Typically, when John Oliver takes on an intriguing subject matter that ails the American public, I’m easily sold. I’m ready to call the pharmaceutical company, burn down the FIFA offices, research all of my local judges and start campaigning in my neighborhood. But this time, with charter schools, he lost me.
As someone who used to teach in both traditional public schools and charter schools, I was pleased that John Oliver did not sweepingly damn all public charter schools, as is a common narrative in the education reform spheres. He raised some strong points about for-profit charters, online charters and truly mismanaged and corrupt schools. These points needed to be made, and those schools should not be open.
The problem with this narrative is simply that it blankets the rest of charter schools in a cloud of doubt and mistrust, seemingly suggesting that more often than not, a charter school may be corruptly run and bad for children. And, while this clearly is true in some cases, it’s simply not the case with most schools. And, sadly enough, the vast majority of our traditional public schools are failing poor and minority students so incredibly that I have to wonder: Why aren’t we taking a harder look at those schools?
As an educator, I’ve taught in a charter network and spent hundreds of hours in schools across the country, many of them charter schools. I’ve seen some schools close down, I’ve seen high teacher turnover, and I’ve seen practices I didn’t agree with. Yet more often than not, I saw innovation, drive and a level of student success that was often not happening in traditional public counterparts. John Oliver addresses this briefly when he features a student from KIPP (a national network of charter schools) who is a current student at Yale and speaks to his KIPP experience as being formative. And here’s where I think the narrative takes a wrong turn: I think that KIPP is the rule in charter schools and not the exception. I think the school in Philadelphia that turns into a nightclub is the exception, and I think for-profit charter schools are an exception — and a truly unfortunate and unethical idea.
Right now, just 9% of our nation’s poorest students graduate from a 4-year-college. In Nashville, where I live and used to teach, a news article published on Tuesday shared that just 11% of our district’s students were college ready. As a good friend said in response, where’s the outrage to that number? Where’s the proposal to scrutinize every school in this district that is currently failing 89% of its 88,000 students? A damning and heartbreaking statistic, certainly.
During my first two years of teaching at a traditional public high school in Tennessee, I worked at a school where the average ACT score was a 16.9 when I worked there and graduated less than 65% of its students (the second lowest in the whole city). The school is still open, with no notable improvement in outcomes for kids. This year? Only 4% of the student body scored a 21 or higher on the ACT. Somehow nobody is calling for an overhaul of what’s happening inside this school.
And yet, KIPP is bucking the trend: 44% of their students are graduating from 4-year institutions. Still not good enough, but five times what we’ve managed to do with our traditional public schools. YES Prep, another national network, has 96% of its alumni enrolled in college, compared to 53% of low-income students across the country.
Some argue that this is because charter schools funnel the best students in and counsel the worst students out. There is little to no evidence to support this claim; it is mostly based on anecdotal suggestions, often from outsiders; a more recent study showed no evidence that charters were more likely to push out low-performing students. In fact, some schools are even bucking another charter critique — that charters expel and suspend students at higher rates. I never experienced either of these academic or behavioral claims when I taught in a smaller network of charter schools, and most data show that charters serve similar amounts — if not more — students with special needs than their public school counterparts. KIPP’s student population is 10% special needs and 17% English Language Learners, both comparable to the national average. Noble Schools, a well-known network based in Chicago, has ACT scores that have continuously improved over time and are multiple points above Chicago Public Schools, despite the fact that both networks serve students in significant poverty. Having spent time in Noble schools, I was astonished at the difference in high-quality work I saw teachers asking students to do compared to many of the schools I’ve spent time in.
My point is this: Charter schools do not have to be the enemy. Yes, they need oversight, but our traditional public schools do as well. We currently allow only 9% of our poorest students to go to college without doing an exposé on how our system of hundreds and thousands of schools are failing them and instead choose to vilify several dozen schools who have severely mismanaged their power, money, and influence. If we’re really going to call out the horrors of the education system, we ought to start by taking a cold, hard look at the heart of the system that has been failing its most vulnerable students for far too long.