From Mike Klonsky’s Small Talk Blog
by Mike Klonsky
Right-wing think-tankers at the Fordham Institute are looking for answers and I’m sure they’ll find them. You see, it’s all in how you pose the question.
Their latest quest has to do with charter schools. Fordham, which doubles as a charter school lobbying and support group in Ohio, and their business-minded partners, Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust (CEE-Trust), are getting together to ponder whether or not so-called charter incubators can “can solve the problem of too many mediocre charter schools.”
Right away, just by the way the question is asked, you can assume that the answer is yes. Otherwise why would they go to all thetrouble to dredge up that old incubator thing from back in the early ’90s? I mean, isn’t this what the old charter authorizers were all about? I figure that there must be some Walton or Gates money coming on line to fund charter incubators; thus a convening of the clan is definitely in order, including a panel of the usual entrepreneurial types lining up at the trough.
But what got me most interested was the other part of the question. I mean, are there really too many “mediocre” charter schools? Let me ask this another way: Can there be too many mediocre schools, students, or teachers? Not, I would argue, if you’re speaking the language of corporate school reform or Race To The Top, which has schools, teachers and even nations, competing with each other to see who’s better, worse or somewhere in between. Within that paradigm, a large dose of mediocrity is required. If the middle became the top, re-norming would certainly be in order.
Many companies are built on a model which rewards a small percentage of top performers, encourages a large majority in the middle to improve, and lays off the bottom performers. If you’re at all interested in the theoretical side of this business model, see “Punishing by Rewards: When the Performance Bell-curve Stops Working For You”, by a group of MIT researchers who argue that this model often actually decreases performance.
On a standard curve, most schools, whether charter or public, group around the middle or mean. No matter what miracles the corporate reformers work, no matter how many schools they turn around or close, there will always be “too many” in the middle, with fewer at the top and bottom (or ends of the curve). This applies to teachers, schools and test-takers as well.
When Arne Duncan and Pres. Obama announced, more than two years ago, that they would solve the problem of high school “dropout factories” by closing 5,000 of the schools at the bottom, they failed to take into account that now there would still be 5,000 more schools at the bottom. What they did instead was demoralize lots of struggling schools and their dedicated, hard working teaching staffs. Even if every charter school was run by top-feeders like KIPP or even by Fordham themselves, there would still be “too many” mediocre charters–especially if they would be pitted against one another in a Race To The Top for a shrinking pool of resources, teachers, and high-scoring students (no special-ed or ELLs, please).
We already know that, when compared with traditional schools, only about one-third of the nation’s charter schools score higher. On most lists of top-performing schools, you will rarely find a charter school. So since the reformers already knew that mediocrity is a necessity in this market-driven game they are playing, and since they already knew before they posed the question, that incubators are the answer– why then are they continuing this charade?
The early charter schools were largely experimental attempts by teachers and community-based organizations to re-think schooling and to provide a critical force for systemic change. Once the charter movement was taken over by school-reform entrepreneurs called CMOs, market forces went into full play. Starbucks-style replications, going to scale, leveraging real-estate, and vertical integration became the new lingo of charter reform. Huge charter school chains sprung up with lots of backing from powerful philanthropists, squeezing out the smaller innovative, teacher-run (mediocre?) charters. The consolidation continues. Thus, too many “mediocre” schools. The think-tankers obviously have an interest in how this question is answered.