Charter schools have been with us now for two decades. Enough evidence and data have been gathered that it ought to be possible to assess their capacity for achieving what many describe as their goal: helping poor children and closing achievement gaps. Samuel Abrams, the director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, has just published Education and the Commercial Mindset, a fascinating evaluation of the role of two strategies for privatizing schools—the Education Management Organization (for-profit EMO) and the Charter Management Organization (not-for-profit CMO).
Abrams sets up a case study of Edison Schools to examine the role of for-profit school management and a case study of KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) to explore the workings of a huge, nonprofit charter network. While Abrams’ story of the ultimate failure of the for-profit EMOs is a fascinating read, the presence of the not-for-profits is of far more urgent interest; these are, after all, the fast-growing form of privatization. According to Abrams, if one removes the huge online, virtual-academy EMOs, the nonprofit CMOs are replacing the for-profit EMOs in terms of market share: “In sum, by 2011-2012, the latest academic year for which cumulative data are available, nearly one-third of students in schools managed by EMOs were online students; the number of CMO schools had far surpassed that of EMO schools; and the number of students in CMO schools had far exceeded the number of students in EMO brick-and-mortar schools.” (p. 193)
In an interview with journalist Valerie Strauss, Abrams clarifies the subject of the privatization of education with an essential definition: “Privatization takes the form of nonprofit as well as for-profit school management, as privatization technically means outsourcing the provision of government services to independent operators, whether nonprofit or for-profit.” In other words, nonprofit charter schools are a form of privatization, despite that their proponents and sponsors persist in calling them “public charter schools.”
While Abrams’ review of KIPP is mostly positive—especially compared with the record of Edison Schools that precedes his profile of KIPP, he explains the KIPP Schools’ limitations and concludes that on the whole privatization—even the not-for-profit variety—has failed to fulfill the promises of proponents of the school choice marketplace:
- “Teacher retention has… been a central challenge for KIPP as well as similar CMOs. The price is not merely time, energy, and money lost to recruitment and training of replacements but also quality of instruction… (T)he explanation for the negative impact of high teacher turnover appears to derive not only from insufficient experience of new teachers but also from inadequate institutional stability, in turn fundamental to fostering cooperation among colleagues, nurturing new faculty, and developing trust with students.” (pp. 222-223)
- While KIPP and others have emphasized no-excuses programs to build “character” among their students, and while KIPP worked actively with Angela Duckworth, whose academic research has focused on the role of “grit” in academic success, Abrams cautions that other academics have produced ample evidence that,”disadvantaged students did not fail to make it to and through college because of insufficient character… but because of insufficient social and financial resources taken for granted by middle- and upper-class students.” (pp. 243-244)
- Then there are the selection screens: “(T)hose students ill suited for KIPP’s high demands may not enter KIPP lotteries or may not do so in proportionate numbers… Moreover, attrition and replacement patterns further distinguish KIPP students. Of those students who do gain admission to KIPP but do not prove a good fit, a significant number drop out after one or two years, return to their neighborhood district schools, and either get replaced by higher performing transfers or do not get replaced at all…. In a subsequent study of nineteen KIPP middle schools across the country from 2001-2009, a third group of scholars concluded that ‘late entrants’ who transfer into KIPP in sixth grade or later (though relatively few students transfer into KIPP middle schools after sixth grade) to replace exiting students tend to comprise fewer male students, fewer students with learning disabilities, and more students with higher baseline scores on fourth-grade reading and math exams.” (pp. 245-246)
Abrams concludes that KIPP and other CMOs cannot exist without a public school system of last resort to serve all of the children the charters refuse to choose in the first place or those the charters push out because the children or their families are not able to adjust to the charter’s demands or school culture: “(T)he very existence of KIPP and other CMOs embracing the philosophy of ‘no excuses’ depends on the presence of a fallback system of schooling, where students can go if KIPP, Mastery, or Achievement First does not prove a good fit… This qualification is critical.” (p. 249) Abrams quotes New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio: “The answer is not to find an escape route that some can follow and others can’t. The answer is to fix the entire system.” (p. 250)
In the interview with Valerie Strauss, Abrams further describes the impact of market reforms on urban public school districts: “(T)his outsourcing generates the atomization of school districts, meaning the diminishment of neighborhood schools and the civic involvement each neighborhood affiliation involves; second this atomization makes for navigational challenges for many parents, who either have a hard time finding the right schools for their children or getting them there day after day when the school is across town; third, this atomization translates into ‘good schools’ and ‘bad schools,’ with students who can’t succeed in the ‘good schools’ concentrated in the ‘bad schools,’ which are often default neighborhood schools, where learning can become far harder given the negative effects struggling students can have on on other students. In sum, such outsourcing leads to opportunities at high-performing schools for some students but leaves many others behind… Privatization accordingly amounts to a flawed response… not a solution.”
* This blog has been corrected. Originally, the Abrams interview was credited to Jennifer Berkshire. Valerie Strauss herself conducted this interview.