Sunday, August 12, 2012

Do Parents Know What They Are Choosing With "School Choice"?

The other day, I was speaking with the administrative assistant for my floor at the psychiatric hospital where I work.  She happens to be a charter school parent. I've never really spoken to her about my views on charters, since I understand that the neighborhood schools in her area are woefully underresourced and under attack.

Still, a few months ago, I saw that her child's school was in the news.  Apparently, the charter school where her 12-year old daughter attends, is not performing well.  So, in true ed reform fashion, the charter school board decided to change charter management operators (again) and to perform a "turnaround" on the four failing schools (See this Tribune article  and also, former charter school teacher Seth Lavin breaks it down here saying "My point is that we, the reformers, are a disaster as a movement if we’re radically changing our own radical changes months after they start and, in the process, tossing students from school regime to school regime like an airline rebooking someone’s flight.")  When I questioned my colleague about this big change, she answered, "Oh my daughter had mentioned that many of her teachers were being laid off.  I told her to stop telling lies.  Why would a school tell the kids about lay-offs like that?  But I guess she was right.  I'm going to have to apologize to her when I get home."

This parent had no knowledge about the happenings at her child's school.  And this woman is an excellent parent, both she and her husband are very involved in their children's lives.  But the school obviously did a horrible job keeping parents informed and engaged.

I went on to ask if her daughter had ever had an uncertified teacher. My colleague looked shocked saying, "I thought all teachers are certified."  I explained that schools like her daughters often use teachers from alternative certification programs like Teach for America, and that it's possible her child's teacher was not only uncertified, but had never worked with children in any capacity before entering that classroom.  She was horrified.  "Well, I am going to ask about her teacher next year. I had no idea."

If we live in an educational world where "choice" is prized above all else, surely parents have a right to fully understand exactly what "choice" they are making.  I find it unconscionable that organizations like Teach for America went to Congress to lobby for their untrained novices to be labeled as "highly-qualified".  Parents should at least be notified that their child's teacher has not completed a training program.  Frankly, if TFA is so confident in their novices' abilities, a simple letter home stating they have not completed their training should not be an issue.  Yet they spend their money lobbying to hide their recruits' certification status.  And when it comes to something as major as a school "turnaround" shouldn't parents have some sort of input or voice?  It's possible there were such events, but if an involved parent like the one I work with didn't know anything about it, and had to read about the changes in a Tribune article, then the school is not doing a good job of communicating.
It seems to me that charter proponents spend a lot more time and energy on the promotional/marketing side than on actually creating great schools.  "Looking good" becomes more important than actually "being good".   The current parent trigger fiascoes also demonstrate the idea of "looking good"--saying nice words like "parent empowerment" and "parent voice"--while actually turning schools into places with far less parent and public input.  Corporate-run schools like the charter in Chicago can do whatever they darn well please.  And my colleague's only way to "voice" her displeasure would be to remove her child from the school. 

These charter school parents are being given a false promise.  Like all parents, they want what's best for their kids.  And when all the resources and media-hype are being showered on the charters, I fully understand why a parent would choose to send their child to one of these schools.  Still, parents should know about the shortcuts the school takes.  They should know if their child's teacher is certified.  They should have input in whether or not a school is closed or gets "turned around".  At least in Chicago's neighborhood schools, parents can sit on Local School Councils.  Although far from a perfect system--especially since any school "on probation" has far fewer rights--at least, in theory, elected parent representatives can vote on budgets and principal hirings/firings.   And, not that it means much to an appointed school board, but at least--by law--CPS has to allow parent/community input before voting on major school actions like turnarounds or school closures.  But charter school parents do not get to share in any of the hard-won rights resulting from decades of struggle here in Chicago.

This exchange with my co-worker left me once again convinced that we need to fight for transparency in the truths behind corporate school reform.  One of the greatest forms of activism is simply to expose practices and ulterior motives of the pro-privatization crowd.  Behind the civil-rights rhetoric is something scary and wrong.  So let's continue to speak truth to power.


  1. I know you probably know all of the reasons why a parent might choose a charter, but I thought it might be helpful to put the “uncertified teacher” thing in context as a lesser-of-evils choice that families are faced with when choosing a school.

    I am both a parent and a CPS teacher. As a parent, I see some big positives to charters, such as being able to choose a specialty school, having significantly smaller class sizes, and especially having better discipline among students. The better discipline thing is a major factor when some neighborhood schools are overrun with kids with behavior problems. When I look at my own little kids, both in preschool, and imagine sending them off to kindergarten, my fantasy does not include a metal detector, drug-sniffing dogs, or warnings about wearing gang colors. I’m a CPS teacher and am painfully aware that those things are a necessary reality at some schools. But as a parent, I just don’t want to send my children somewhere with those kinds of problems.

    That is where charters come to the rescue, promising the safety and discipline of a private school for the price of a public school. In considering a charter, I imagine that all of the other charter school children will have parents just like me, who take school seriously and have high expectations for their children’s learning and behavior. I like that idea. I know charters claim they don’t do this, but as a parent, I also like that chronically disruptive students will eventually be asked to leave. I don’t want my kids’ teachers to spend the whole day managing bad behavior.

    As a teacher, I hate what taking all the non-disruptive kids out of a school does to the neighborhood school. I know it’s not fair. But as a parent, how can one make any other choice? I know neighborhood schools’ hands are tied. They can’t get rid of kids with behavior problems, and CPS can’t afford to reduce class sizes or bring in more staff to provide social support. CPS also doesn’t have the best track record of getting special education services to kids in need, which makes the problem worse.
    There are also cons to charters, like the uncertified teacher problem. I don’t want my kids taught by a TFA temp. I would rather they had a real teacher who has chosen to make a career of it. In fact I would be in favor of banning TFA from ALL schools in Chicago, since we are not experiencing a teacher shortage. I would also rather have my children taught by a teacher in a union. When I see the low salaries being offered by charters, it makes me wonder if they are really trying to recruit the best teachers, and not just the cheapest.

    But honestly, the certified teacher thing is less important to me than the safe-and-calm environment thing. If I think there are gaps in my children’s learning, I know I am capable of filling them in myself. What I can’t do is be at the school for 7 hours a day to protect my children from an unsafe, chaotic environment. I need to send them to a school I can trust.

    I hope this provides a little more insight into the options facing Chicago parents these days. Improving neighborhood schools to the point that they become the preferred choice will take a huge investment from CPS, but I don’t see that happening in the absence of better funding from the state.

  2. I completely understand a parent wanting a safe environment for their kids. The safer, smaller-class environment is certainly what the charters are marketing. But I do not believe the realities inside the schools live up to that promise. A select few are providing better environments, but after speaking with many students in the charters and reading up on their practices, I do not believe most charters are providing a genuine alternative. The "zero tolerance" or "no excuses" policies alone make me cringe. I would not want my child to be treated like a prison inmate nor do I like some of the strict behaviorist types of school discipline. I want the same type of respect and autonomy I received in my school out in the suburbs. Also, many of my charter students report pretty bad behavior problems in their schools made worse by the inexperienced teaching force. Frankly, after learning about the charters, I can say that I would NEVER place my child in a KIPP or Noble St School. Never. I might, however, consider some of the smaller, non-chain charters like Polaris Charter. (It was created by a group of Golden Apple Teachers, caps class size at 20 kids, has an aide in every classroom, is well-resourced, and every teacher has at least 5 years experience. I visited once and liked a lot of what I saw.)

    But I agree with you about the often unsafe environments in our neighborhood schools. But let's be clear, the problems in our schools are not about the teachers or staff. Which makes the current "solutions" unacceptable. Turnarounds don't work and successful charters are very few and far between. We need to start with DEMANDING full and equitable funding for all schools. Regardless of whether a parent chooses to put his/her child in a charter, we all need to be a united front forcing our politicians to fund our schools--Especially in Illinois where we are DEAD LAST in state spending on schools. So disgusting. We need to demand early childhood interventions so minor learning or behavior problems do not balloon into something major in the upper grades. We need to demand enough counselors, social workers, small classes, books, and give schools the FREEDOM to be innovative to reach all children. If we, as citizens and stake-holders, don't get disruptive and loud, nothing will ever change.

    What I hope to avoid is seeing parents divided-vying for their own personal portion of the pie, but rather all stake-holders demanding in solidarity more pie for all!

  3. Could you say a bit more about why you'd never place your child in a KIPP or Noble? And would you make that recommendation to a parent in North Lawndale or Englewood or Austin?

    1. Here is a good summary of some of what irks me about KIPP and other "no excuses" charters ( ):

      "Democracy and equity cannot be built upon coercion and inequity.

      Racial and economic equity cannot be built on racist and classist policies.

      One America cannot be realized by perpetuating two Americas in our schools.

      One education system that assumes children to be "good" and offers them the freedom and culture of respect and dignity necessary to learn and another education system that assumes "other people's children" are "bad" and offers them "badass" teachers, a culture of shame, and a school environment that treasures quantitative data and silent and still students above anything else.

      No metrics can ever justify for me the indignity of "no excuses" practices. None.

      In order to have one America, the America of democracy and equity for all, we must have one education system of democracy and equity for all."

      And as I said above, I would never tell a parent what to do for their child. But I would have the conversations about how their neighborhood schools have been historically and purposefully disinvested in, and are currently being starved of resources and destabilized ON PURPOSE to further privatization and gentrification efforts. Perhaps they would join the fight-AS MANY PARENTS ACROSS THE CITY HAVE--to stop the cruel racist policies of CPS which give scare resources to charters while underresourcing neighborhood schools. Parents in Chicago have occupied their schools (Piccolo: and Whittier, they have held hunger strikes demanding a new school in the neighborhood ( ) and now parents and community members are fighting the latest efforts to destabilize that amazing school. I would show them powerful community groups like KOCO (Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization ) which fight the privatization and defunding as well as develops their own locally-created school improvement designs.

      There are ways for parents, teachers, and communities to fight back without accepting the militaristic, corporate "choice" being spoon-fed to all. I am proud to stand in solidarity with all the groups fighting for social justice in this city.

  4. I've followed a Twitter link to your blog, and so glad I found it. This post and others you have are thoughtful, truthful, and illuminating. You bring a refreshing teacher point of view that is not heard enough in the edreform discussions. Thank you.

  5. I'm hoping I could get some specifics Katie-I'm not following your thoughts. Are you saying that networks like KIPP/Noble believe that their kids are all "bad?" If so, could you give some examples? And how do they perpetuate schools with "badass" teachers?

    You talk a lot Katie, but rarely provide evidence, context, or examples. I feel like you are as much a sound bite as those you often critique in your blog posts.

    1. That quote was taken from the post I linked to above by Dr. Paul Thomas. Please take a moment to read his whole post in regards to the ways that KIPP and other "no excuses" charters offer a different type of education and discipline to low-income children of color, methods which affluent schools would likely reject. The slogans (like SLANT), discipline methods (Noble St's charging low-income families for infractions), the "badass teacher" reference, are all from actual first-hand reports and sources from charter school teachers and materials.

      I agree with Dr. Thomas. The "no excuses" methods are based on classist and racist assumptions on how certain kids should be treated. Creative, experiential-learning, critical thinking, debate, less rigid discipline practices for children of the elite, and strict, behaviorist, rote-memorization,"sit-up-straight, tuck-in-you-shirt" tough love for children from low-income backgrounds. Dr. Thomas writes, "...'No excuses" environments are predominantly about placing affluent and privileged people in positions of authority to deliver authoritarian training to students unlike them; in other words, 'no excuses' ideology is about isolating, controlling, and ultimately 'fixing' 'other people's children.'"

      What is interesting to me is how when parents, community groups, and students act outside the elites' plans--like the examples I mention above about very real examples of true community/parent empowerment, the elite get very nervous and immediately try to silence and stop the civil disobedience led by the people being oppressed. But the elite LOVE the KIPP-like "no excuses" charters. It's about power, control, and putting people in their place, not about educating America's children. (How you like THAT sound bite! I think I'll tweet that one...)