EdFix Episode 7:The Charter School Debate

TRANSCRIPT

JOSHUA GLAZER:
One of the things that's of concern to me in the charter school debate is that we have high quality and legitimate discourse about it and that we don't sort of devolve into opposing camps that simplify what is really a complex topic.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Welcome to EdFix. This is Michael Feuer. I'm your host. EdFix is your source for insights about the practice and promise of education. Today we're going to have a chance to talk about some of the most compelling and complicated, and in some sense, vexing issues in American public education with Dr. Iris Rotberg and Dr. Joshua Glazer, both professors in our Department of Educational Leadership, both experts in education policy. The title of the book is Choosing Charters: Better Schools or More Segregation? A word of welcome, hello, Iris and Josh, welcome to EdFix. It's great to be together with you both. I want to start by asking you each just to say a word about your backgrounds, and since you have been working on issues of choice, tell us how you chose to get into the world of education policy and research. Iris Rotberg?

IRIS ROTBERG:
Thank you very much, Michael. My background by training is as a research psychologist. Then it was the age of relevance and I decided to change fields and moved into public policy, starting with work on welfare reform and income maintenance, and then went to the research arm of the Department of Education, then called the National Institute of Education. That's how I have spent most of my life in education policy, first at the National Institute of Education and also at the National Science Foundation, RAND and The Hill, and then came to GW.

IRIS ROTBERG:
I've been interested in the field of school choice for quite a while, even though didn't specifically work in it until more recently. I became interested because of my interest in international education. Many countries have some sort of choice going and have had it for quite a while. Chile has had school choice since the 1970s under Pinochet. Hong Kong has had something like charter schools since after World War II. The Netherlands have had school choice for centuries. There has been research on it. It was clear from that research that school choice did increase segregation. It did lead to more segregation. When charter schools began to proliferate in the United States, I became interested at that time, and curious about, what was happening here, how was it playing out, how to make a difference in achievement, but more specifically, how did it also affect social responses and segregation?

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Already we have some new information here, which is that the US is neither alone nor one of the real pioneers when it comes to this idea of so-called choice in education. I want to give Josh a chance to introduce himself, say a little bit about what it is that brought you into the realm of education policy generally, and then more specifically on these issues of education governance and what we are referring to nowadays as the choice debate. Josh Glazer?

JOSHUA GLAZER:
I came into the field through a different route than Iris, for sure. I did my graduate work in the 1990s at the University of Michigan. I was working there with faculty and fellow students on this issue of trying to improve teaching and learning in high poverty schools and whether it was possible to do that at some sort of scale. Part of that was an interest in how we could organize the education system to do that work. Was it possible for our system, which didn't seem to be designed in ways that really generated meaningful opportunities and learning opportunities in high poverty areas? Another part of that work was also thinking about what role nonprofit organizations and the third sector organizations could play in supporting improvement processes. We spent quite a number of years doing research around comprehensive school reform that seemed like it was an interesting and innovative attempt to really try to improve outcomes in the most needy areas.

JOSHUA GLAZER:
In part that was what was interesting to me about charter schools. It seemed like on the one hand, they had real implications for our overall system and I was interested in what those implications would be, but also I became interested in some charter schools that seemed like they were actually finding different ways to organize schooling, that they had a different approach, were perhaps breaking out of some of the past pathologies that had really inhibited schools from strengthening or enhancing teaching and learning. They seemed to have ways of breaking down some of the isolation of teachers to make the work more collective, to have a sort of shared approach, things that US schools have typically struggled around. I became interested in whether charters were, in some ways, sort of innovating around some of these issues.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Could I ask you to clarify what is a charter school?

IRIS ROTBERG:
A charter school is a public school. The difference is that it is generally not controlled by the bureaucracy. It's more independent, but everything I say, and one of the challenges of working on this book is there is so much variability in this country, that anything you say, there are exceptions. In some places, for example, charter ... In many places, charter schools get the same per pupil funding as traditional public schools. In other places, they get lower amounts. In some places, they get very large amounts of donations from foundations and other sources. Sometimes they get no donations, but basically they are a public school that operates more autonomously from the bureaucracy than other public schools. The original intent was so they could try out new models of learning, but they take the same standardized accountability tests as every other school. Essentially they get two messages. You can experiment now, but you have to do well on these standardized tests. It's a very, very interesting conflict between those two goals.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Who grants the charter?

JOSHUA GLAZER:
It can be the state. In some cases the state will grant the charter. There are instances where the district will grant the charter. There are charters that are actually run by districts. As Iris said, it can really vary from state to state, but you do need that charter or that license from some governing body to actually have the authority to open up your school.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
In other words, there is a granting of more autonomy from traditional bureaucratic structure in exchange for evidence that the provider of the education is doing something that meets certain standards.

JOSHUA GLAZER:
That's generally correct. Politically, charter schools are a bit of a compromise, because on the one hand they're not as much of a pure market approach as, say, school choice, where the idea was that we were just going to cut government out of the picture all together and really parents, as consumers, were going to be the ones who sort of call the shots and there would be a very minimal role for any government. Charters, there is a choice element to them. Parents choose into them, they can go out of business. They're supposed to be, as you say, much more freed from all sorts of bureaucratic regulations. However, there is that authorizing agency, some agency which authorizes and oversees, and to some extent, holds charter schools accountable. There is that link back to government. That's a bit of a political compromise between the sort of pure choice advocates and those who were not interested in such a sort of a market based approach. That's part of why they've been so successful, why we have so many more charter schools than we, say, do real open choice.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Open choice would essentially mean, in layman terms, the private sector?

JOSHUA GLAZER:
Well, the idea of open choice would be that it would still be publicly funded, but there would be very few constraints, very few ... just the minimal regulations that schools would have to adhere to and that parents would opt in to schools that they thought met their needs. If they liked it, they could stay if they didn't, they would exit. Schools which were unable to attract a sufficient number of families and adaptive family needs would go out of business. It was really looking to minimize, to the greatest extent possible, the role of government and maximize competitive pressures. Charter schools are a bit of a compromise between traditional public schools and open choice.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
This is not the only case in American education where we make compromises.

IRIS ROTBERG:
We have a school right next door to us, The School Without Walls, which is highly selective and takes from among the top students in DC. There are many people who are against this kind of school, but what it does is it helps keep middle and upper middle class families in the public school system. We have this tension between equity. There are many negatives about having highly selective schools for obvious reasons, but if you don't have them, you might end up with the middle and upper income families simply taking their kids out of the public school system.

JOSHUA GLAZER:
The issue of compromise or competing tensions is a relevant one for our school system and other school systems, and it's really brought to the surface by charter schools. We have a chapter in the book by Henry Levin, Hank Levin, who discusses this explicitly. It's just an age old dilemma about the individual and private purposes of education versus the public ones. If you look at the chapter in the book by Adam Gamoran and his colleague Christine Fernandez, you would read that chapter, and they review a tremendous amount of evidence and conclude that in high poverty urban areas, students at charter schools, all things being equal, do better than their counterparts in traditional public schools, but then if you look at some of the other chapters, which don't focus on the individual returns but on the social implications for our ability to live together as a collective, those chapters raise a series of other questions, largely about segregation, about whether we're creating opportunities for people across difference to be together, to interact with each other and to sort of practice living together in what is otherwise a fractured society.

JOSHUA GLAZER:
In those, there is no right or wrong there. That's just sort of a matter of values and ideology and two historic purposes of education. One of the points of the book is that even if you accept the claim that kids in charter schools are doing better on standardized assessments of learning, that's not the only purpose of a public education system. There are other goals. We need to sort of think really carefully about how we balance the two.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
I'm thinking about the typical low income family in an urban area not being able to afford to move where the schools are better and all the kids are above average, and at the same time being essentially stuck in an urban school system, which for all kinds of reasons, without blaming any particular actor in the system, is not necessarily performing at the level that these parents would like for their kids. For them, the advent of something called the charter school, or even in more extreme cases, the voucher and the real dismantling of the traditional public constraints on where kids go to school, is viewed as a safety, as a kind of a release.

JOSHUA GLAZER:
That perspective that you represented of people who feel otherwise trapped in what they might see as a poor performing system, there are many people who would applaud what you just said and who say would say, "Yeah, that's exactly how we feel. We don't have choices." There's always been choice for people of wealth. They are able to exercise choice simply by their choice of residence. They can pick up and move to a place where there is a better funded and more higher performing system. That is a choice that is not available to poor people, minority populations in cities. There are certainly leaders in the African American community who are advocates of charter schools and who would say exactly what you just said.

JOSHUA GLAZER:
There is another perspective that other people, also people in the African American community, would say and that would go something like, "You're being tricked. They want to keep you in the cities. They want to put a nice, big fence around their suburban schools. They don't really want to invest in any other type of social policies. They're throwing you a few crumbs with these charter schools and you think that this is actually a civil rights issue. Well, we're here to tell you that it's not."

IRIS ROTBERG:
It is a very active debate within the African American community. One of our authors said that one of the heartbreaking parts of the whole charter movement to her is that it has split the African American community. The NAACP, for example, has come out against charter schools, as have other organizations. On the other side, there are many in the community who are in favor of them.

IRIS ROTBERG:
One of the chapters in the book, in the title uses the term neoPlessyism, which comes from the famous Plessy versus Ferguson decision, separate but equal, which of course had nothing to do with education. It was about trains and segregation in train compartments, but it is quoted frequently in education, separate but equal. An assumption made with charter schools is it doesn't matter if they're segregated so long as they're equal. The assumption is that they can be segregated and equal.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
What's an estimate of the percentage of the 50 million public school age children in America who attend what you are calling charter schools?

IRIS ROTBERG:
5 to 7%, but it's concentrated. What's happened is that about half of the charter schools are in the inner cities. You have places like New Orleans that are almost all charter schools, and then you have others, other places, lots that are 20%, 30%, 40%, 50%. You have this concentration in inner cities. Then you have the other 50 or so percent spread around the whole country. Many suburban areas have no charter schools. They don't want them. Some have one or two charter schools. Because of the fact that the dispersion is so unequal, it makes an enormous difference in the inner cities. It was challenging to do this book because as researchers, we like to believe we rely on evidence, like most education policy, but this one particularly is a very value-laden field.

IRIS ROTBERG:
We all come in with political beliefs. Do we believe in free choice, free markets, or do we believe that the government should have more of a say on this and look out for everybody? We all come in with that value. We come in with other values too. Which is more important, an increase in test scores or the social values, even in terms of achievement? All along the way we're talking about value judgment. As researchers, what we're really doing is showing the implications of going one way or another way, but the choice on which way we do it is a value judgment.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
The United States has a 200 and plus year tradition of experimenting with public education. It now turns out that, looking at average performance over all those years, some of us may have been distracted from something else that was going on, and that that average consisted of some people doing really well and others not doing well. That, I believe, is one of the reasons that the concept of breaking loose of the traditional structure has had that amount of appeal.

JOSHUA GLAZER:
One of the things that's of concern to me in the charter school debate is that we have sort of high quality and legitimate discourse about it and that we don't sort of devolve into opposing camps that simplify what is really a complex topic. There are certain traps that we can fall into which will lead us into these sort of opposing camps that really brush under the rug the complexities. One of them is to glorify the traditional public school system. I'm certainly a believer in that system and spend a lot of my time trying to think how we can make it better, but we don't want to paint too rosy a picture of what that system has been traditionally. Many people argue persuasively it has been designed to maximize inequality. Our historic commitment to local control, the way we fund our schools through property taxes, how we hire and allocate teachers and other resources, absolutely, unequivocally has favored more affluent communities. That has explained some of the appeal of charter schools, both to families in those communities and to other advocates and policy makers.

JOSHUA GLAZER:
We can probably do a better job, again, of how we regulate and how we think about the impact of charter schools for the overall system. We want to be careful that we don't further fracture the system. If we look in places like DC, like New Orleans, like Memphis, we can see that not smart enough regulation has made the system extraordinarily fractured.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
How much can we import from the experience in charter schools into the broader sector, because if the charter schools are picking up 5% of the kids, I've got 95% of the rest of them who are awaiting for some improvement? What are we getting from this experimental approach?

IRIS ROTBERG:
My impression is that so many of the charter schools, the need to do well, they all need to do well, and the test scores have not moved in the direction of innovation, but actually have moved even further in the direction of, to put it bluntly, teaching to the test and focusing the work on the test, but there are exceptions. There are exploratory learning schools. There are other kinds of schools that are not initially designed to improve test scores.

JOSHUA GLAZER:
There is some interesting innovation going on. Now you don't want to overstate it because the charter movement is large and there's an enormous amount of variation within that charter school movement. There are many charter schools which look exactly like a traditional public school. You would walk in and see ... It would be utterly recognizable to you and you wouldn't see any evidence of any particularly promising innovation. On the other hand, there are many traditional public schools that are doing innovating and interesting work. We don't want to overgeneralize.

JOSHUA GLAZER:
That said, my opinion, and based on my research largely in Tennessee where we've been following a number of charter organizations, there are some interesting, and I would say, important innovations going on in the charter sector. Just to clarify, they're working with high poverty populations. Those are populations that we have not had a tremendous amount of success in providing good educational opportunities for. Often they're working with bunches or groups of schools. We've always had a school here, a school there that seems to be doing well, but how do we sort of organize our system so that we can really get 5, 6, 10, 20, larger number of schools who do consistently well? That's been a tough nut to crack.

JOSHUA GLAZER:
I think there are some cases in the charter sector where they've done some really innovative work on that. What have they done? One, I mentioned this earlier, they figured out a way to break the traditional isolation of American teachers. American teachers traditionally had to figure things out by themselves. How do I teach? How do I organize my class? How do I group? What materials do I use? How do I assess? Everybody on their own. Some charter organizations have done a really good job saying, "Hey, we're going to figure that out together. We're going to actually have a shared system by which we have figured some of this stuff out and it's going to be a collective enterprise."

JOSHUA GLAZER:
They've done some good work around hiring. Hiring in the traditional public system has been pretty random. They're hired by the central office. They're distributed to schools. Not a lot of thought about, how do we sort of hire really intentionally and place teachers in the best school and the best class that will really maximize their effectiveness? Charter schools have done a lot of interesting and important work around that. How can we be smarter around hiring?

JOSHUA GLAZER:
There's been a lot of good work in some charter networks around developing professional development for teachers. How do we build in learning opportunities for teachers so day to day they're getting feedback, working with peers, mentors, so there's really continuous growth of teachers throughout their career in a school? Not something we've been particularly good at at all in the traditional public system. There are some charter networks that are really making important progress on these real issues.

JOSHUA GLAZER:
Where we can be better is ensuring that those innovations, that learning, is then made available to and benefited by the traditional public system. We don't really have a lot of good mechanisms, such that a traditional public school right next to a charter organization, which might be doing important innovation and figuring a lot of these things out, that the school that could be right next door really has the opportunity to learn from that and try some of these things out.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
You and Iris demonstrate for me something that's very significant, which is people recognizing that the topic they're dealing with is pretty complicated and that there is some value in pushing respectfully and constructively against each other's arguments and learning from that.

JOSHUA GLAZER:
Absolutely. We don't have identical perspectives. We have different intellectual traditions. I studied in a school of education with a focus on public policy. Iris, as she said, came from psychology. Generally speaking, she was more skeptical about charter schools. I was more open to some of the potential benefits, but I think that discourse between us was extremely productive. I entered into our partnership primarily focused on, what are these charter schools doing in terms of how they're organizing schools, how they're organizing instruction? I was not really aware of the sort of social consequences, particularly around segregation.

JOSHUA GLAZER:
It wasn't until a number of sort of lengthy conversations with Iris that I became really aware of this other important and troubling aspect of them. It really made me sort of rethink my thinking and my approach to the topic. The question then became, okay, if there are really some interesting and important innovations going on, if there are some better results, how do we create policy which allows that to continue but looks at least to minimize or attenuate some of the negative social consequences, principally segregation? But I didn't start at that spot. I only arrived there through our collaboration.

IRIS ROTBERG:
It was productive that we had some differences of opinion, even though it was easy to make those into a constructive dialogue, because I think our basic philosophies are not that different. In other words, it's not difficult to disagree about small things. I don't think we disagreed about the basics, but it was very constructive to have those different points of view.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
In the event that we don't conclude from the book or from this conversation whether we should choose charters or not, it is reminding people who really care about these issues that there is a place for difficult conversations about competing strands of evidence all in pursuit of trying to do better.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
It has been a great pleasure to chat with Iris Rotberg and Josh Glazer. If you enjoyed this episode of EdFix then you can subscribe to the podcast, which is available on iTunes, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Stitcher, or SoundCloud. For more information you can visit our website, go.gwu.edu/edfix.