A reader writes:

I'd like to chime in on your ongoing series about education reform with a few stories about the company I work for.  It is one of the largest providers of online charter programs in the country: we have contracts with 20 states and a private school available to anyone in the country willing to pay for our services.  We have a wide range of courses and offer a great deal of flexibility.  I agree with your earlier commenter that, on paper, charter schools look great. (I have taught in two rough, inner-city public schools.)

But over the course of 18 months working for this company, I have seen decisions get made by people with doctorate degrees in education that blatantly degrade the quality of our curriculum in favor of cutting costs and avoiding conflicts with parents over terms like "global warming" and "evolution."

My company has bent over backwards to provide courses that don't offend, but also don't challenge students.  Recently, all of the subject matter experts in the department that develops curriculum had their positions eliminated in favor of contractors or third-party vendors who provide courses so riddled with grammar and content errors that it surprises me they could put together a course at all.  We decreased the number of reading and writing assignments in some of our high school English courses so that parents would stop complaining about the workload.  Our students engage their content in what basically amounts to lengthy PowerPoint slides turned into Web pages, and are forced to use message boards (!) instead of Web 2.0 technology to grow and learn.  How can we possibly expect to be taken seriously when we eliminate people who have multiple degrees, teaching experience, and content expertise, while subjecting students to technologies that were obsolete in 1997?

Nothing in my life has soured my personality and squashed my youthful optimism like working for this company.  If anything, this job has taught me that American parents often don't want to challenge their kids--they simply want them to graduate.  I'm sure you'll get lots of readers claiming this isn't true (this is just an anecdote), but I can't emphasize enough how appalled I've been by the utter lack of respect for the goals of education by this company and other charter schools that I read about.

Another writes:

One of your readers wrote:

The way that proficiency is determined through normed testing (which Ravitch fails miserably to properly explain) means that essentially, all the students in the state take the test, and a mean score is determined.  Proficiency then means achieving at or above that score.

That is a flat-out falsehood.  Proficiency for NCLB purposes is determined by criterion-referenced tests, not norm-referenced tests.  What this means is that proficiency is determined by some objective criterion -- say, how well you do compared to a state curricular standard -- not by how well you do compared to the overall population.  In fact, states aren't even ALLOWED to use pure norm-referenced tests for NCLB purposes, because -- for obvious reasons -- it would be impossible for 100% of students to achieve above the mean on a norm-referenced test.  (States are allowed to use so-called "augmented" norm tests, in which part of the test is norm-based, but other questions are based on objective criteria related to a state's content standards.)

It appears the use of criterion- or norm-referenced tests varies by state. Another writes:

I would just like to offer my experience in response to your reader who insists that charters work. The truth is that SOME charters work, but certainly not all.  And there is such a ridiculous lack of oversight of charter schools that the ones that don't work, the ones that are drastically under-performing the district they are meant to serve, fly under the radar for so long and when they are finally noticed, the only ones ever held accountable are the teachers.

I teach in one of those charter schools that work.  In fact, my school was one of only four charter schools in the state of Missouri to make AYP in the 2007-2008 school year - a year when 84.6% of Missouri charter schools (and 57.5% nationally) failed to make the grade. Even the KIPP school (a name that is often thrown around as the savior of urban schools) did not even come close to making the scores needed to reach AYP.  Adequate yearly progress is a questionable way to measure school success, but charter school students consistently under-perform their public school peers on NAEP tests as well.

I enjoy my job and I think we do have a bit more flexibility (sometimes too much flexibility) to change our curriculum to meet the needs of our students and there is more of a professional teamwork atmosphere than I experienced working in larger urban districts.  But these conditions apply to my school only, not to charters as a whole.  I think we are doing some wonderful things.  We also have our problems, not the least of which is failing to retain good teachers.  Many teachers will put in their time and move on to a district with better pay, better job security, better retirement, and better hours. Thus we have had three principals in four years and start each school year with about half of our staff new and often as first year teachers.

My husband is a first year teacher teaching Middle School Science, Social Studies, and Math in one of those charter schools that doesn't work.  This school has been open for 10 years and has consistently scored below the (pitiful) surrounding district.  My husband works with no textbooks and very few materials.  Just last night he had to run to the store to buy meter sticks so that his class could complete a science experiment.  Meter sticks!  Where has the money gone for 10 years that they haven't gotten around to buying textbooks or meter sticks? 

And when the scores come back dismal as I'm sure they will, who will be held "accountable"?  The students?  The parents?  The school leadership that prioritized God knows what over instructional supplies?  The state university that sponsors their charter?  No. The teachers will take the blame, lose their jobs, and another crop of first year teachers will be brought in and expected to teach without curricular, administrative, or behavioral support.

There are some amazing things going on in charter schools across the country.  There are also some terrible things going on in charters.  Guess what?  The same can be said about public schools, or any school for that matter.  But the data simply does not show that charters are the answer.  Anyone, including your reader and Obama, that embraces charters wholeheartedly without looking at the facts is only doing a disservice to charters, our students, and education as a whole in this country.

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