I have argued, for some time, that there’s a basic misunderstanding about why some schools and school districts are considered good. Many argue that, thanks to the vagaries of local districting and funding of public education through property taxes, the hardest to educate kids are systematically excluded from the best schools. They aren’t wrong to say so. However, they miss a key detail: in large measure, those schools are perceived to be the best precisely because they systematically exclude the hardest to educate kids. If the three most powerfully correlative demographic factors for educational success are parental income, race, and parental education, then our system of educational districting is a powerful tool for separating those demographically predisposed for success from those predisposed for failure. I am firmly in support of efforts to integrate these separate groups, for a variety of reasons. But those who suggest that doing so would result in the worst-performing students suddenly and significantly improving are almost certainly mistaking cause for effect.
I would argue that the charter school movement has, in an oblique way, provided a great deal of evidence for my position. You can find that evidence in this thorough, necessary piece of reporting from Reuters. You should really read the whole thing. It details, at great length, the extraordinary measures that administrators in charter schools take to exclude the students that are difficult to educate, thereby gaming the system to appear effective in relation to the public schools that have no similar screening process. The methods they utilize to do so are, at times, jaw-dropping; their effect, to keep out children who are poor, from racial and ethnic minorities, from broken families or bad parents, and the like. All in all, it’s behavior reminiscent of the private high school in my hometown that bragged about the test scores its students received, neglecting to mention that they had to get good scores on a standardized tests to get in. All from advocates of “parental choice,” “expanding access,” or whatever other self-aggrandizing language you can think of.
In the great efforts they are expending to exclude the students that are the most difficult to educate, charter schools are lending more credence to my argument about the arrow of causation in our perception of school quality than I could ever generate.
The big question is why anyone would be surprised. Recently I mentioned Campbell’s Law, and pointed out that we don’t have to excuse efforts to cheat standardized assessment measures, but we do have to expect them, if we’re being rational students of human behavior. It’s a similar story here: for decades, ed reformers have insisted that the key to improving American education is to open it up to competition. “Competition,” like “innovation” or “disruption,” is one of those educational bywords that seems to have no particular character outside of whatever policy the person using it wants to advocate. But to the extent that it actually refers to real-world competitive behavior, let’s be clear: these administrators, as hypocritical and destructive as they are, are living up to that mantra. Cheating, or rule-bending, or playing it fast and loose, or following the letter but not the spirit, or juking the stats, or whatever– all are a part of what actual competitive behavior entails. Outside of the heady confines of Davos, principals working hard to keep out poor, needy kids from their charter schools while they pleat on about no child being left behind is a great example of how people actually compete. Be careful what you wish for.