Hillary Is Right About Charter Schools!

Charter school supporters can't deny that Hillary Clinton is factually correct in saying, "most charter schools ... don't take the hardest-to-teach kids. Or if they do, they don't keep them."

Even the most doctrinaire true-believer in school choice is not likely to claim the opposite, and say that "most charter schools ... take the hardest-to-teach kids ... [and] keep them."

In our toxic, competition-driven edu-politics, corporate reformers must strike back and protest Clinton's failure to prove her seemingly obvious statement. Education is divided by an intense and emotional civil war that mostly pits some liberals, neo-liberals, and civil rights advocates against other liberals, civil rights advocates and families who are sick and tired of the use of bubble-in testing as the ammunition in this conflict.

The immediate battleground is the fight for Clinton's support. And it sounds like the edu-battle for Hillary's heart and soul has been won!

It is appropriate that the education headlines focus on the big issue: the political question of whether Hillary Clinton would once again listen to her corporate funders, like Eli Broad, or to teachers, unions and parents who are fed up with the test, sort, reward and punish approach to school improvement, as well as the spin of reformers benefiting from the best public relations campaigns that money can buy.

So, before addressing a wonky issue about what we mean when we refer to kids who are the "hardest-to-teach," I will address a couple of political questions. Yes, reformers have demonized teachers and unions. I doubt that many people on any side of the issue believe that high-performing, high-poverty charters serve the "same" kids as those who we teach in neighborhood schools. This claim is merely a part of a destructive campaign where reformers pretend that under-resourced, highest-poverty schools that serve everyone could get the same results as a few high-performing charters if teachers just had "High Expectations!" and accepted "No Excuses!" Reformers say they just want to fire educators who won't do "Whatever It Takes!" but the real goal is to undermine collective bargaining and destroy the due process rights of all teachers (and thus the power of unions.)

Now for the wonky issues. Education reporters understand the real question is not how to address the effects of poverty, special education disabilities, and English Language Learners (ELL). We've all seen plenty of individual teachers and students who have overcome such challenges. The problem is achieving systemic improvements in schools that serve everyone who walks through the door. The challenge is fundamentally different in neighborhoods with extreme (not situational) poverty and low levels of social capital, where a critical mass of students have been traumatized to the point where their cognitive processes have often been physically altered.

For the record, most traditional public school don't serve that many of the hardest-to-teach students. In our segregated society, it is a relatively small number of schools where a large percentage of students are held back by extreme trauma and other excruciating obstacles. And IEP and ELL students are a pure joy to teach, even if it is harder to meet test score growth targets in the most challenging classes.

The even wonkier question is how to explain these issues to the non-education press. In particular, why did FactCheck.org conclude that Hillary can't prove that most charters do not serve the hardest-to-teach kids?

FactCheck's Eugene Kiely followed up on the sources that the Clinton campaign used to document her statement. Had she said that high-performing charters don't admit and retain very many of the hardest-to-teach students, I suspect Kiely would have quickly concluded that she was right. But, he seemed to focus on the words "most charters" and Hillary's sources did not prove that. Her campaign cited one of the best journalists around, Emma Brown, and extremely careful researchers, and they showed that charters have not taken their share of harder-to-teach students. For instance, Brown nailed the case that Washington D.C. charters did not serve as many of the more challenging students.

It would have taken a multi-year mega-study of the entire nation's charters, to conclusively prove that most charters "cream" the easier-to-teach kids and push out those who make it more difficult to raise test scores. I wish Kiely had focused on the unchallengeable second half of Hillary's statement -- that most charters don't retain the hardest-to-teach.

Here's the point that the non-education press often fails to understand. Being poor, or being on an IEP or ELL, doesn't make individual students harder to teach. Back when my high school was 70+% low-income, it was easy to recognize students with a reading or math disability. When I first walked in the classroom door, I could identify them as the students already seated in the front row, who had already followed their special education teachers' instructions, and who already had their notebooks in order. They were there to "work hard and work smart" from the first day, and they would have been welcome in most charter schools.

By the end of my career in our (then) 100% low-income school, we didn't have many (any?) IEP students or many ELL students who only faced a single disability/disadvantage. Our classes also had a critical mass of students with serious emotional disturbances and mental illnesses. The proliferation of choice had created intense concentrations of kids who had endured multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).

There wasn't a problem with many or most individual students with conduct disorders, serious mental health issues, or full-blown mental illness. Rarely was a student's education undermined by any single challenge. The problem was the extreme concentrations of troubled and traumatized students who brought complex and interrelated challenges to school.

Some of our hardest-to-educate kids acted out their anger. Some could control their behavior in most situations, but not when they were in class with gang rivals -- including persons who may have helped kill or injure their family members. Some went to heroic lengths to manage their pain, but doing so required a huge psychological investment that resulted in academics being de-prioritized. Most had fallen years behind due to chronic truancy (due to structural barriers to attendance), and many were still unable to attend class enough to catch up.

To understand why the thrust of Hillary Clinton's statement is incontrovertible, the non-education press should look into the work of Cynthia Lamy of the Robin Hood Foundation who explains the mutually reinforcing dynamics of ACEs. These experiences are dramatic enough on their own but when intertwined with other mental health issues in neighborhood schools, a tipping point is crossed. Lamy explains how problems for the child grow more extreme when three or more risk factors are present in a family. When a critical mass of trauma is brought to a school, then it sees the pattern that Lamy describes, "When risks collide, they intertwine and strengthen and cause the very difficult social problems we see in areas of concentrated poverty to become super-problems."

Frankly, I have not decided whether to support Bernie Sanders or Hillary, but fair is fair. Charter school advocates will continue to criticize Clinton or anyone else who questions their spin. They will continue to cite heartwarming successes of their individual students. We in neighborhood schools see those same types of victories in our buildings. We also see realities that are beyond the understanding of most charter school supporters and beyond the imaginations of many journalists on the non-education beat.