Mythical Manicheism: Charters Are Good and Public Schools Are Evil – Wrong

Harold Kwalwasser, March 2, 2012

The Manicheans of ancient Mesopotamia divided the world between good and evil – with no in-between. They probably were not the first, and, as has been recently demonstrated in The New York Times, they certainly were not the last.

The Times ran an article in September, 2011 headlined “Troubled Schools Try Mimicking Charters.” It opened: “In the first experiment of its kind in the country, the Houston public schools are testing whether techniques proven successful in high-performing urban charters can also help raise achievement in regular public school.” That introduced a story about Houston Independent School District Superintendent Terry Greer, who was about to put in place a variety of new instructional strategies, like the frequent assessment of student learning, longer school days, intensive tutoring of those who were struggling, and a “no excuses” attitude about student success.

The story was wrong on several counts. First, lots of urban districts have already done what Greer is about to do. Over the past couple of years I have visited 40 high performing or transforming districts to see what they have done right in order to improve student achievement. One of them is in fact the Aldine district, which abuts Houston to the north. They have adopted many of the strategies The Times suggests have never seen a public school classroom until Grier recently saw the light.

But that is not the most important bit of misinformation contained in the story. These strategies were not invented in charter schools. On the contrary, I also visited the Brazosport district in Freeport and Lake Jackson, Texas, which is about 50 miles south of Houston. In the 1990s, long before most charters were created, Superintendent Gerald Anderson was doing frequent assessments of his students and intervening quickly with help when they were struggling. He made “no excuses” the watchword of his tenure, and it worked. He was so successful with a packet of innovations that looks much like Greer’s that the Education Research Service acknowledged that his was the first district in the country to eliminate the achievement gap between Hispanic, black, and white students and between those who were low income and middle class.

In fact, charters have not developed many of the instructional strategies attributed to them in The Times story. But charter proponents have promoted the narrative that charters are laboratories for innovation, and the rest of us have bought in. The truth is considerably more complicated. There is no question that charters have considerable freedom to innovate. Some of them have seized on the opportunity to develop distinctive learning strategies. KIPP, which began in Houston, is one of those. Its success demonstrates what charters can do, but many have not.

Merely being a charter does not guarantee innovation or success. And merely being a public school does not assure stagnation and failure. However, we are all tempted to be Manicheans who are too ready to adopt a black and white view of the world.

Of course, the problem is that being Manichean in a world that does not in fact readily divide itself between good and evil likely causes us real problems. Here is a perfect case of what can go wrong. We damn with faint praise the public schools for being inexcusably slow adopters of innovative education strategies. And we overdo our applause of charters crediting them with creating strategies they did not create and for taking them up considerably more quickly than their traditional public school rivals.

There are a couple of really teachable moments here that are worth acknowledging. The first is the obvious. Not all public schools are “evil” and not all charters are “good.” What makes either of them work is the use of good instructional strategies that we have now learned can improve learning significantly.

Which gets us to the second teachable moment. Not enough of either type of school has done what they have to do to ensure improved student achievement. When you reflect on the fact that Gerald Anderson achieved great success over a decade ago, the first question that should pop into anyone’s mind is: “Why has it taken so long to spread these sorts of innovations to other schools, of whatever stripe?”

The answer is in part the resistance of school administrators and teachers to the kind of complete overhaul Anderson undertook in Brazosport. What he did was essentially reinvent teaching and administrating and too many current educators just don’t have the fire and determination to do the same. That’s true for charter operators as well as traditional public schools, as is reflected in the fact that charters overall have student achievement numbers that are roughly the same as those of public schools.

What we need to do is to understand what Brazosport did in the 90s and what Greer is about to do in Houston. While no one should presume the wholesale importation of strategies from one district to another guarantees success, we can certainly demand other districts – and charters – study what they did, or are doing, and think through whether those ideas work for them.

We need to stop ourselves from falling into some Manichean mindset. The future is not in charters or public schools. It is in any school that has figured out a strategy for teaching every child.

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