A Smarter Charter: A Response to Nelson Smith

We are grateful to long-time charter school advocate Nelson Smith for his review of our new book, A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education.  Smith, who used to be president of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools and is now a senior advisor to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, provides and fair and accurate description of our book’s thesis:  that we should return to Albert Shanker’s original vision of charter schools as institutions that provide flexibility to experiment with new approaches, that enhance the role of teachers in running schools, and that integrate students of different racial and economic backgrounds.  We are pleased that Smith finds parts of the book “absorbing and instructive.”

Having said that, Smith takes a strikingly different view of the evidence on several important topics discussed in the book.  We welcome the chance to respond on issues of teacher voice; diversity and achievement; and what Al Shanker might say today about the state of charter schools.

1. Teacher Voice

Shanker believed students would be better served if charter schools were not only unionized but also allowed teachers significant new say in how charter schools were run.  But today, charter school teachers often have even less voice than teachers in district public schools.  In the book, we note that charter school teachers report working longer hours, receiving fewer benefits, and are more likely to cite frustration as a reason for leaving.  All of these findings are buttressed by the fact that charters have higher levels of teacher turnover, a phenomenon associated with reduced outcomes for students.

We cite a 2012 study in the Economics of Education Review by David Stuit of Basis Policy Research and Thomas Smith of Vanderbilt, using data from 2004, which found that teacher turnover in charters was double that found in traditional public schools (24% vs. 12%) and seeks to explain why that is the case.

Nelson Smith correctly points out that subsequent surveys find a smaller gap in turnover.  A 2008-09 survey found turnover of 15.4% in the traditional public schools and 23.9% in charter schools.  And as Smith points out, a brand-new September 2014 study (published long after our book went to print), finds a further narrowing of the gap.  The study finds 15.7% turnover in traditional public schools and 18.4% in charter schools.  That is to say, whereas teachers used to experience 100% more turnover in charter schools, today charters see 17% higher turnover.  We hope that trend continues. Providing greater teacher say in charter schools – something that happens in several of the charter schools we profile – would likely close the turnover gap further.

In A Smarter Charter, we suggest several ways to increase teacher voice, through greater openness to unions, adoption of cooperative models, and use of flat managerial structures.  Curiously, Smith appears to object to our policy recommendation “that state laws provide an automatic union vote in the first year of each charter.”  We embrace Smith’s contention that school children deserve a choice about which public school they attend.  Why not give teachers an automatic choice to vote up on down on whether they want to band together collectively to form a union?

2. Diversity and Achievement

Charter schools have the potential to be more economically and racially integrated than neighborhood public schools because they don’t have to reflect residential segregation. For example, charter schools can simultaneously draw from urban and suburban student populations, as Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy does in Rhode Island.  Shanker was deeply inspired by a 1987 visit to a German school that taught Turkish immigrant and native German students side by side.  And the early charter school laws in states such as Wisconsin, Hawaii, Kansas and Rhode Island all required charter schools to take positive steps toward promoting diversity.  But today most charter schools have even higher concentrations of poverty than traditional public schools.

Smith dismisses this concern by suggesting that integration and academic rigor are unrelated concepts.  He says what matters is getting “a first-rate education,” and low-income parents of color don’t believe “that their children can’t learn well if they’re not sitting alongside affluent white kids.”

We agree that students of all backgrounds can achieve at high levels, even in learning environments with concentrated poverty.  But, in practice, high-achieving, high-poverty schools are rare. A half century of research finds that separate schools for rich and poor are seldom equal, and that when low-income students (of any race) are given a chance to go to lower poverty schools, they tend to perform better.  Shouldn’t charters take advantage of this reality to try to create economically-mixed environments where possible?

It is true, as Smith points out, that a 2013 Stanford CREDO study finds that low-income students in high-poverty charter schools do somewhat better than low-income students in high-poverty district schools.  But that conclusion does not undermine – rather, it reinforces – one of the central findings of school integration research: that having motivated peers and parents in a school community benefits all students.  Indeed, it would be remarkable if, all other things being equal, low-income students did not perform better in high-poverty charter schools than in high-poverty district schools given the self-selected nature of the classmates and parental community in charter schools.  In a typical high-poverty district public school, every student who happens to live in the neighborhood attends.  In a charter school, only those children whose parents seek out the opportunity and apply are allowed to attend.

On the overall issue of charter achievement, Smith says we take a “consistently glass-half-empty” view of the charter school movement’s progress.  For example, he says, we “rest on the familiar refrain that charter students do about the same as those in other public schools.”  Well, yes, the refrain is familiar because CREDO, IES, RAND, and just about every other comprehensive study have established it time and time again.  Smith argues that the charter school sector deserves more credit for closing failing schools and improving sector performance overall in the past five years. But going from disappointing performance to average performance is a far cry from the original hope of the charter school movement.

3. What Would Al Shanker Do?

Finally, in assessing the charter school movement, Smith considers what Al Shanker (who died in 1997), would think of the charter sector today.  He says Shanker wanted charters to be a “disruptive force” for improving education. Shanker would object to the charter sector’s general hostility to unions and the support of single-race schools, Smith acknowledges. (Shanker strenuously objected to these elements during his lifetime).  But, Smith says, Shanker would be talking with folks in successful charter schools “to find out what was making them tick.”

We heartily agree.  Indeed, that’s precisely the reason we wrote A Smarter Charter.  Unlike some of our liberal friends, we do not think we should dispose of the charter school experiment.  Instead, we should work hard to improve it.  There is considerable evidence to suggest that going back to the original Shanker vision – schools that give teachers voice and integrate students — would put the charter sector in a much better place moving forward.  More important, doing so would help charters become a beacon for district schools, which continue to educate 95% of American public school students.

- Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter

Nelson Smith responds to this blog entry in “A Smarter Charter: A Response to Kahlenberg and Potter

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