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.