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Charter School Lottery Gambles With Kids' Futures -- and Often Loses

4 years ago
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It seems like every time I turn over a charter school rock, some unpleasant fact crawls out. That's how I felt after watching "The Lottery," a new documentary about the Harlem Success Academy and its leader, Eva Moskowitz.

Like Davis Guggenheim's "Waiting for Superman," this film addresses the failures of the traditional public school system, in this case zeroing in on a New York City public charter school and the challenges it faces. (Guggenheim offers a broader picture of charter schools in the nation's capital and around the country.)

Some of the facts spotlighted in "The Lottery" just bugged me, especially this one: Unlike schools that select their students according to merit, or public schools that must accept everyone, charter schools that have more applicants than spots available select students by public lottery (intended to prevent families from buying their way in). The film profiles four really likable kids who are convinced that they'll beat the odds and win one of the 475 spots that 3,000 kids seek, enabling them to attend the sparkling charter school with its fancy computers and Ivy League-educated teachers.

Although all four could be chosen (a lottery is, after all, random), we have a sinking feeling that they all won't be. Moreover, it becomes painfully clear early on that lottery winners gain a ticket to success, while the losers are doomed to an inferior public school education.

Or so the film would have us believe.

If we had to choose one word to describe the state of public education in the United States, that word would be "failed." The statistics paint a horrific picture: Sixty-eight percent of eighth-graders can't read at their grade level; more than 6,000 students quit every school day; and almost half of all dropouts under age 24 don't have a job. That failure costs us billions in lost wages, productivity and tax revenue.

Anything we could do to reverse that would be welcome. And such a turnaround is what the two-decade-old taxpayer-financed charter school movement, with 1.5 million students, is all about.

President Barack Obama has great faith in charter schools. Congress allocated $4.35 billion to his education initiatives, including the Race to the Top (RTTT) competition that financially rewards states if, among other things, they promote charter schools and evaluate teachers according to student achievement (Tennessee just received $500 million from this program). The president has threatened to veto a recently approved spending bill over cuts to these initiatives that Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) inserted.

Not everyone shares Obama's enthusiasm. Leigh Dingerson, education team leader at the Center for Community Change, agrees that charter school innovations offer a tremendous benefit. But, as she plainly told me, "it is a benefit only to those who benefit from it." Students who aren't chosen through the lottery are "sent to a 'school of last resort' where the kids know they have landed in 'the dumping grounds.' "

Others view charter schools as attempts to break the powerful teachers unions.

It's in this acrimonious environment that "The Lottery" throws its firebombs. The film is about much more than how a charter school chooses its students. It's also about how to remove ineffective or incompetent teachers from the public school system.

Director Madeleine Sackler reveals the emotions swirling around her subject. She filmed protesters from the now-disbanded liberal activist group ACORN demonstrating outside the non-union Harlem Success Academy; she shows a highly emotional parent screaming at Moskowitz while a child cowers nearby; and she shows teachers union head Randi Weingarten struggling to tell interviewer Charlie Rose why only a handful of New York City's tens of thousands of tenured public school teachers have been fired.

After abortion and health care, there's probably no subject that generates as much division today as education reform and teachers unions. Why else would PD's editor-in-chief Melinda Henneberger ask, as she recently did on WomanUp's weekly talk show:

"When did we put the American Federation of Teachers on par with al-Qaeda?"

That's a good question. Charter school advocates insist they are not anti-union, and that they are just trying to bring innovation and competition into the public school system. As Deborah Veney Robinson, vice president of communications at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, told me, "We're not pro-union or anti-union. We're pro-kid."

Indeed, charter schools are helping to make the public school system better than it has ever been. But, based on the facts as presented in "The Lottery," I have several concerns:

Unions. The Harlem Success Academy says it does not hire union teachers so it can focus on improving student performance. But there is no correlation between said performance and attendance at unionized or non-unionized schools. The HSA can rightly be proud that 95 percent of its third-graders' scored as proficient or higher on standardized tests, but students at the unionized Renaissance Charter School scored even higher.

Performance. The academic performance of charter schools is decidedly mixed. A June report from the Department of Education finds: "Among charter schools popular enough to hold lotteries, overall, our results suggest that they are no more successful than nearby traditional public schools in boosting student achievement." A 2009 report from Stanford University found that only 17 percent of charter schools performed significantly better than traditional public schools, while 37 percent of charter schools performed worse.

There are other, related issues that concern me, though admittedly they apply to all schools, not just charter ones:

Testing. Many parents feel that testing deadens a love of learning. Alesia Duncombe, a mother of four in Corvallis, Oregon, explained her fears about testing elementary school children: "My biggest concern . . . was the focus on testing and test results," she told me in an e-mail. "I really did not want my kids to be labeled at that time, nor did I want them to focus on getting good test scores. Instead, I wanted them to feel the intrinsic value of knowing something, to want the reward of growing their own capabilities. I did not want them to judge their efforts based on other's metrics."

(A side issue: One of our biggest educational problems is that kids just don't like to read. Recent data show that 40 percent of America's schoolchildren do not read for fun and an additional 30 percent read for half an hour a day or less. Drilling students so that they can ace their standardized tests will not change this fact.)

Cheating. I worry that if higher student test scores translate into job security for teachers, then some teachers will do whatever it takes, including cheating, to push those scores higher. This concern is not merely hypothetical: Teacher cheating spiked upward in the 400,000-student Chicago public school system after test scores were used to evaluate teacher performance.

The saddest part about "The Lottery" comes at the end. As we suspected all along, not all of the kids profiled are lucky enough to gain admission to the prized school with its fancy computers, newly painted floors and extra tutoring.

So, what does the film teach us? Unfortunately, it doesn't teach us that children should study hard and try to gain admission to a magnet school or that their parents should push their teachers -- at whatever school children attend -- to do their job. No, it teaches that kids must rely on luck or "the hand of God" to make their dreams come true. That approach is not going to change America's failing public school system. Instead, it will just perpetuate the divide between those lucky enough to get a good education and those who come up empty.

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