Merrow Ignores Charter School Efforts to Clean House

Merrow Ignores Charter School Efforts to Clean House
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Kindergarten teacher Alexa Wolfe teaches her students at KIPP Thrive Academy, a new school in what had been the closed Eighteenth Avenue School, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015, in Newark, N.J.(AP Photo/Mel Evans)

RCEd Commentary

Former PBS NewsHour education correspondent John Merrow is ignoring what’s actually happening in American education.

Merrow recently called out leaders in the charter school movement for not doing enough to protect the charter “brand” from the bad behavior of the worst actors in the sector. He even suggested that these leaders create a “Hall of Shame” for the perpetrators. But Merrow, who recently reported on a number of stories highlighting problems in charter schools, is not listening. Far from being silent, charter advocates from Education Secretary Arne Duncan to national and state organizations regularly call out failure and inappropriate behavior.

And they do more than just talk about accountability. In the last five years, more than 1,100 charter schools were closed because of low-performance or mismanagement, according to Washington, D.C. nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners. That’s approximately 16 percent of today’s 6,700 charter schools. So, not only do people in the charter sector call out failure, they actually cull it out.

In the traditional public school world, “teacher bashing” is completely unacceptable. So much so that almost any discussion of the possibility that a teacher, somewhere, might be ineffective, inevitably brings down a rain of accusations of “more teacher bashing.” Even worse is the chilling effect this might have on candor when truly egregious behavior is ignored or downplayed. I feel obliged to call out Merrow’s request as only the latest example of extreme “charter bashing.”

The double standard for honest talk about objective problems in the two sectors is so pronounced that attacks like Merrow’s tend to roll off the hunched shoulders of the professionals working hard in the charter sector. Teacher bashing is taboo, but charter bashing remains a fully-endorsed, all-day, every-day, blood sport.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could agree that the people working in all our public schools -- charters and traditional public -- deserve deep respect? Just as those few that break the public’s trust, regardless of the sector they work in, require our response.

Far from silent, charter leaders regularly call out failure and inappropriate behavior, just as they reasonably defend the autonomy that helps so many charter schools succeed. That is not cowardice. That is leadership in a movement that contains highly successful innovators, as well as bad actors that need to be identified and purged.

I agree with Merrow that there are examples of bad behavior in the charter school sector, and far too many leaders of both systems who are reluctant to speak to their challenges. But I hold up the charter sector for its progress toward collective responsibility. Its honest brokers deserve political support for standing up for quality, not scorn. Scorn should be reserved for the bad actors themselves. I see much less introspection among traditional school systems.

If you are looking for examples of leadership that balance urgent calls to address failure with proposals that also protect what is working, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (my former workplace) stands out.

NACSA’s One Million Lives campaign is a five-year effort designed to jumpstart an increase in closures of failing charters. NACSA called for closing the 1,000 lowest performing schools, and replacing them with 2,000 higher performing charter schools over five years. The sector has responded accordingly. Those closures don’t happen by accident. NACSA has evaluated and assisted authorizers with implementing practices that help them close failing charters. I, myself, worked with colleagues at NACSA to strengthen oversight by amending laws in 15 states. 

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools also provides leadership. The organization crafted legislation for both Mississippi and Washington state that ensures that schools that fail on the state accountability system, or are in the bottom quarter of the state’s accountability system, are not renewed. Unfortunately, the Washington law was held unconstitutional, among other things, for not empowering the state to oversee charter schools like other public schools -- which is pretty twisted when you consider how much higher the standard was for Washington’s charters compared to traditional public schools. But regardless of the irony, these policies reflect the values of the charter sector’s leadership. These are not policies of an organization unwilling to raise the bar on charter school performance.

Another example is the California Charter School Association.The CCSA annually calls for closure of California charter schools that are failing.  Now, they may not identify as many low-performing schools as I would, but they are suggesting the elimination of dues-paying members that don’t meet their standards. The City of Chicago also recently stepped up, announcing a new accountability framework for charters and announcing the closing of four underperforming schools.

All this is not to say that the charter sector has this figured out, or that problems are not real, or that all the stakeholders in the charter space are committed to rooting out failure or fraud. But there are important voices in the charter movement that call for action to address the sector’s shortcomings. That willingness to confront and deal with problems, ironically given the criticism from Merrow, is actually one of the things in the charter sector that is special and seems to be thriving. And the leaders pushing for stronger behavior and the application of higher standards for performance deserve support, and even a little credit.

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