I was recently talking to Mike Goldstein about the NYT Success Academies piece.
One could read the article, which painted the schools as fairly oppressive, and struggle to understand why 22,000 families applied for 2,700 open slots.
Mike raised the issue that it is odd that we continue to see two stories play out in the media: (1) detractors decry high-peforming charter schools for test prep, strict discipline, and privatization; and (2) parent demand for these schools is through the roof.
Mike and I think this is another appearance of the Nirvana Fallacy: detractors critiquing something for its imperfections while over idealizing alternative options.
Our primary lens of understanding high-performing charter schools should not be by comparing them to Nirvana; it should be by comparing them to other available options.
Mike noted that opinions might not be so polarized if detractors actually witnessed what happens at underperforming schools, both in the classroom, as well in social places – the lunchroom, recess, and, yes, the bathroom. The intellectual apathy and the physical and emotional bullying can be heartbreaking.
For a window into what parents might be choosing between, read this piece on Normandy High School:
“Third period is nothing to expect,” she said after she sat down. “She doesn’t take attendance. No work at all. No intent to do any work.”
The instructor, Ivy Word, sat in the front corner looking at her computer screen. She’s a substitute teacher who’s been in charge of the class since the start of the school year.
Some students sat at the back of the room, ear buds in their ears. Some slept. Carver and four other girls talked about prom. Carver took out a comb and began braiding a classmate’s hair. Another girl began gluing fake eyelashes.
In classes where teachers have given up, students have, too. They spend the hour texting friends, snapping photos and sending them by social media.
This is the reality that families living in poverty often face. They are not choosing between dueling narratives; they are choosing between schools that may set their children on the path to college or schools that may push their children into prison.
To their credit, the New York Times also did a piece sharing six parent perspectives.
But here’s what I would have loved to see: interviews with the 22,000 families who tried to get into Success Academies.
This might have given us a better insight into how families, unlike so many commentators, understand that the choice is not between high-performing charter schools and Nirvana.
Rather, the choice is between schools, that, for all their imperfections, do well by children – and schools that do not.