A School I Believe In, a Movement I Don’t

Editor’s note: the following piece was written by a charter school teacher whose request for anonymity I honored. Leave comments or email them to me at tips@haveyouheardblog.com and I’ll pass them along. JCB

How my charter network’s advocacy hurts more kids than it helps…

old seatsLast year I made the agonizing decision to leave my urban public school and take a job at a charter school that is part of a highly-regarded network. I loved my students and the community at my former school, but after a tumultuous year spent battling a hostile administration, I knew I had to leave. About two months into work, and now at the beginning of the school year, I’m convinced that I’ll become a much stronger teacher as a result of the feedback, support and coaching I’m getting at my new school. What I’m far less comfortable with, though, is the role that my charter network plays in the larger charter-school movement

A deeply troubling movement
My network’s contributions to a deeply troubling charter-school movement, both nationally and at the state level, have been substantial. Speaking concretely, the charter movement has produced multiple low-performing schools for each high-performing school it’s produced. Many of these struggling schools stay open for several years, and more get their charters renewed than they should. The charter authorization process is hardly democratic, which is deliberate. Some non-profit-run charters have become cash cows for education corporations and consulting groups, even as the schools mis-educate and underserve kids.

Meanwhile, many of the high-performing schools are so driven to be defined as *high-performing* by the narrow metrics the movement and, increasingly, we as a country endorse, that they achieve their success through astonishingly high attrition and an obsession with compliance. There is also the uncomfortable reality that a movement that advocates for charter schools for students of color, is overwhelmingly white-led and often profoundly paternalistic.

Still, I’m inclined to be forgiving of my network. On the whole, they are doing a relatively good job by students, their families, and the communities the schools serve. My school specifically is doing great things for our kids, sticking by even the most troubled and challenging, which gives me hope. And the network seems genuinely and deeply committed to learning to do better––even at the expense of test scores, at least for now. What I’m less forgiving of is the choice to be willfully ignorant regarding the impact their advocacy has had on kids who’ve attended the horrendous charter schools the movement has manufactured, or who’ve been left behind in increasingly resource-starved and competition-driven public schools. My network clearly advocates with the best of intentions for policies that will allow them to serve greater numbers of kids. But they seem oblivious to or uninterested in the fact that the majority of students won’t end up in their system or systems like it but in other, often far worse places.

What I’m less forgiving of is the choice to be willfully ignorant to the impact their advocacy has had on kids who’ve attended the horrendous charter schools the movement has manufactured, or who’ve been left behind in increasingly resource-starved and competition-driven public schools.

Missing numbers
For a movement that claims to be all about data, there are numbers that are noticeably absent from the conversation. How many kids have attended low-numbers 2performing charters? How many have been expelled from or pushed out of the high performers? Reformers will likely employ a familiar platitude in response: Charters are far from perfect, but we should be celebrating their successes; lest we forget when there was no alternative to the failing neighborhood public schools in poverty-stricken areas. To some degree, this argument is compelling because it is rooted in truth––narrow as its definition of *success* may be. But while education may not be a zero-sum game, it is certain that whatever overall increase in test scores charter schools have helped produce has come at a cost.

The kids left behind
This burden, which has come in many forms, has almost always fallen on the kids and families who were left behind: in having their neighborhood school boarded up and being forced to commute across the city to a school that serves them no better or worse; in being told that *this school may not be the best fit* for them and receiving calls and texts for every little misbehavior until they feel so unwelcome and exhausted that they’re convinced it isn’t worth it anymore; in being reminded that they can *vote with their feet* when they fight to be better served by their schools. These experiences are all too real and common.

Which raises an important and heartbreaking question: Why must whatever *progress* society makes for kids of color be secured on the backs of other kids of color? That, unfortunately, is a question I’m not sure we as a society are willing to ask, let alone answer.

In moving to a school in hopes of becoming a much better teacher and learning how great schools are run, have I become complicit in a movement that is making things worse for the kids I left behind?

There’s another question I’m grappling with these days as I try to reconcile my conflicting feelings about a school I believe in and the larger charter movement I don’t. In moving to a school in hopes of becoming a much better teacher and learning how great schools are run, have I become complicit in a movement that is making things worse for the kids I left behind?


  1. Solid article. I really appreciate the nuance and questions raised. My own path to working at a charter school sounds similar. My students and I are in the middle of the current debate over WA state charter schools. The choice by many critics to not distinguish between the positive impacts of individual schools and the systemic implications of charter schools has left me frustrated lately. It’s far too soon to tell what will come of all of this in WA state, however. For now, I hope to keep some of these questions with me as I continue working for my students.

    Are you the author of this article, or is this a guest contribution? I may just be confused, but your “About EduShyster” page indicates that you are a journalist, but not a classroom teacher? Are you both?

    1. This is an unnamed guest piece of which I am the editor. I’m a journalist, not a classroom teacher. I wouldn’t last a day 🙂

        1. Done! Thanks for the suggestion. This is the first anonymous piece I’ve published since the days, now long ago, when I was anonymous 🙂

  2. I appreciate your mindfulness of your personal professional dilemma– it’s not an easy call. But you are incorrect in one statement, and that’s the source of your larger concern.

    You say that education is not a zero-sum game, and that’s true in the sense that all students could learn. But financing schools, providing them with the necessary resources and support? Under our current system, that is absolutely a zero sum game.

    Every child who enters a charter school does so at the expense of several others still in public school. It’s a simple as that. As long as policy makers insist that we can have this shiny public-and-charter system without actually paying for it, children will get shafted, and as long as policy is tilted toward the charters, the children getting shafted will all be found in public schools.

  3. Yes, but you are not alone. Every parent who moved their child to a corporate charter school—through ignorance and/or being fooled by the corporate Charter’s Tsunami of misinformation, false promises and propaganda—is doing it too.

    I don’t care what justification they make. They are all guilty.

    If this country wanted to improve the public schools, all it would take is bringing together all the stakeholders, including teachers, children and parents, and working together to fix things.

    There is absolutely no need to do away with the transparent, non-profit, community based, democratic public schools and replace them with opaque, for profit (no matter how you look at it), often authoritarian, inferior or the same and fraudulent private sector schools that are called Charters.

    What is happening to the public schools in the United States is no different than the lies that were used to start a war in Iraq and in Vietnam, and see what that caused—-millions of innocent people dead and those who have survived are on the run across borders looking for a place to settle where they don’t have to live in fear.

    Nothing good is going to come out of a movement based on misinformation propaganda campaigns, cherry-picked facts, fraud and lies—–NOTHING!

  4. I always appreciate your perspective and honesty. In trying all the things I tried for my son, I went from hostile administration to charter back to hostile administration. Maybe by following your articles and Diane Ravitch, parents will tune in and start making demands to improve public education. I don’t know though, after all I experienced as an articulate, yet gracious advocate for my son. Parents must get involved, high hopes that the Dept. Of Ed. has a fair plan is foolish. And the teachers/students are exploited. Sad to experience and sad to witness.

  5. Even if every charter was excellent, only a fraction of all students would attend them and that is separate and unequal education which I thought was outlawed in 1954. Even if every state didn’t explicitly state in its constitution that to be public schools, they must be governed by the public, charter schools would seem to be illegal on that score. And do we really want a shadow public school system that has no accountability? I’m glad to hear that the author’s charter network is doing a good job, but when I see the passion and the vehemence of those advocating for charter schools, and I notice that they are mostly rich, white men who have no record of caring about education or the least advantaged children in our society, I know their real motivation. Follow the money and see who’s getting rich.

  6. Nice piece, but to hop on to what Peter wrote above:

    So long as we use standardized tests to judge a school’s “effectiveness,” education is most certainly a zero-sum game.

    All standardized tests produce normal distributions, i.e. “bell curves.” In other words, all evaluations of a school/teacher/district/principal/whatever are made in relation to other schools/teachers/etc., not to some idealized standard.

    So if your school is teaching kids to read, but not on “grade level” — which is a social construct — that school will be judged as “failing.” Somebody has to be below average, even if everyone is doing their job.

    More here: http://jerseyjazzman.blogspot.com/2015/05/standardized-tests-symptoms-not-causes.html

  7. Great guest post.

    Pols in Mass. who advocate for expanding charter schools (at the cost of defunding public schools) won’t engage in the debate. They merely say they want to, then launch multiple approaches to make it happen including a filing bill, launching a ballot petition, and filing a lawsuit premised on violation of civil rights, all at once.

    At the same time, there are parents who have reason to be displeased with the public school their kid attends and want a choice. How can we make their school better an not use it as an excuse to expand charters?

    1. I want a choice of water departments, police departments, transit districts, etc. But if we build parallel departments to enable this choice, we’d be weakening and worsening the existing departments without necessarily gaining a superior alternative. So it is with our schools.

      If we’re honest, we’d admit that the term “bad school” really means “bad students”. By “bad students” I do not mean “bad kids” but rather kids, often wonderful and bright kids, who do not “do” school well. They may be far behind. They may play around in class too much. What parents mean when they ask for a”better school” is really segregation from bad students.

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