A thought-provoking article about a successful district middle school in the Bronx in a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine has led to some interesting public responses from charter advocates in New York. As the article notes, this school’s principal and teachers combine innovative teaching and learning (such as a dual-language immersion program for its high proportion of English Language Learners) with a firm commitment to serving all students who want to come — even if, unlike at charters, those students arrive in the middle of the year or as transfers in upper grades.
One of the most negative reactions to the piece has come from former Chancellor Joel Klein, who (in an email exchange with the reporter) responded defensively to the article’s implied criticism of his own administration’s support for charters:
[A]re you saying that, by dint of applying to a charter, a family is more ambitious and motivated? That suggests that, ipso facto, families who are ambitious and motivated about their kid’s education chose charters (rather than traditional public schools like 223). I doubt there is any basis to support that inference but, if you’re right, that would be quite an argument for replacing all traditional public schools with charters, including 223, because those ‘who are ambitious and motivated’ for their children want a charter.
I would argue that Klein is being somewhat disingenuous here in his shock at the idea that charters might attract more “ambitious and motivated” parents. That exact assumption is why “lottery-based” assessments of charters’ achievement results (where students who won the charter’s admission lottery are compared to students who applied to the charter but lost the lottery) are considered the “gold standard” for charter research, even among charters’ strongest advocates. As these researchers know, the lottery method offers a way of controlling for the same kind of hard-to-measure differences between parents who do and don’t apply to charters as those which Klein dismisses as having no basis.
That said, I disagree with the reporter’s response to Klein that there are “a lot of parents [who] are NOT actively engaged in trying to get their kids a better education,” as illustrated by the enrollment of their children at (sometimes low-performing) neighborhood schools or their lack of attendance at school meetings. While there is certainly a minority of parents and guardians who are truly disengaged from their children’s education,there are far more of them who are actively engaged in trying to support their children’s education, but who don’t participate in school choice or go to meetings for a variety of reasons which have nothing to do with how much they care about their kids — including a lack of time, resources, or information.
And finally, as for the reporter’s speculation that the local KIPP school is “better,” it’s interesting to note that MS 223 actually got a higher overall score from the city on its progress report last year than KIPP Academy did — 78.8 for MS 223 compared to 71.4 for KIPP. Even more ironically, the charter school across the street from MS 223 — which the NY Charter Association suggests is one of the models that MS 223 and other district schools are and should be emulating — got an F for student progress on its latest progress report from the city, and scored only 15.3 points out of 100 overall. Numbers like that are worth keeping in mind as the myth that charters are always “better” than district schools continues to dominate school reform rhetoric in New York City and elsewhere.