Dog Days of Summer

Another day, another sign that the growling beast of bienpensant good opinion is lumbering away from education reform as a solution to inequality: a John Oliver segment about how bad and fraudulent charter schools are.

The phenomena Oliver describes are of course real: lots of charter operators have been found with their hands in the cookie jar, lots of charter authorizers have let people with no fucking clue how to run a school start one up on a wing and a prayer (a prayer to who? Rafe Esquith? Jaime Escalante?)

But lots of urban district-run school systems are awful, corrupt, totally dysfunctional places, too. The charter schools in Detroit aren’t a disaster because they’re charter schools, they’re a disaster because Detroit’s a disaster. Everything I know about New Orleans’ conversion to an almost-all charter system suggests that it has replaced a completely dysfunctional and dangerous system with a merely troubled and inconsistent one.

I’m on the record under my own name defending teachers’ unions, and I’ll still stand by it: I was proud to be a union teacher, almost every union teacher I worked with was working his or her respective ass off, and unions get saddled with responsibility  for a lot that isn’t their fault. But that doesn’t mean that a lot of union-dominated school systems aren’t totally f’ed. The mix of financial mismanagement, seat of the pants decisionmaking, educational fadism, the real challenges of educating America’s population, and the American determination that schools should be all things to all people can be a surefire recipe for mediocrity at best and total malfeasance in many cases.

The charter systems that have the strongest evidence of effectiveness tend to be either in strong union states like New York or New Jersey or competing with reasonably well-run district systems like Houston or both (Boston.)  Places that give out charters like Halloween candy and don’t have strong unions or engaged parents to complain get awful, awful schools, like half the schools that started in Philly in the last ten years and pretty much every school with “virtual” in its name.

Liberty is in the cracks between competing institutions, and so is a school system that can staff its math and foreign language classes. KIPP won’t scale indefinitely, but I’ve been to a few KIPP schools, and they were nice places. Even if these schools cream off the talented tenth of their neighborhoods, that can be an argument for or against, if you ask me.

The Department of Education used to be a rather wimpy and anemic federal agency, totally unsuited to exercising iron-fisted tyranny over a vast and restive country. But it’s been feeling its oats lately; I would imagine that my betters expect that federal control of education, partially with the expectation of managing the facilitated desegregation of local school systems, partially with the expectation of managing which bathrooms sad nine-year-olds attend, is a historical inevitability. No one expects municipal governance to get better over time.

The US public school system was, I shit you not, a creation of world historical significance. Every dog has its day.

10 thoughts on “Dog Days of Summer

    1. You can compare kids who get into the school through some random process like a lottery to kids who don’t (https://seii.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Explaining-Charter-School-Effectiveness.pdf ). You can’t do that with non-lotteried schools, so you can match on baseline characteristics/test scores and see how they do (https://credo.stanford.edu/pdfs/nj_state_report_2012_FINAL11272012_000.pdf ). One thing that Oliver got right was that a lot of charter schools aren’t even in the “are they better or worse” ballpark, they’re simply unable to function as a school and shut their doors before the year is through.

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  1. The problem with baseline scores, is that generally kids in charter schools in lousy districts have parents who are trying to do something to help their kids, so the populations are not the same as public schools.

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  2. If we bring this back historically to the Prussian precedent, we are witnessing another blow to Federalism, which had managed to forestall Federal school takeover or at least delay it.

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    1. Yep, I think it’s a central struggle of our time, which unfortunately always gets cast as another episode of Eyes on the Prize rather than an actual contest between opposing powers, each liable to abuse if unchecked.

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  3. Mr. Toad, I have been enjoying your blog very much.

    Do you have any additional thoughts on Fryer’s most recent charter school paper, besides the considerations you discuss here?

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    1. I thought it was very surprising, not that the average effect of charter schools wasn’t significantly different from zero, but that test scores weren’t correlated with later earnings, etc. You’d have to imagine a lot of gaming of the tests for that to be the case (and maybe there’s a lot of gaming of the tests!) I haven’t read the paper closely, though.

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