16 Apr 2012
Letter to the Editor
I would like to weigh in on the charter school debate. Let me state up front that I am a professional, and I graduated from a rural Alabama public school.
If I understand the rhetoric surrounding education in general, what defines a successful education is the ability of the students within that educational system, at any level, to either 1) get a job, or 2) advance to a higher level of education for (it is hoped) a better job. Let me be clear: I do not believe that these should be the only measures of a successful education, but it appears that these measures ultimately may translate into improved health, improved quality of life, and more tax dollars, which can be used to improve the quality of life for the public, so they are commonly used.
I looked for evidence supporting the stance charter schools using a lottery system can better accomplish 1) gainful employment, or 2) advancement to a higher level of education, than standard public education. I was disappointed.
In a journal named “Future Child”, I found an article titled, “US Elementary and secondary schools: equalizing opportunity or replicating the status quo?” In this article, the authors note that low-income families attain less education than children from more advantaged families, for a number of reasons. For low-income students, borrowing costs, and the cost of staying out of the job market in order to obtain further education prove too high. A number of policies and programs have sought to improve the education of the disadvantaged, such as the No Child Left Behind Act, as well as charter schools and vouchers to help the children of poorer families attend private schools. These have been implemented, with modest results in student achievement. Of note, the two variables which do seem to make a difference are smaller classrooms and higher teacher pay.
I read the Final Report, “The Evaluation of Charter School Impacts”, by the US Department of Education. This report summarized the findings of a 2-year study of a large array of charter schools, including those in rural or urban communities, and across many states. Perhaps it is biased, but the statistics appeared sound, and they looked at much more than test scores: whether the children who wound up in charter schools actually enjoyed school better than their peers who did not; whether they tried harder in school; whether they were less likely to have behavior problems. I was disappointed to learn that 1) the ‘impact of charter middle schools on student achievement varied significantly across schools’, meaning that simply having a charter school did not guarantee better test scores, 2) on average, charter schools that hold lotteries are ‘neither more nor less successful than traditional schools in improving student achievement, behavior, or school progress,’ and, 3) charter schools serving low income or low achieving students had ‘significantly positive effects on math test scores’, while those serving more advantaged students negatively impacted math scores.
By the way, the Final Report does mention that most charter schools have smaller classrooms than their public school counterparts. Does this decrease in size offer the teacher an opportunity to hold each individual accountable? If so, we can shrink classroom size without a special charter.
But let me come full circle. Education, whether public, private, home, church, or ‘other’, is what the student makes of it, and how he is held accountable. I went to public school and I wound up highly educated, not only because I am the product of well-educated parents, but also because I grew up in a household where we were expected to ask questions and find out the answers. And this was before Google, when we had to look up the answers in books! The ultimate outcome of the schooling rests with the student’s commitment to the education. Are there students who will deliver the minimum to get by? Absolutely; which is why “No Child Left Behind” has backfired: ask around, ‘social promotion’ and ‘lowering the bar’ are alive and well.
If you can’t take the time to review the 259 page US Department of Education’s Final Report, then at least read Executive Summary on pp. xvii and xviii. If you do so, and you are still convinced that charter schools are the answer to education in Alabama, let me pose a scenario to you. Your doctor recommends a treatment plan for your illness which has worked for some people, but there is no convincing evidence that it will work for you, and it happens to be costly and inconvenient. Would you jump right in? Sign me up doc? I think not.
Personally, I believe every parent harbors a secret belief that his child is special, and that, if only he is ‘discovered’, he will find his educational niche and flourish, and prosper, and change the world. If we review the personal and educational history of successful people coming from backgrounds of potential challenge (impoverished, learning and physical disabilities, minorities during times of extreme prejudice, such as George Washington Carver), we find the presence of special opportunities—perhaps a charter school would be just that. But more important, we find special mentors. The mentor is the person who believed in them, who wouldn’t permit them to ‘just get by’, who elicited the best out of that young person. He might have been found in the classroom, or on the ball field, or in the library, or as a volunteer at the Y, and I believe that person is out there for every young person. I suspect that we harbor a secret fantasy that our children will be discovered in that shining school on the hill, to which we are offered access by a special lottery. But I don’t believe that you can legislate a way for every Helen Keller to encounter her Annie Sullivan.
If you are a concerned adult, make time to mentor. Invite young people into your place of business or work; share your passionate hobby. Invite them to watch you in real-time decisions about how to handle yourself in tough situations. Make time to find the young person out there who needs accountability, who needs your special area of excellence as a person or professional, who needs someone (not their parents or teachers) to demonstrate the facts of life to them regarding education.
Barring that, shrink the classroom, and pay the teachers. Maybe public school has changed since I graduated, but accountability has not. Mentoring has not.
I welcome evidence that a specific charter type will measurably improve public education in Alabama. I will gladly rewrite this letter-torial, given such evidence. I cannot find it.
Thank you for your consideration.
Elizabeth Owings, MD
Bibb County High School, 1982
US Department of Education Final Report
US Elementary and Secondary Schools: Equalizing Opportunity or Replicating the Status Quo?
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