The Connection Between Choice and Humility, Edition Two


Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter have an op-ed on diverse charter schools in today’s New York Times. 

I enjoy Richard and Halley’s work and am aligned with their goal of achieving more socioeconomic diversity in our public schools.

In their new book, I am quoted on the benefits of diverse charter schools.

That being said, I believe the thesis of their op-ed falls into the trap of many charter school commentators (which I have written on before). 

Many commentators praise charter schools that align with their vision of what makes a great school. Many of these same commentators then dismiss charter schools that do not align with their vision.

Not enough commentators give credence to the idea that different families want different things for their children.

While socioeconomic diversity is a noble goal, it may not be the number one priority for all families.

So yes, let’s support socioeconomic diverse charter schools.

But let’s also recognize that these types of schools will hopefully be only one of the thousands of school model innovations we will see when we hand power back to educators and families.

Lastly, perhaps the greatest irony of the piece is that it dismisses the strong evidence of the benefits of charter schools for African-American students while making a case for a specific type of charter school that (as far as I know) is supported by little rigorous research. 

The Potential for Diverse Charter Schools

I agree with their take that diverse charter schools hold promise for both increasing student achievement and good citizenship.

When I worked at NSNO, we invested in a diverse start-up charter school, Bricolage Academy, for these very reasons. So far, the school is off to a strong start.

However, while there are high-performing diverse charter schools across the country, I have not seen a rigorous study that systematically studies their effectiveness. And, all told, this is still a young sub-movement within the charter school sector.

So while I’m bullish on the model, I also think the slim evidence base on these charter schools warrants caution.

The Research Base on Diverse Schools

I think Kahlenberg and Potter make significant mistakes in how they communicate and interpret research.

First, they site weak evidence for their argument that diverse schools benefit students.

They note: “Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress in Mathematics show that low-income fourth graders who attend economically integrated schools are as much as two years ahead of low-income students stuck in high-poverty schools.”

There are major, obvious methodological reasons not to use one-time NAEP scores to support any education intervention.

Kahlenberg and Potter would be wise to trust Matt Dicarlo at the Shanker Institute when he says NAEP scores “can’t be used to draw even moderately strong inferences about what works and what doesn’t.”

The Research Base on Charter Schools

Kahlenberg and Potter write: “the diminished teacher influence and increased segregation might be tolerable if charter schools regularly outperformed traditional public schools, but in reality, although much media attention is showered on high-flying charter chains like KIPP and Success Academy, on the whole charters do about the same.”

This is a dangerous half-truth that is often repeated.

Yes, charter schools, on average, perform about the same as traditional schools.

But, as I’ve written numerous times, CREDO’s 27 state study on charter schools found that African-American students in poverty who attended charter schools achieved nearly two months of extra learning per year.

Kahlenberg and Potter clearly care about the fact that African-American students continue to suffer from poor educational opportunities.

As such, I am unsure why they ignore this evidence, especially when the data comes from the very study they are referencing.

And, perhaps most surprisingly, they site no rigorous evidence for the actual charter model for which they are advocating.

The Purpose of Charter Schools

Kahlenberg and Potter open their article discussing Albert Shanker’s original vision for charter schools. Shanker’s envisioned that charter schools would be a place for empowered teachers to develop innovations that the traditional public could then adopt. 

I have two thoughts on this.

First, I find Shanker’s vision to be an odd one. If Shanker thought that empowered educators would innovate more frequently, then why only grant this power to a few select schools, and why keep in place the existing structures that are  hampering innovation?

Second, while I think it is important to understand the original vision for charter schools, it is an unclear to me that we should give this vision much weight. Just because something is created for one reason does not mean we should be beholden to this rationale.

In Closing

I think it bears repeating:

Yes, let’s support socioeconomic diverse charter schools.

But let’s also recognize that these types of schools will hopefully be only one of the thousands of school model innovations we will see when we hand power back to educators and families.



5 thoughts on “The Connection Between Choice and Humility, Edition Two

  1. Wm Murphy

    I tend to think of “socioeconomically diverse charter schools” as short hand for integrated charter schools. Perhaps that’s wrong headed. I worry that it becomes ok if people choose de facto segregated schools That’s not to say most places, including pre-storm New Orleans, aren’t segregated. They are/were. But if integration is not a goal, even a distant one, then I find that worrisome. I don’t know whey we shy away from saying that’s diversity/integration is a goal.
    We wouldn’t hesitate to have the same bias and say we think a good schools scores well on tests, has a good CREDO score, or uses data driven instruction, etc. and therefore parents should choose those. I’d personally choose an integrated school over a CREDO score any day… Thankfully I have the financial means to do just that.

    1. nkingsl

      Bill – thanks for your thoughts. I tend to think a lot of people share your desire for such schools, and we’ll see a lot more of them in New Orleans over the next decade…

  2. Pingback: A Smarter Charter — Joanne Jacobs

  3. juliegirl

    I love the idea of socioeconomically diverse charter schools. I wish that every school could reflect the diversity of our city. I just think about scalability for integration– we’re not going to get there by opening one new integrated-by-design school for 100 kids each year. That just adds to our collection of 8 or so sought after public schools that middle class and white families are willing to send their kids to. The only difference is that they aren’t selective, but given the demand for these schools, they are either going to be as impossible to get in to as a magnet school, and/or they are going to surely drift away from diversity (because of the high number of more affluent applicants). What we really want is an integrated school system in our city, with nearly every school reflective of the diversity of our city, with lots of choices for all families. We don’t want affluent families to only choose magnets and the three deliberately diverse schools. To get to a truly integrated system, we need many families currently in private education to deliberately choose to go to a school that is not racially or economically diverse. In short, we need middle class families to choose schools where 90% or more of the students are poor and where the majority of students were failing not too long ago. This is a tall order. As a leader of one of those schools (that make up the majority of schools in our city), I feel a great sense of responsibility for the future, and I know that the way change will happen is inside my building and buildings like it. Our main mission is to serve families in poverty, to help our scholars build the skills they need for college and prepare for choice-filled lives. But to think more long-term, we all need to create schools that are able to serve all families, and are ready to meet the incredibly difficult task of attracting middle class families to a school that was previously failing. I would love to have this conversation, and learn from cities and systems where this has occurred on a large scale. I think the work we do in New Orleans (no matter what kind of school) is ground-breaking, inspiring, and meaningful. We are a part of something really important here.

    1. nkingsl

      Hey Julie – great to hear from you. I hear you on the trickiness of (1) creating awesome schools that we know will most likely serve mostly low income students (2) while also trying to build a system that will serve everyone.

      As of now, I”m skeptical that many middle class families will enroll in schools that are 90%+ poverty.

      Perhaps if families began integration at entry grade levels, this transition could occur.

      A very difficult issue.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.