Excellent response to Diane Ravich’s critique of charter schools

Diane Ravich recently wrote a piece in the New York Review of Books entitled “The Myth of Charter Schools”, which takes aim at charter schools and the documentary Waiting for Superman in particular. Below is an excellent response to the piece from Rafael Ramirez, a friend and former colleague who I worked with at the U.S. Department of Education. Ray is now in Los Angeles and is involved with charter schools there. I share the following with his permission.


Below are some comments from me on this article by Ravich.  The most troubling aspect of this article is that Ravich offers no ideas to address the seemingly intransigent issues related to poverty that Green Dot, KIPP, The Harlem Children’s Zone and many other successful charter schools are trying to address using a long researched model called Effective Schools.  These charter schools are offering the first real possibility of an alternative to the public schools. The charters focus on accountability and on outcomes. What a novel idea. Ravich works right next to the Harlem Children’s Zone but she herself has never been directly involved in reforming schools.  Her rehash of old articles about Rhee and others in the trenches of creating reform in the public school systems is not a response to “Waiting for Superman”. I will let my responses to aspects of her article speak for themselves below.

The message of these films has become alarmingly familiar: American public education is a failed enterprise. The problem is not money. Public schools already spend too much. Test scores are low because there are so many bad teachers, whose jobs are protected by powerful unions. Students drop out because the schools fail them, but they could accomplish practically anything if they were saved from bad teachers. They would get higher test scores if schools could fire more bad teachers and pay more to good ones. The only hope for the future of our society, especially for poor black and Hispanic children, is escape from public schools, especially to charter schools, which are mostly funded by the government but controlled by private organizations, many of them operating to make a profit.

I think this is true for many public schools in inner cities.  What Ravich doesn’t acknowledge is that this has been a true fact since our public schools began. There has been a focus on inner city schools for every reform movement in education for the past one hundred years and yet little has changed for inner city students and their families.  The War on Poverty provided government dollars for programs such as Title I and Headstart only to see those funds siphoned off by non-inner city schools supposedly serving poor students. In one high school in the area I serve that has over 4500 students, only three percent graduate with the SAT scores and the necessary requirements to apply to a state funded University or the University of California. Another high school, Garfield High School, in the same neighborhood with 4000 students fares not much better.  Yet it was at Garfield High School where Jaime Escalante achieved his “miracle” over fifteen years of hard work, only to be forced out by the teachers union.  What have the unions and local governments done over the past sixty years to change these statistics? Someone needs to challenge these entrenched alliances that are not interested in supporting students and their families who live in poverty. I highly recommend for your reading Rafe Esquith’s book “Lighting Their Fires” to get an idea of what a dedicated teacher, such as Rafe Esquith, can accomplish in a low income school if they put in the effort.

The Lottery echoes the main story line of Waiting for “Superman”: it is about children who are desperate to avoid the New York City public schools and eager to win a spot in a shiny new charter school in Harlem.

And why doesn’t Ravich ask the obvious question why are these students and their families so desperate to leave the public school in their neighborhood? Why doesn’t she do a documentary on just these schools and look at the filth, the graffiti and the war-zone-like atmosphere of these schools? Who in their right mind would not want to leave these “public schools”? Why do schools like the ones I have described even exist let alone exist for so long where generations of students are given such a low quality of education?

For many people, these arguments require a willing suspension of disbelief. Most Americans graduated from public schools, and most went from school to college or the workplace without thinking that their school had limited their life chances. There was a time—which now seems distant—when most people assumed that students’ performance in school was largely determined by their own efforts and by the circumstances and support of their family, not by their teachers. There were good teachers and mediocre teachers, even bad teachers, but in the end, most public schools offered ample opportunity for education to those willing to pursue it.

Ah yes, that time when segregation was de jure and the drop-out rate was over 50%.  Ah yes, that time when most minority-majority schools had highly educated teachers because they could not find a job anywhere else because of their race, skin tone or last name. The time when most teachers were white females because they could not find another job because of something called a glass ceiling. Ah, yes, that time. As yes, the time when most administrators were “good ol’ boys” or ex-jocks, and sexism and other forms of favoritism were rampant in the public school system. Ay, yes, that time.  The time when teachers were so poorly paid that the least able among our college graduates opted for the profession. And…

Waiting for “Superman” and the other films appeal to a broad apprehension that the nation is falling behind in global competition. If the economy is a shambles, if poverty persists for significant segments of the population, if American kids are not as serious about their studies as their peers in other nations, the schools must be to blame. At last we have the culprit on which we can pin our anger, our palpable sense that something is very wrong with our society, that we are on the wrong track, and that America is losing the race for global dominance. It is not globalization or deindustrialization or poverty or our coarse popular culture or predatory financial practices that bear responsibility: it’s the public schools, their teachers, and their unions.

Ah yes, the National Defense Education Act under President Eisenhower in 1957 insisted on the same truisms. In the 1960s, there was the IQ controversy claiming that the problem with education is the lower IQ of minorities. In the 1970s, the same claims about the low quality of American education were made in “The Great School Debate”. In the 1980s, the same claims about American education were made in “A Nation at Risk”.  In the late eighties Ravich echoed the same arguments as above in two books in the late eighties, The Troubled Crusade: American Education 1945 to 1985 and The Schools We Deserve. She was one of the chief proponents of No Child Left Behind, and of course in the last ten years we have had the push for reform from the standards movement. And yet nothing has changed for the majority of inner city students who desperately want to leave the public schools. Talking about school reform and actually implementing are two very different kettles of fish. Ravich has never implemented any type of school reform such as that which Escalante, Esquith, and Michelle Rhee have been able to accomplish and certainly not to the scale that Geoffrey Canada or Green Dot has been able to accomplish.

In each of the schools to which they have applied, the odds against them are large. Anthony, a fifth-grader in Washington, D.C., applies to the SEED charter boarding school, where there are sixty-one applicants for twenty-four places. Francisco is a first-grade student in the Bronx whose mother (a social worker with a graduate degree) is desperate to get him out of the New York City public schools and into a charter school; she applies to Harlem Success Academy where he is one of 792 applicants for forty places.

And why does that have to be the case? Why doesn’t Ravich go visit the schools that these children are so desperate to leave and then report back to us why they would go up against such odds?

No successful public school teacher or principal or superintendent appears in the film; indeed there is no mention of any successful public school, only the incessant drumbeat on the theme of public school failure.

And where are we most likely to find these successful schools – in the inner cities of New York, Chicago, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles? In the late 1970s early 1980s, a researcher named Ron Edmonds published a series of studies in which he documented the success of some of these schools in the inner cities.  He died tragically early in a car accident. His research has recently had a renewed interest (once again) by many researchers.  His work is embodied in what he called “Effective Schools”. “Effective Schools” are schools that are succeeding in inner cities despite their surroundings. Effective schools do as well as their middle class counterparts. The most successful charter schools such as Green Dot in LA and KIPP follow his model of effective schools because it works.  But, of course, Ravich will not mention that fact because this would be contrary to “union policy” where the principal’s role is a cog in a huge bureaucracy and not a designated leader role with its attendant responsibilities and wisdom. In my various roles as a leader I draw my principles from Ron Edmonds’ initial research.

Why did Davis Guggenheim pay no attention to the charter schools that are run by incompetent leaders or corporations mainly concerned to make money? Why propound to an unknowing public the myth that charter schools are the answer to our educational woes, when the filmmaker knows that there are twice as many failing charters as there are successful ones? Why not give an honest accounting?

Fair enough, but instead of tarnishing every charter school with the same brush why not look at what makes some charter schools successful and others not successful? There are many charter schools, especially in rural areas and the still-segregated South and the Heartland, where the sole purpose of those charter schools was to maintain segregation or to establish a religious school with some unusual standards. These kinds of charter schools, from what research I have done, are the majority of failed charter schools – which were set up to fail. But KIPP, Green Dot and Michelle Rhee set up their schools on solid research like “Effective Schools”, and they are seeing results – more so than in the last 25 years where another generation of students has been failed by Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and the D.C. public school systems.

Why did he not report on the charter principals who have been indicted for embezzlement, or the charters that blur the line between church and state? Why did he not look into the charter schools whose leaders are paid $300,000–$400,000 a year to oversee small numbers of schools and students?

Here she belies her own point because Geoffrey Canada is one of those success stories.  I recommended that you read “Whatever It Takes” by Paul Tough because Ravich’s comments are not all on target regarding Geoffrey Canada’s work, which is very rooted in research. The book talks about Canada’s success and his failures, but always in the light of what he is attempting to change, which is Harlem public schools. He has been fortunate to have had such luck with the private sector funding.  What Ravich fails to point out is that Canada initially sought the public schools partnership in Harlem to become part of his “Promise”, but they all refused because it would take too much work and would be contrary to the union positions of tenure and teacher accountability. Since they did not want to change or to honestly look at the facts about their schools, he was left with no choice but to seek funding elsewhere. Where was Ravich in the last 15 years when Canada was implementing his changes in Harlem? After all, her University resides only a few blocks from this blighted area. She likes to criticize but never actually gets her hands dirty in the implementation issues like Canada, Escalante, Esquith, Rhee, and Steve Barr of Green Dot Los Angeles (www.greendot.org).

Since Yeager broke the sound barrier, we should be prepared to believe that able teachers are all it takes to overcome the disadvantages of poverty, homelessness, joblessness, poor nutrition, absent parents, etc.

But these intractable problems are exactly the problems that Geoffrey Canada, Steve Barr and KIPP schools are trying to overcome with their many extended social and family programs as part of their efforts. It the extension of the school day and the support services offered to the families of these students that that make these programs more costly and demand more of the teachers and the principals.  Again see Rafe Esquith’s book” Lighting Their Fires” to get an idea of the dedication and time that good teachers willingly put into their jobs and their students. Johnson had it right with his War on Poverty program and his many legislative efforts on behalf of poor people and poor schools. So what did the public school bureaucracies do with all of these “new” dollars and what are they doing with these programs now? It is failure of the entrenched school bureaucracies to implement effective schools over the last sixty years despite an influx of federal and local dollars to address poverty issues that has spurred the charter schools movement and efforts like the Harlem Children’s Zone, Green Dot and KIPP. They ought to be lauded not castigated by Ravich, who has never tried to reform any school – let alone an entire school system – such as Rhee attempted to do in DC.

The movie asserts a central thesis in today’s school reform discussion: the idea that teachers are the most important factor determining student achievement. But this proposition is false. Hanushek has released studies showing that teacher quality accounts for about 7.5–10 percent of student test score gains. Several other high-quality analyses echo this finding, and while estimates vary a bit, there is a relative consensus: teachers statistically account for around 10–20 percent of achievement outcomes. Teachers are the most important factor within schools.

No. Ravich should learn about the Effective Schools movement and look at the schools that have succeeded in the inner cities without charter schools.  Why didn’t the entrenched bureaucracies use those schools in their own backyards as models? Why did it take the efforts of KIPP, Green Dot, Harlem Children’s Zone, and many other successful reformed schools using the Effective Schools model to challenge the status quo? Why didn’t the school districts use the data in their own backyard? Could it be that the unions own the bureaucracy and that change within the system is not possible without heroic efforts like those I have mentioned above?

Guggenheim skirts the issue of poverty by showing only families that are intact and dedicated to helping their children succeed. One of the children he follows is raised by a doting grandmother; two have single mothers who are relentless in seeking better education for them; two of them live with a mother and father. Nothing is said about children whose families are not available, for whatever reason, to support them, or about children who are homeless, or children with special needs. Nor is there any reference to the many charter schools that enroll disproportionately small numbers of children who are English-language learners or have disabilities.

Again, no. The very schools she is castigating use a lottery system and are located in the heart of inner cities, where the public schools have been failing students for generations with impunity. As I have stated above, there are many charter schools, not in inner cities, that continue to support curricula that have nothing to do academic success – but why doesn’t Ravich acknowledge the point that these charter schools were given charters by the very districts in which they are located? Are those public school systems continuing to perpetuate segregation and specific religious beliefs by giving charters to these schools and then not holding them accountable? It is up to the school districts to fiscally monitor these schools, but once again these very public school bureaucracies cannot even do the job well with the relatively small numbers of charters compared to the non-charter schools. If charter schools fail because of lack of proper monitoring of finances, it falls at the foot of the public schools who were not doing their job in monitoring them well.

The film never acknowledges that charter schools were created mainly at the instigation of Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers from 1974 to 1997. Shanker had the idea in 1988 that a group of public school teachers would ask their colleagues for permission to create a small school that would focus on the neediest students, those who had dropped out and those who were disengaged from school and likely to drop out…. Michelle Rhee gained her teaching experience in Baltimore as an employee of Education Alternatives, Inc., one of the first of the for-profit operations.

So what is Ravich’s point in stating old history? Of course, Ravich fails to acknowledge that these are the students that the Harlem Children’s Zone, KIPP, Green Dot, Michelle Rhee and others are attempting to serve. These public and private charters are recent efforts, while the public schools have had a history of failure on a grand scale. Was Rhee successful in her short tenure in addressing systemic failures and failing schools? No one would argue with the fact that she was indeed successful, and many parents will be in her debt for many years to come.  The new mayor says that her reform efforts will be continued. The new superintendent was Rhee’s right hand in implementing the reforms. How she did it is the issue to many politicians, union members, and bureaucratic bumblers. Many public charters such as Green Dot are working miracles where the public school system has failed over and over – and most glaringly in the last sixty years in which the amount of dollars invested has risen significantly.

Under NCLB, low-performing schools may be closed, while high-performing ones may get bonuses. Some charter schools “counsel out” or expel students just before state testing day. Some have high attrition rates, especially among lower-performing students.

Come on. Many public schools have been caught red-handed cheating and asking certain students to stay home during the test day. So some charter schools are no different than many public schools – again what is the point? Ravich was an unqualified supporter of NCLB, and some say a leading architect of the legislation. Only after Bush left office did she have a change of heart. Need I say more?

You know the number and the NAEP data as well as I do so there is no point to even comment about Ravich’s ridiculous assertions regarding NAEP.

This sad event was documented by Paul Tough in his laudatory account of Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, Whatever It Takes (2009). Contrary to Guggenheim’s mythology, even the best-funded charters, with the finest services, can’t completely negate the effects of poverty.

Yes, but they have been around only six years compared to the public schools.  More importantly what Harlem Children’s Zone is attempting to do is to take on the War on Poverty in Harlem, which means addressing more than the schools by creating a network of resources.  This should be a model for the public schools, especially given all of the resources available to the public schools.  It was this failed approach of a patch work of available services that led Canada to develop his model.  For over twenty years before creating the Harlem Children’s Zone, Canada was the Director of a non-profit organization in Harlem that offered such a patch quilt of services, and he realized time and again how dysfunctional such a system was in supporting the very families it was purporting to serve.  Yes, Canada has failed in some of his efforts, but who he blames is his staff not his students. He gets rid of his staff and then starts all over again with his same students. Ravich does such a disservice to the Harlem Children’s Zone success in working in Harlem that it revolts me to the core.  Like many other pundits, she is biased in her own assessments to make her point for the establishment instead of lauding the long-term efforts of the Harlem Children’s Zone and its founder. Canada will still be working in Harlem while Ravich will continue doing nothing to change circumstances for the children of Harlem even though she works rights next door to Harlem and can see those crumbling public schools for herself every day.

For example, Guggenheim holds up Locke High School in Los Angeles, part of the Green Dot charter chain, as a success story but does not tell the whole story. With an infusion of $15 million of mostly private funding, Green Dot produced a safer, cleaner campus, but no more than tiny improvements in its students’ abysmal test scores.

Yes, but they did this in less than two years, while Locke has been a failing school in LA overrun by gangs and violence for over thirty years. What Green Dot has done is no less a miracle. Now that some of the ravages of poverty have been addressed, they can get to the business of test scores. By her own admission in less than two years the test scores have risen, where in the past ten years they have been at the bottom of an abysmal system in LA. Again, what has Ravich done to turn around a failing school? A major failing of this article is that Ravich offers no ideas of her own to address the endemic issues of the schools mired in areas of abysmal poverty.  Where in this article are her ideas for addressing the systemic issues of poverty in the inner city schools ? Nowhere to be found. Ravich shows no deep knowledge of what Harlem Children’s Zone, Green Dot, KIPP, Michelle Rhee and others have accomplished, and against what odds?   I live in LA and I know Steve Barr and have seen the changes at Locke and other charter high schools, and not just those of Green Dot. The changes are nothing short of stupendous. You don’t know what it is like to go to school where every wall is painted over with graffiti, where gang members loiter in the hallways unchallenged, where teachers are treated like vermin, and where studying is non-existent – and then in less than a year to have a clean, safe, structured environment where the teachers are motivated, gang members are expelled, a library actually has not only new books but a modern computer lab in which to do research, and students no longer huddle in fear but huddle in groups talking about a lesson. Children have a much better chance to prosper in this environment created by the efforts of Green Dot than they did in the trashed environment supported by the LAUSD and their public dollars and callous non-caring.

Guggenheim seems to demand that public schools start firing “bad” teachers so they can get the great results that one of every five charter schools gets. But he never explains how difficult it is to identify “bad” teachers. If one looks only at test scores, teachers in affluent suburbs get higher ones. If one uses student gains or losses as a general measure, then those who teach the neediest children—English-language learners, troubled students, autistic students—will see the smallest gains, and teachers will have an incentive to avoid districts and classes with large numbers of the neediest students.

So what else is new? These conditions have existed for decades without change. Because it is difficult does that mean you don’t try? Because it is difficult does that mean a public system shouldn’t develop a more effective accountability rubric? Why not have public schools start with emulating effective schools in their own districts? Charters like KIPP, Green Dot, and Harlem Children’s Zone are not daunted by past failures.  They see these inequities as unfair and are attempting to make systemic change without the support of public schools. Public schools could have supported these efforts but it is they who have felt threatened and set up an adversarial environment. There are effective teachers, there are effective principals and everyone knows who they are in a school district, but a question never raised by Ravich is how are these superstars treated by the public school hierarchy and their union colleagues (or adversaries)?

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  1. #1 by CJ Gray on November 23, 2010 - 4:24 am

    I am an Elem Ed undergraduate at NAU and very much enjoyed the film. I am a proponent of charter schools as my own children attend one due to the pathetically poor schools in my area. I recently read an article that was originally published in 1985 in Harpers Magazine by Walter Karp called “Why Johnny Can’t Think.” It was a pretty accurate description of the public education system and why it was and continues to be set up to fail.

  2. #2 by jbfreem on November 23, 2010 - 5:17 am

    This rebuttal loses me when it dismisses the idea that there are many excellent public schools, even in New York City, that serve impoverished minority children well. What Ravitch’s argument comes down to is: let’s compare effective public schools and effective charter schools to ineffective ones and see what we can learn, what we can transport back to improve the larger system. In contrast, let’s not say that charters are effective and public schools are ineffective, which is what these films, and much of the education reform movement, seem to be saying these days. I agree with Ravitch. Let’s fight the adversarial environment and the rigidity of unions, and champion the spread of effective schools, without labeling charters as “good” and public schools as “bad.”

  3. #3 by Kelly Flynn on November 23, 2010 - 6:39 am

    Mr. Ramirez, your article does not acknowledge one very important thing–parents who place their child in a charter school have already bought into the notion that education is important. They are willing to go the extra mile. They are willing to follow the rules set forth by that charter, and to make their child follow them, too.

    Thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of public school parents don’t feel that way. They will not lift a finger to help. They do not think their child should have to follow the rules. You repeatedly chastise Ms. Ravitch for not offering solutions, but you didn’t either.

    What, exactly, should our society do with the kids who don’t WANT to learn in ANY school, public or charter? What is our society to do about the parents who don’t care if their children learn in ANY school, public or charter? We can talk public vs. charter forever, but that’s not the real problem.

    Kelly Flynn, author of Kids, Classrooms, and Capitol Hill: A Peek Inside the Walls of America’s Public Schools

  4. #4 by Dana on November 23, 2010 - 9:32 am

    This article is a non-response, in that it does not seriously address any of the issues raised by Diane Ravitch. I could go through every single paragraph much like the author did for Ravitch, however, I would rather focus my attention on the facts of actual educational reform debate. [...]

  5. #5 by Kurt Lauer on November 23, 2010 - 2:28 pm

    As Ms. Flynn states, the issue is not charter vrs. public, but choice schools vrs. an open enrollment schools. Every school profiled in the film, “Waiting For Superman”, was a choice program. There are many excellent choice charters, just as there are many excellent choice public schools. What KIPP and others has shown us is even poor and minority kids can excel at choice schools. What we are still waiting for though is what is the answer for schools that are burdened by students who don’t have the ability to follow strict discipline and and don’t have parents who take an active role in their education. “Waiting for Superman” does nothing to address this and it paints a phoney picture of education and is really a non-starter when it comes to educational solutions by ignoring the issue completly.

  6. #6 by Matt on October 28, 2011 - 1:32 am

    While long on indignation, this “excellent response” misses the point of the review in the first place (I suspect somewhat deliberately) while making rather outlandish suggestions intended to undercut Ravitch’s authority on the subject.
    I don’t have time to go through it all, so I’m only going to address what most annoyed me about this piece.

    “Ravich works right next to the Harlem Children’s Zone but she herself has never been directly involved in reforming schools.”

    I presumed before reading this piece that Mr. Ramirez knew something of Ravitch’s background. I think I may have given him too much credit?…

    “More importantly what Harlem Children’s Zone is attempting to do is to take on the War on Poverty in Harlem, which means addressing more than the schools by creating a network of resources. This should be a model for the public schools, especially given all of the resources available to the public schools.”

    Really? This is what raised my suspicion of Mr. Ramirez’s motives. He can string together the words “all of the resources available to the public schools,” but does he seriously contend that this supposed milk-and-honey landscape of public education will ever yield two public schools sharing $200MM in assets?!

    Ironically, upon closer inspection, this is a major concession to Ravitch, who now never needs respond. Mr. Ramirez here at once admits that Ravitch’s central argument is correct and that public schools ought to be equipped with the resources to tackle poverty, the foremost underlying issue. That he obtusely suggests he thinks they already have such resources of irrelevant.

    Given this and so much more, it’s difficult for me to see this piece as little more than another outburst of mercenary reformism.

(will not be published)