opened charter doors not only to teachers but also to outside entrepreneurs. Competition between charters and districts was to be encouraged.

The second dramatic shift in the charter school vision came inthe critical area of teacher voice. Budde proposed charters as teacher-led initiatives, which would drive teacher development and learning, as well as district learning. Shanker, of course, as a proponent of teachers’ unionizing, also saw this as an important virtue of the charter model. In the long struggle to professionalize teaching, this view of charters has a lot to offer.

However, the Nathan-Kolderie re-imagination moves away from the original idea of teacher initiativewithin a district context, in two ways (at least). First is the proposal found in the quotation above that charters be “separate and apart from district control.” This has been widely adopted, and firmly moves the chartering process out of a local context, into a much broader arena of political maneuvering. Note that this is actually a double step: from local to state, and from an initiative by educators within their district, to a process that welcomes or at least permits non-educators to take an “entrepreneurial” role.

There is a second way that this formulation counters the importance of teacher voice inthe Budde/Shanker vision of charter schools. Again, Paul Peterson (cop.cit.*):

All of a sudden, charter schools were free of the constraints imposed by collective bargaining contracts districts negotiated with unions.

Peterson, and most cheerleaders for neo-charters and related “reforms”, think of this as a great step forward. I don’t think so, for several reasons, not least of which is the lost opportunity to deepen and further develop an understanding of teacher professionalism. This, in turn, is related to the “marketization” of education in its various manifestations, whose value is seriously debatable.

The third aim of Shanker’s original vision was to combat segregation racial, economic, orother kinds of separations that do harm to individuals, and at the same time weaken our democracy. One suspects that once the first two changes were made in thevision for charters, this one would be inevitable, given the deeply structural nature of racial and economic stratification in society. From the revolutionary theorists of the 1700s, to John Dewey, not to mention many others, the message is clear: Democracy is a process, not a product, and the process requires all our diligence, ingenuity, and commitment to make progress. Some people have all the democracy they need, I suppose, and so they may not be as aware as they might be of the deleterious effects their “markets” have for others’ life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

Be that as it may, the evidence is that in many cases neo-charters reproduce undemocratic structures; for a recent example, see Ladd, Clotfelder, and Holbein here(Warning! Pay wall!).

Kahlenberg and Potter (cop.cit.) write

How did a policy that began with the idea of promotingdiversity end up exacerbating racial and economicconcentrations? Fundamentally, charter school advocatessuggested, integration and school quality are unrelated anddistinct priorities, and quality matters more.

This pithy assessment, of course, contains yet another buzzword that is part of the semantic field in which “charter school” is situated “quality.” (Where is our Orwell, to write the essay on “The politics of education and the English language”?)


*copula citata. I propose a new bibiolographic abbreviation (cop. cit.) for use in blogs and other places where one may refer more than once to a specific link. It comes from the Latin, copula“link” ablative case, if you want to know, just as in op.cit. “opera citato.”

Originally posted May 7, 2015

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correction to foot note

posted by: Brian Drayton on 5/8/2015 8:13 am

"opera citato" should have been "opere citato"
-- autocorrect doesn't read Latin, oddly enough.

Role of Charters and the record on serving students with disabilities and English Language Learners

posted by: Joseph Gardella on 5/10/2015 7:18 am

Thanks to Brian for starting a thread on this topic. In Buffalo, where the Buffalo News advocates strongly for Charters as a solution to the problems in urban education locally, one topic that is ignored is the track record on serving students with disabilities . I have coauthored a report on local Charters which serve Buffalo students focusing on the data about enrollment and graduation rates of students with disabilities. Curiously, our NY State Ed department regulations on reporting such data allows a pass for Charter Schools, so that digging into the data was difficult. My coauthor, Madeline Morcelle, then an Honors Student at the University at Buffalo, now a law student at Washington and Lee law school, did a fantastic job on this. Our result, clear under-representation of students with disabilities in charters, poor enrollment data, those enrolled only needed minor services (therefore leaving the students needing most services to the traditional public schools) and poor graduation rates. Further, significant numbers of anecdotal reports of parents of students with disabilities being counseled from enrolling their children in Charters, and moving to remove IEP protections from those that do, confirm the national trends that show that despite wide variety from state to state on regulations for Charter formation, our local Charters under serve such students.

I also understand similar trends are showing for under enrollment of ELL students.

My frustration is that Charter school leaders don't want to discuss this; instead falling back on claims that they try hard, and continuing their public relations approach to advocacy for Charters.

I serve as a Board member of two not for profits supporting parents and children with disabilities, and have discussed our results at regional conferences.

This is another issue in the rise of Charters that must be discussed.

If you are interested in the work that Maddie Morcelle and I did, please contact me and I will send the report.

Your report on ESL and disabilities

posted by: Brian Drayton on 5/11/2015 7:02 am

Joseph, thanks for an interesting post. I'd be very interested in reading your report and there's really two issues that stand out for me even in the description you've given. The first, of course, is the evidence of "filtering" -- the selectivity that I suppose arises from a need to optimize test scores. Charitably, I could imagine that a school hoping to demonstrate the value of some new approach would be sorely tempted to do many things to show the benefits of their approach for a majority of students. Hence the tendency at least in some cases to put the thumb on the scales, so to speak. Less charitably, such filtering may serve the "public schools are failing, and charters provide creative competition" narrative (quite aside from any specific innovation being attempted). But it may very well be that if mainstream and charter populations and resources are closely comparable, in most cases charters won't do noticeably better. One could react to this with a political response (exercise power/influence to serve one's mission), or a scientific response (e.g. design experiments to carefully test what differences might show promise, and use them to improve the education for everyone).Of course, a self-protective impulse is quite human, and not only in educational innovation! Yet it can't be accepted when the stakes are so high.
But a second point in your post is also of interest, and is a nice segue into a future post that I am preparing, on the remarkable lack of transparency that plagues the neo-charter "movement." It is quite common to read that certain information is not available, or that certain data are not collected or reported, etc. As with so many topics, transparency is a pretty fundamental condition of good governance, and especially when an agency (or in this case a school) has direct responsibility for vulnerable people (children, and perhaps also parents and teachers).

PS interesting series from 2011

posted by: Brian Drayton on 5/11/2015 8:46 am

I just came across this interesting series of posts by Matthew DiCarlo on the Albert Shanker Institute website. It's going to take some time to absorb the State Of Play 2011 as reflected there and then to consider what if anything has changed since then. The following statement says better what I was trying to get to in my previous reply:

'...the endless back-and-forth about whether charter schools work whether there is something about "charterness" that usually leads to fantastic results has become a massive distraction in our education debates. The evidence makes it abundantly clear that that is not the case, and the goal at this point should be to look at the schools of both types that do well, figure out why, and use that information to improve all schools.'

Report on

posted by: Keith Wayland on 5/11/2015 3:38 pm

Thanks for the post Joseph. Would like to read the report and share copies with a couple of colleagues if that is acceptable.

Charter School service of students with disabilities in Buffalo NY

posted by: Joseph Gardella on 5/12/2015 12:37 pm

Brian, Jacqueline and Keith, please drop me an email to and I will send you the report.
Joe Gardella


posted by: Jacquelyn Flowers on 5/11/2015 10:01 am

Thank you for this post. Alabama has just passed a Charter Bill and I would love to read your report! Thank you for sharing!

Jackie Flowers