REPORT CARD: Dubious Standards for Charter Schools

Community Roots Charter School (CRCS) is across the street from the housing projects in Fort Greene,and the bathrooms and the lunchroom look plenty run-down. But don’t be fooled: the kids are all right.

Kindergarteners are given “research notebooks” and taught how to interview people. One morning in late January, in one first-grade classroom, everyone was quietly reading a book, many of the kids comfortably sprawled on the floor. Fourth-graders were working in pairs, “editing” each other’s writing. Children here have music, art, and science twice a week.

Because of superb, well-rounded schools like CRCS, many Brooklyn parents respond with tail-wagging eagerness to any noise that includes the following buzzwords: “school choice,” “new schools,” and “charter schools.” But the education on tap at CRCS has nothing to do with the Department of Education’s (DOE) plans for the majority of our children. In fact, a recent report by the DOE’s own Office of Charter Schools shows exactly how shallow and cynical the city’s vision is.

The report, released January 4, details the observations of investigators from the Office of Charter Schools on six of the city’s charter schools, and its recommendations to the Regents (all of which were followed). The report shows that most of the schools are neglecting basic elements of decent education, yet in no case were they punished for this, or pressured to change their ways.

One thing is clear from this document: the Office of Charter Schools knows what good education looks like, but just doesn’t think poor, black kids need to have it.

Take critical thinking, for example. It’s hard to think of a skill that more people—from CEOs to anti-war activists—would agree is essential to both success and citizenship. Investigators from the Office of Charter Schools found that critical thinking was missing from several schools, none of which were penalized or closed down. One of these was Achievement First Endeavor in Clinton Hill, a middle school that has nonetheless been allowed to expand into elementary school grades (even though the neighborhood already has several decent public elementary schools). At Democracy Prep, a Harlem charter school where students have been acing standardized tests, “few lessons required higher-order thinking skills or deep analysis of concepts.” Yet Democracy Prep’s charter was renewed unconditionally.

Poor kids apparently don’t need to learn how to have an intellectual discussion. Or any kind of discussion, for that matter. At Democracy Prep, the Office of Charter Schools reports,

All class discussions took the form of the teacher asking questions and the students responding. Students were not observed participating in a discussion or responding directly to each other.

Along similar lines, at Achievement First, investigators observed that in some classes students had no opportunity to express their ideas. At International Leadership Charter School in the Bronx, which the Office of Charter Schools characterized as “academically successful,” the investigators nonetheless reported:

Teachers’ questions asked mainly for recall of information…with minimal questions that required explanation. Students’ responses were generally one or two words. In classrooms observed students did not respond to each other’s comments. Students sat in rows and did not interact with each other except for two instances in which students sat in pairs. Students did not discuss or share their ideas…There was no evidence of analysis, evaluation, or providing students with the opportunity to create a new product or defend a point of view.

Poor kids apparently don’t need to be prepared for college. At Democracy Prep, reports the Charter Office, “Some of the key skills necessary for college success were not observed in classrooms.” At International Leadership, the investigators noted, the administration did not evaluate teachers on anything related to “reinforcing skills and dispositions that indicate college readiness.”

And how about plain old reading and writing? Maybe they don’t need that, either. At International Leadership, the high school students reported that the longest paper they’d ever been asked to write was 3 – 4 pages. Seniors, when asked what they were reading, reported reading only short stories and poems—no novels or book-length nonfiction.

Meanwhile, at Hyde Leadership Charter School in the Bronx, the investigators acknowledged that, “While the school demonstrated a strong focus on excellence in character development, a focus on academic
excellence and achievement was less evident.” This elementary school’s charter was renewed, and Hyde has been allowed to expand into high school grades. Perhaps poor people lacking intellectual skills, but brimming with character are just the sort of workers the Bloomberg-era business elite desires. Is that what education “reform” is really all about?

Although the flaws the report does illuminate are devastating, the investigators glossed over some problems rather blithely. For example, Meredith Kolodner of the Daily News has reported parent complaints about verbally abusive discipline at an Achievement First School in Crown Heights, as well as the fact that 20 percent of the children at the school are in detention on any given day. One might think, then, that parents’ and students’ complaints over excessive discipline at the charter chain’s Clinton Hill location would deserve serious investigation and more than the half a sentence of acknowledgement that the Office of Charter Schools allots.

Reading the report, one gets the impression that it’s an achievement to provide schools that are “safe.” Over and over again, the charters in this report are praised, apparently for not having recreated Columbine. It seems like a low bar.

It’s not that the charter schools detailed in this report should necessarily be shut down. Families and kids depend on them now. But clearly, there’s a huge double standard. The DOE is closing traditional public schools for allegedly “failing”—often because they haven’t been given the resources to effectively teach kids for whom poverty is a daily obstacle to learning. Yet many charter schools that are also failing, by any reasonable measure, are given a free pass. Indeed, they are handed more resources, given more real estate, and entrusted with more children.

Why in the world is the DOE—for all its tough talk of standards—so lax with the charter schools?

Probably because with a handful of exceptions—most prominently, for Brooklynites, Community Roots, which was praised in the report though admonished to raise its test scores—well-educated, white New Yorkers with choices don’t send their children to charter schools. Bloomberg and his business cronies who set policy for the DOE are thus untroubled with the quality of the education such schools provide.

But why is the DOE going to the trouble of squeezing out—either through under-funding, “competition,” crippling space enclosure, or outright closing neighborhood public schools and replacing them with charter schools that are no better? If the DOE doesn’t care whether poor children get a good education, why not leave their schools alone?

The reasons are disheartening and not at all high-minded. The business class hates to see a sector in which most workers are unionized and still have some benefits. The project of replacing traditional schools with charters is at its heart a union-busting project. Another reason is ideology: Bloomberg and his ilk want to shrink the public sector and show how much better—and more important, how much cheaper—the private sector can do the job.

Don’t everyone’s children deserve the kinds of nurture, intellectual rigor, and joy that the best schools provide? Shouldn’t every kid in Brooklyn be reading real books and going to music class twice a week? Yes, yes, and yes. But such fabulous education isn’t going to be given away to all kids, at least not without a fight.



Update on PCBs

After the Rail ran Eleanor J. Bader’s story, “Will the DOE Test for PCBs?” in our December-January issue, the Environmental Protection Agency contacted Bader to report that additional testing was done at P.S. 53 on Staten Island. The findings? Of 33 fluorescent lighting ballasts inspected, 22 were found to have excessive levels of PCBs. “The EPA continues to strongly recommend that the City of New York develop a plan for assessing and addressing leaky ballasts in its schools city-wide,” staffer Mary Mears wrote in an e-mail. In late January, similar testing was conducted at P.S. 11 in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. There, 18 of the 28 ballasts tested were found to have excessive levels of PCBs. Mayor Bloomberg has rejected the call for citywide testing. Meanwhile, New York Communities for Change is stepping up its campaign to get the contaminant removed from every school building in the five boroughs.