Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

High Standards or Double Standards?

vonzastrowc's picture

Fewer than half of students in Boston charter high schools make it to graduation. That's the bottom line of a union-sponsored study of the city's charters.

Charter leaders don't deny the numbers, but they do deny consciously pushing students out of their schools. It's those doggone high standards that are to blame! According to the Boston Globe:

Many students, charter leaders said, choose to leave to dodge high academic standards, returning to city-run schools where getting a diploma is often easier. Only in rare circumstances, they said, did a charter student quit school without subsequently earning a diploma.

“We are not just handing out diplomas,’’ said Thabiti Brown, principal at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester. “We want students to be successful in college, but unfortunately we have students who leave because they feel our academic standards are too high."

Is it me, or is there a double standard here? Shouldn't education reform zealots, for the sake of consistency, accuse Principal Brown of heresy? After all, he seems to believe that some children can't learn to high standards. Shouldn't a "no excuses" school do "whatever it takes" to hold on to each and every student, regardless of how unmotivated or intimidated by high standards? I though only "establishment" educators made excuses.

More to the point.... How can we say charter schools are better than traditional public schools if charters can't hold on to less motivated, less accomplished students? How can charter proponents claim that charter schools are the answer to what ails education? What should traditional public schools do with students who, in Principal Brown's words, "feel the academic standards are too high?" Push them down the road to an easier school? How does that leave no child behind?

Brown is by all accounts a devoted and uncommonly gifted educator. Codman Academy is likely an excellent school. But it struggles with attrition, a problem that bedevils some of the country's best charter schools.  (In traditional public schools, another term for attrition is "dropout rate.") As Mike Petrilli noted some time ago, many charter operators are realizing that the reality of urban school reform does not always match the rhetoric.

So zealots should stop pushing charters as the final word in urban school reform. It's one thing to say that some charter schools offer motivated students an excellent learning environment. It's quite another to argue that they're the magic pill for urban education.

Charters and traditional schools face many of the same challenges. But we all know what happens to traditional public school principals who use high standards to justify attrition.

School reforms that improve the lives of all kids cannot rest on charters alone.

Update: Carolyn Hoxby's new study of New York City charter schools finds that, on average, they substantially outperform traditional public schools. Hoxby concludes that students in remain in New York City charters from first to eighth grades actually perform almost as well as their peers in affluent schools. Her study compares students in charter schools with those who applied to charters but were not accepted. This methodology aims to minimize the effects of selection bias.

The study presents a strong endorsement of the city's charter schools as an important option for motivated students and families. I'm not sure it addresses the impact of attrition, however. Nor does it present charters as the solution for all children. Still, it seems to support the role of charters as laboratories for innovations we can apply in traditional public schools.

Some of the best things

Some of the best things happening in inner city schools are charters and you keep shooting them down. Boston charters do better on the tests and get more kids into college. A hatchet job on Boston charter schools isn't going to change that.

Robert Frost said, "Home is

Robert Frost said, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in," and it seems to me that the same applies to "regular" public schools.

Two years ago, a cheating scandal hit a charter school in our area, and it closed over the summer, handing nearly 500 high school students back to the local district a month before the start of school. But is that supposed to be a problem? No.

Situations like that may be the exception, but charter schools -- almost as much as private schools - have the luxury of choosing a niche, and saying "we're not for everyone." And the kids who don't fit go back "home" to the district schools.

I wish charter advocates would pause sometimes to recognize that "regular" schools are charged with doing something pretty amazingly difficult: educating every kid who shows up, no matter what. No, they don't always succeed, but very few charter schools that I know of are willing to even take on that challenge.

What does "get more kids into

What does "get more kids into college" mean if more than half leave before graduation? Also, if we're going to talk about "more," can we talk about the size of the schools? Getting "more" of a class of sixty into college is different than if you've got a graduating class of 200, 400, 600, etc.

Anonymous-- How does my post


How does my post "shoot down" charters? It praises the only charter it discusses. Why the all-or-nothing thinking? You seem to think that we have two options: set up charters as alpha and omega of all urban school reform or reject them all as failures. Surely there's another stance to take. Charters can play a critical role in urban districts, but are they THE answer? The most uncompromising charter supporters do the charter movement no favors when they over-promise what charters can deliver system-wide.

As for college-going rates, Tom makes a pretty important point. If the least motivated and presumably least successful half of the student body leaves before graduation, that's bound to jack up college attendance data, isn't it? I don't know enough about the Boston situation to say anything about the impact of attrition on test scores.

Rachel also has a point. Traditional public schools are at least supposed to take all comers. They are justly criticized when they push students out or lose them. They can't simply point to their high standards as a justification for high dropout rates or attrition rates.

Neither charters nor

Neither charters nor traditional schools have a corner on the effective teaching and leadership required to challenge, engage and support kids through graduation. Any high school that's allowing 50% of students to disengage and drop away is not an effective learning enterprise. No excuses cuts both ways.