Peter Greene reminds us that charter schools were supposed to be laboratories of innovation–freed from central bureaucracy, freed from state regulations and mandates. But, he says, they have utterly failed. They were also originally supposed to be schools that gathered in the students who were most at risk of dropping out or who had already dropped out, but most compete to get high test scores to prove they are “better” than public schools, so they avoid the neediest students or counsel them out. Charters would be perceived differently if they stopped bragging and started admitting that they face the same challenges as public schools, but with fewer constraints.


Greene writes:


Here’s my challenge for charter fans– name one educational technique, one pedagogical breakthrough, that started at a charter school and has since spread throughout the country to all sorts of public schools.


After all these years of getting everything they wanted, modern charter schools have nothing to teach the public schools of the US…..


Both this profile from the New York Times and a teacher interview with Diane Ravitch show that the widely-lauded Success Academy model of New York is based on the emotional brutalization of children and tunnel-vision focus on The Test. This is justified by an ugly lie– that if poor kids can get the same kind of test scores as rich kids, the doors will open to the same kind of success.


Put all that together with a mission to weed out those students who just can’t cut it the SA way, and you have a model that cannot, and should not be exported to public schools. Success Academy demonstrates that charters don’t necessarily need to cream for the best and the brightest, but just for the students who can withstand their particular narrow techniques.


But then, most modern charters are fundamentally incompatible with the core mission of public schools, which is to teach every single child. Examination of charters show over and over and over again that they have developed techniques which work– as long as they get to choose which students to apply them to. New Jersey has been rather fully examined in this light, and the lesson of New Jersey charters is clear– if you get to pick and choose the students you teach, you can get better results.


This is the equivalent of a laboratory that announces, “We can show you a drug that produces fabulous hair growth, as long as you don’t make us demonstrate it on any bald guys.”


Modern charters have tried to shift the conversation, to back away from the “laboratory” narrative. Nowadays, they just like to talk about how they have been successful. These “successes” are frequently debatable and often minute, but they all lack one key ingredient for legitimate laboratory work– replication by independent researchers….


Maybe, as Mike Petrilli suggested, it’s time to stop talking about charters as laboratories and stop pretending that they’re discovering anything other than “If you get to pick which students you’re going to teach, you can get stuff done” (which as discoveries go is on the order of discovering that water is wet). There may well be an argument to make about charters as a means of providing special salvation for one or two special starfish. But if that’s the argument we’re going to have, let’s just drop the whole pretense that charters are discovering anything new or creating new educational methods that will benefit all schools, and start talking about the real issue– the establishment of a two-tier schools system to separate the worthy from the rabble.