Charter Schools are the Latest Imperfect Panacea!

Dear Commons Community,

For those us who study/follow K-12 education issues, charter schools is one of the battlegrounds pitting pro-choice advocates against public school advocates especially teachers unions.  I have generally favored charter schools as long as they are developed equitably with minimal screening of the students who are admitted and are not used to segregate student populations or skim the better students from the public school system.

One of our colleagues, Alan Sadovnik from Rutgers University, has a an insightful commentary in the online version of the Teachers College Record that carefully analyzes the issue and makes the case that the hype of movies such as “The Cartel” and “Waiting for Superman” are essentially attacks of neo liberals who want to place the failure of some public schools on teachers unions and other school-based factors.   Citing research pro and con on the achievement of students in charter schools, he concludes that charter schools have performed no better or worse than public schools with similar populations.

However, Dr. Sadovnik’s most important contribution in this commentary is in making the case that socioeconomic factors that occur outside the school are important determinants for student success.  In dispelling the message of “The Cartel” and “Waiting for Superman”, Sadovnik posits that:

“Both films perpetuate the “No Excuses” ideology of Abigail and Stephen Thurnstrom, Whitney Tilson of Democrats for Educational Reform, and others who accuse those who believe poverty affects student achievement of being racist, having low expectations for low-income students, and believing that schools alone cannot reduce the achievement gap. As sociologists of education have consistently argued, for example in No Child Left Behind and the Elimination of the Achievement Gap (2007), a collection of articles by some of the most respected sociologists of education in the country, this is a simplistic argument that ignores four decades of research.”

His conclusion:

“the current wave of school reform debates omits at their peril, the central lessons of social science research over the past four decades, from James Coleman onward, that family background remains the most important predictor of school success, and as both Jean Anyon (2005) and David Berliner (2006) have consistently demonstrated that unless the 800 pound gorilla of poverty is addressed simultaneously, school reform will be doomed to failure. And this is not an excuse, but a reality”.

Well-done piece, Dr. Sadovnik!




One comment

  1. Dear Commons Community,

    Joe Nocera in his column (see: on April 26, 2011, touches on the same issue as Alan Sadovnik above. His conclusion:

    “What needs to be acknowledged, however, is that school reform won’t fix everything. Though some poor students will succeed, others will fail. Demonizing teachers for the failures of poor students, and pretending that reforming the schools is all that is needed, as the reformers tend to do, is both misguided and counterproductive.

    Over the long term, fixing our schools is going to involve a lot more than, well, just fixing our schools. In the short term, however, the reform movement could use something else: a dose of humility about what it can accomplish — and what it can’t.”