Tag Archives: Philadelphia school system

Charter Schools: Helping Some, Hurting More

Ask almost any down-in-the-trenches teacher – as opposed to education academics whose heads generally reside where the sun don’t shine – and she’ll tell you that perhaps the single most important determinant of student achievement is an interested and involved parent.  Show me a child with a parent who’s engaged in his or her child’s education, that teacher will tell you, and I’ll show you a child I can teach and a child who will learn.

So doesn’t it stand to reason that most public school systems – especially large urban districts like Philadelphia – will inevitably see their learning environment decline and already-abysmal test scores fall even further in the coming years as more and more children with interested and involved parents switch to charter schools?

Every child who enrolls in a charter school has an interested and engaged parent – someone interested enough in their child’s education to declare that “I want more for my child” and who’s then willing to do the work involved in securing a place in a charter school.  Whether that school is actually better or not probably doesn’t even matter; it’s the motivation behind the move that speaks volumes about the parent and probably tells us a lot about the child, too.  The result of this growing migration, though, is that almost every new child who enrolls in a charter school does so to the detriment of the standardized test scores of the public school system he or she leaves behind.

Forget test scores for a moment – as if grand-standing politicians would ever let you, except in places like Philadelphia where most politicians simply don’t care.  The classroom experience – you know, those things that the education academics haven’t yet figured out how to measure but that in many respects are as important as the things you can measure – can’t help but suffer as well.  The children who leave are the interesting children, the children whose parents take them to the library, share experiences with them, ask to see their homework, talk to them at the dinner table, attend parents night at school, call the teacher when they think there’s a problem.  They are parents who show an interest in their children’s lives and education and play meaningful and positive roles in shaping their offspring.  Their children, in turn, make classrooms better and more lively and interesting places to learn for others.

Charter schools need not bother with the less able, the less well-behaved.  Many charter schools, like private and parochial schools before them, have little or no tolerance for students who are not prepared to achieve.  They don’t accept problem children, whether that problem is physical, intellectual, or emotional, or accept as few of them as possible.  Among the students they do accept, if behavioral problems arise?  Back to the regular public school you go.  Newly identified learning problem or disability?  Back to the regular public school you go.  So what do those public schools reacquire?  The worst of the students who abandoned them.

This has been going on forever.  The Curmudgeon recalls his own time at the Mayfair School in Philadelphia in sixth and seventh grades, when he experienced being on the receiving end of the process of schools getting rid of students they didn’t want.  Every month or two, a new kid would appear in class:  someone almost invariably taller than the rest of the students, or maybe showing a hint of facial hair.  The neighborhood kids – The Curmudgeon was bused to this school – would nod their heads and laugh or frown, knowing that trouble had just arrived.  These were the kids that nearby St. Matthew’s had thrown out because they were too disruptive, and now they were in public school, where their primary impact would be to slow down the rest of the class with their misbehavior and inability to understand what their teachers were trying to teach.  Teachers had an obligation to do the best they could with these students, but charter schools are under no such obligation:  often, they can just kick them out and send their troubles packing – back to the regular public schools, where they diminish the learning experience of their peers and drag down their schools’ test scores.

The Curmudgeon isn’t suggesting that charter schools are a bad thing – or a good thing.  But the next time you read that standardized test scores in a large urban school district have declined yet again, think about who’s taking those tests.  Sure, there are still good kids and good students in those schools, but many of the best are leaving for greener pastures, leaving public schools with the unenviable job of attempting to do more and more with less and less.  Their test scores have declined?  The classroom experience isn’t as stimulating, as rich?

How could it possibly be any other way?

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