The Failure of Charter Schools


There is a trend sweeping the education reform movement that consists of converting public schools into public-private hybrid institutions called “charter schools”. Charter schools are often run by corporations that receive a set stipend from the government – usually $5,000 to $9,000 per student per year depending on the district – and are entrusted with the task of running the institution. Proponents of the charter school model (usually those who have a motive to keep said model) argue that because they work closer with the students and the faculty, they can better keep an eye on the quality of education. Because charter schools do away with teacher benefits, they claim, teachers are then encouraged to “do well” in order to keep their jobs. This, charter school proponents argue, makes for a better system. But the fact is that the only thing that the charter model “makes better” is the bank account of those with high stakes on the model.

In this brief post I would like to comment on how the charter school model fails at serving students just as much, if not more than, the traditional untouchable public tenure system of education, and propose what I feel is a sound compromise that works best for students.

In the traditional public school model, a teacher goes through the state’s education department to get certified to teach a specific subject in a specific level – for example high school language arts or middle school science. After getting certified, these young, enthusiastic teachers land a job in a public school where, after two years, they get tenure. It all works well for a few years, but after some time, for reasons better explained by educators (although I can speculate it’s due to incredible stress and a ridiculous work load) [1], teachers “burn out”. They start caring less and less, their teaching becomes less involved, and students suffer. At least that’s one of the things that happen. In my very limited experience with departments of education – thankfully none of which has been my own as much as stories from friends and colleagues – what actually happens in schools is that there are two kinds of “teachers”. The first kind of teacher is the one who studied education in a discipline or the discipline and then got training in education. These individuals – teachers and area specialists – make up the “special” teachers that one remembers fondly even after one joins the work force [2]. The second group of teachers are non teachers – a group that is further divided into different scales of non-teaching. The first group of non-teachers are specialists in areas tangential to the subject areas being taught. They are accountants who could not find a job in a firm, so they went into teaching and managed to find a job. They are doctors of medicine who did not manage to pass the certification exams to practice medicine, so they decided to teach science or health (sex-ed, depending on the state). A second type of non-teacher are those who are recruited under special circumstances, namely there being too few qualified (or unqualified) teachers with a completed degree. These teachers are often second to third year university students with 15 credits in the discipline they are hired to teach. This means that if you took a first year writing course, a second year English literature course, and a business writing course, you are “qualified” to be hired under special circumstances. The third, and possibly the worst, group of non-teachers are people who trained under a completely different discipline, but for whatever reason are teaching something else. I recall, for example, that when I was in elementary school one of my math teachers always got the exercises from the book wrong. I later learned that he had a B.A. in history and had been hired because no one else wanted to teach math.

Depending on the state, non-teacher teachers can range from 50% to 80% of the faculty.

Yes, your children are being taught by people who are not qualified to teach them.

Charter schools were (in theory) made to fix the problem of education, but the problem with charter schools is that it does not fix the true problem at the heart of education (which is the lack of competent teachers), but instead causes several problems including (but not limited to) further impoverished teaching / learning conditions for both teachers and students, the dismissal of  good, experienced faculty, the hiring of inexperienced and / or unqualified faculty, and a body of administrators who hold themselves above being accountable and instead shift all the negative results of their policies unto educators while taking credit for the hard work and results of educators. All of these ills that serve to further deteriorate our educational system while fixing none of its ailments are symptoms of one single problem: the shift of a publicly funded, community-driven education system into a charter model that turns schools into for-profit money centers.

I feel that I should clarify – I am by no means anti-business, anti-capitalism, or anti-anything. I very much enjoy and endorse free market competition, and, personally, having a Sony and a Microsoft that keep Nintendo on their toes, or a Nissan and a Honda that keep Ford honest have served us well thus far. However, there are some places where I feel that profit motif-driven models should not be used, and the education of our young is one of those cases. Now, I have had people say to me that we need to weight the importance of education versus the importance of making money, and if you want to phrase it that way, I have no problem with that. I believe that the importance of education will always outweigh the importance of making money by a thousandfold – after all, you can’t really make a lot of money, or even understand how money works, if you don’t have a good education.

That being said, let us continue.

The overall philosophy of the charter school was that by taking away the tenure system and establishing a private industry-like system of incentives, teachers would hold themselves accountable and do their best. However, the charter model handed over the task of administrating schools from the public ISD to “education entrepreneurs” – people who seek to profit from educations. In the charter system, the state gives a certain amount of funds to a corporation per student per year to run the school. With the amount being anywhere between $5,000 to $9,000 a year per student (in the lower income area schools), a school with 10 students would get roughly $50,000 to $90,000 a year. This gives the school administrators incentive to have as many students as possible in the school. Furthermore, because it’s more economically viable and lucrative for the administration, it behooves them to have large class sizes. Despite research having shown that for adequate learning to take place groups of students should be between 10 and 15 per room, I have seen charter schools have a rare low of 22 students per classroom to a ridiculous 55 students per classroom – although to be fair most schools that I’m aware of cap the student classroom limit at 30. In addition to how many students must be in a single group, administrators, whose main purpose in this profit-mode driven system is to make / save as much money as possible (as opposed to providing students with the best possible education) must also consider how much each teacher will be paid, and here is where the practice of hiring highly qualified teachers gets distorted. All schools pay teachers based on rank (years of experience) and performance (outcome of group in standardized tests). Under a model that would prioritize the well-being of students, one would expect to pay the higher salaries of more experienced teachers whose groups do better in standardized tests than, as is the case in charter schools, pay for less experienced teachers with a “just enough to keep the contract” passing rate. In other words, because the charter model focuses on saving through budget cuts and high administrative pay, it’s better to have large classrooms with underqualified teachers than smaller classrooms with highly qualified teachers.

So far all of this sounds very theoretical – a sort of doomsday scenario of what “could happen” is everything went wrong. In the charter schools that I have had the displeasure of interacting with, many, if not all, of these problems (and more) are present.

In order to avoid any sort of grief, I will refrain from mentioning any schools.

Regarding student class size, I must commend one of the charter schools in Dallas, TX. They keep their maximum class sizes at 22 students, and although I would argue that 22 is 7 too many over the acceptable number for adequate learning to take place, they have one of the best student : teacher ratio in any educational institution I’ve heard of, private or public, with the exception of graduate schools. However, it is this very same school that, when it comes to hiring teachers, is the worst offender. This school, spanning grades 1 to 9, only hires teachers with less than 5 years of experience. Once teachers reach the five year experience mark, they are let go for “not being school material”. This school even went as far as firing several teachers who had never been cited or suspended on the very last week of class under a very general “broke company policy” without citing any specific cases or offering any evidence. Of the four cases I am aware of from this school, only one teacher was given any sort of reason: because the students in her classroom “accessed sites like super Mario brothers and first person shooter”. While it could be argued that the teacher should have been paying more attention to the students, I find it hard to believe that any teacher would fail to notice a student in one of the six computers in the classroom access a site that, according to the school’s guidelines, should be blocked. Furthermore, given that the school has blocked youtube, facebook, and many other recreational sites that could be used for educational purposes, wouldn’t this failure be also part of an incompetent IT team that failed to notice “repetitive access to super Mario brothers and first person shooter”?

In addition to letting teachers with five years’ experience go, this school is also guilty of firing excellent teachers because of favoritism. In this particular school there were three English teachers. Only one – considered by the administration as “an excellent teacher – was renewed the following year. The other two teachers were fired. I found this curious, as the “excellent” teacher had his students’ passing rate in the state’s standardized tests pass at a rate of 54%, while the two teachers fired had a passing rate of 92% and 100%. The same is true of two science instructors who were fired – they got their respective groups at a passing rate of 68% and 72% – the highest mark in the charter school’s 4 year history and the second and third highest scores in that school since the No Child Left Behind law came into effect. This might seem like a horrible disservice to the students, but if you consider that the main purpose of these schools is to make money, it makes sense. Keep inexperienced teachers who are paid a lower fee than the experienced teachers, cycle them out every year with the excuse that they have low scores in the state’s assessment test, and once a teacher reaches a level of experience where he or she can make a living, fire them on charges of “breaking company policy”, which means that the school will not have to pay for the teacher’s summer salary, honor any of their benefits, or pay unemployment while the teacher finds a new job. Of course, exceptions can be made if one is related in some way to the administration.

The second school that I will write about – a sister school to the one I just wrote about – has a higher number of students per classroom: 35 per class to be exact. Although this school kept teachers for a slightly longer period of time – 8 years from what my colleagues told me – and they don’t fire teachers on fake general charges, they structure the contract in such a way that the school can cancel it at any time without giving any kind of explication.

The third school I know about has “fair” labor practices where teachers are hired based on qualifications and kept on annual reviews – a system similar to university lecturers – and this school has thus far not fired any bad teachers; although my contact in this school did tell me that the administration fired three teachers whose scores in the state’s standardized test was less than 20% for two consecutive years and one for having a 35% passing rate and mediocre classroom reviews. This school, however, an elementary school, had a student cap of 55 students per classroom. If you are a teacher, you know what this means – 55 unruly kids who would rather be anywhere else are all pressed together in a small classroom with a single adult for supervision. If you’re not a teacher, just imagine being the parent of 55 kids of the same age.

These are not theoretical brain-trips – these are all real examples from real schools. Luckly for students – although teachers are not so lucky – the third school is closing. In order to further profits, the first two schools are merging and cutting teachers. I don’t know if they will make longer school days and make teachers offer 8 or 9 sessions per day or if they will have groups of 30 students, but by merging all the students of both campuses and cutting half of the faculty of either campus there can only be one real looser – the kids.

This is how economics distort the purpose of a school and damage the learning outcomes of children. But the pride (and perhaps interests?) of the administration also serves to further damage the learning experience.

In the one school that I was the most familiar with, the administration decided that every teacher would use a new gimmick-y model of education to their lessons where everything had to be a hands-on fun activity and there would be no lecturing or class discussion of texts. I should mention that as much as I like gimmicks in some videogames and as big of an advocate of game-based learning and game-structured curriculum that I am, I cannot agree to a class where, for example, students spend 15 minutes throwing down balls on ramps, 15 minutes forcing objects through various liquids and semi-liquids, and 30 minutes throwing various objects of different sizes on a freefall and completely ignoring discussions of energy, mass, friction, resistance, or speed. Likewise, I cannot agree with a class where students “make homemade ice cream” and completely forego the discussion of how the chemicals of the items inside the ice cream making bag reacted to temperature changes caused by ice in order to create bad-tasting ice cream. These two examples are not theoretical classes, but actual lessons that the science teachers in one of the above mentioned schools were FORCED to teach by the administration. The teachers wanted to give a lesson that introduced the principle, invited the students to do the experiment, and engage the students in discussion, but the administration decided that “teachers talking about formulas is boring for the students, so just do three different hands-on activities and don’t explain anything”. The failure of the lesson as reflected in the six weeks assessment was then blamed on the teachers by the administration who claimed that “the teacher just isn’t explaining enough”. Oh the irony!

Now, this does not mean that all charter schools across the nation are failing. The fact that I have not heard of a single case where the charter model makes a school better does not mean that there aren’t any places where this model has succeeded, and I’m sure that some parent somewhere will be willing to share some positive story of how their kid went from a hoodlum to an A student thanks to the charter model – I just haven’t met that person yet.

So, is there a plausible solution? Is it possible to have a system where teachers and administrators are forced to watch out for the best interests of our children? I don’t know, but I do know that education needs to be reformed, and that the charter model isn’t a good solution. Allow me, then, to propose some items that I feel might help education.

  1. First and foremost, only people who are qualified should decide the content that is taught, in what order it should be taught, and what the textbooks should say. This does not mean that politicians, pastors, or parents (the three evil Ps of education) DO NOT HAVE A SAY ON WHAT IS TAUGHT. The people who should decide what to include in the science textbooks should be science specialists, the people who decide what should go in history textbooks should be historians, and people who decide what goes in literature textbooks should be English Ph.D.s, because despite all the ranting and raving from pastors, parents, and politicians about “creationism versus darwinism”, “the founding fathers being against slavery”, or “the evils of Harry Potter”, the people who know and understand the content and the people who know what should be learnt in what order in order to achieve mastery are the content experts, and education should be about factual information, the development of critical thinking, and the creation of wholistic members of society, not about political indoctrination.
  2. Only TEACHERS should have a say on HOW to present the material. Just like content experts have a lifetime’s training in science or history or linguistics, teachers have a lifelong training on how to present material, how to make it engaging, and how to offer that material to students in a way that they will find appealing. In other words, once teachers have the course text, they should be allowed to develop their own lessons and engage students in the correct way. I should not here that by teacher I don’t mean “people who work teaching”, but real educators with credentials.
  3. The administration should focus on administrative tasks. This includes scheduling professional development conferences for teachers, acquire new equipment, and even coordinate classroom evaluations to teachers – which should be carried out by one area specialist, one member of the administration, and a fellow teacher.
  4. Funding should not be done in a per-student basis or come exclusively from property taxes. I don’t know what kind of funding would be ideal, as I’m not an economy person, but at the very least once a decent infrastructure is set funding should be at least enough to cover for the upkeep of the facilities, to give teachers enough materials [3], and pay the faculty and the school employee’s salaries.

I think that if you give teachers a good place to teach in they will do an excellent job and this enthusiasm will then rub on to even the worst of students. I know it did on me.

  1. Parents should be involved in the school community and the school should hold activities that are family-friendly. By parents being involved I don’t mean by organizing book burnings of non-bible texts or by making protests in front of schools about how Darwinism (a term that doesn’t even exist within the scientific community) spells the satanic brainwashing of kids. By being involved I mean go into school and ask teachers about how the kids are doing. Write them letters about the kid’s progress. Go to parent-teacher activities. Likewise, schools should do more activities for parents than PTA meetings where teachers rant about how kids don’t care about education. Schools could hold “family picnic weekends” or, if the facilities allow, even workshops for parents on “how to browse the internet with your kid”.
  2. As for teacher appointments, benefits, salaries, and the tenure issue, I feel that salaries should be based on a fair scale that weights education and experience with bonuses based on performance. I don’t think anyone who is not a) a person with a degree in education or b) a person with a degree in the content area with various courses in education should be hired. I think that a good pay scale would start with a fresh graduate with no experience at $30,000 and ending with a teacher who holds a doctoral degree and has 30+ years experience at $85,000. Yes, I know that $85,000 might seem like a lot, but if you consider that this is for teachers who have worked for 30 years and hold a Ph.D., I don’t see it as a lot. As for the tenure issue, I agree with “conditioned” tenure. After 2 – 3 years on the tenure track, teachers can gain a sort of tenure and keep it only if they keep getting consistent good reviews in their classroom visits. I believe in a 3-strikes you’re out policy. After three consecutive bad reviews, the teacher can be let go regardless of tenure. The point of tenure, then, would serve to give the teacher some sort of security that he or she will not be let go at a whim.

I am aware that, as an educator, my opinion on benefits might seem biased, but I also know that I have a bit of a centrist position on this. Teachers should work 1 month during summer (if necessary and if there are students repeating the course) and have one months’ worth of paid vacation. I also think that teachers – and all workers in any field, really – should have some sort of employee-backed healthcare plan where the healthcare fee is paid by both the employer and the employee. The percentages on how much who should pay should be based on a chart similar to the pay scale chart. As for retirement, teachers should be allowed to pay into and receive social security instead of some sort of teacher’s pension fund. The teacher’s pension fund could be an optional program where ONLY THE TEACHER puts money into.

I know that these six points are far from being a comprehensive educational reform, but they are fixes to what I feel are some of the worst problems in education. There might be better fixes out there, but these are at least a good step in the right direction. A good infrastructure for schools, good, qualified teachers who feel fulfilled and compensated fairly for their services, and administrators who cooperate with students, faculty, and area experts, as well as schools that give students and their families opportunities to meet teachers in more contexts than just “your student is failing”, will no doubt create a better learning environment for children than a broken down school with diminishing funds and less teachers regardless of how well students do.

So there you go.

Tomorrow I’ll write a little bit about E3, and then back to Blake.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Many people say that “teachers have it easy” because they have good benefits including 2 months’ worth of paid vacations, good medical plans, and “short” work hours – usually from 7:30 to 3:00. To those who think this, be aware that teachers usually have only 30 minutes of lunch, which they have to take in the cafeteria with the students at the same time that they have to keep them from being too noisy or having any fun. They then have to teach 6 classes per day to 6 groups of 30 to 40 students per classroom, all of whom would rather be somewhere else and none of whom are ashamed to scream at the teacher how much they would rather be elsewhere every 5 minutes. When you take into consideration that after school teachers have to work at home preparing the class and creating materials, as well as correcting the students’ papers and exams, and that they have to put up with parents who think that they know more about science or literature than the science or English teachers, it becomes evident that teaching is not about showing up and talking crap for six hours, as many people think, but that it’s actually a hard job.

[2] I would like to take this moment to mention Prof. Lydia Diaz, my high school Spanish teacher, Prof. Maria Beily, my high school history teacher, and Prof. Maria Soto, my high school English teacher, all of whom made an incredible impact in my life and without whose guidance and council I would not have been able to become who I am today.

[3] By “enough materials” I don’t mean “give teachers everything they ask for”. I’m very much aware that no school teacher has any business around an original fourth edition A Dictionary of the English Language. However, it might be prudent for the library to have the 27 volume Oxford and have it be updated every 5 years. Unless schools focus on graphic art they should not have 30 game design work stations, but there should be a computer classroom with systems good enough to have internet and run the latest Office software on them, as well as some additional computers in the library (perhaps 10 or 20?) for research and student projects. Also, unless classrooms have projectors, lots of paper will be needed, but if classrooms do have projectors teachers don’t need to print out 300 exercise sheets every day for their students. The choice, then, of paper vs. projector would be an administrative one – but give teachers one or the other, not a complete lack of both.

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About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on June 9, 2011, in Education Commentary and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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