Among School Children: (Charter Schools and its paradoxical culture of attrition)
Date: September 5, 2017
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Urban Charter School networks have now focused in some cases for twenty years on educating underserved children for whom a good education might compensate for huge gaps in early childhood. Many have accomplished this task with considerable success—though that success is sometimes narrowly defined by testing data until college (or high school) matriculation takes over as a more compelling piece of correlative evidence.  But at the core of these efforts are cohorts of young teachers driven by idealism about closing these gaps and by a desire to forge their skills in the cauldron of school reform. The staff is often the inverse demographically of the established private schools and in contrast to the unionized, mixed-age staff of the traditional district schools. The strength of this rookie charter culture is its surfeit of positive psychology and tremendous energy. Idealism and ideology make a point of not excusing a student’s poor performance because of economic class or family dysfunction. 

Some attribute the success of franchises like KIPP or Uncommon Schools to a relentless focus on data, to its no excuses model of character training, to eager philanthropists looking to replicate ways of closing gaps.  But above all, without the energy of this generation of millennial acolytes, the success of the Charter franchise would be much harder won. Teach for America has served as Charter Networks’ bootcamp for years—a feeder which refines the labor force. A critical mass of dedicated, creative teachers willing to work for something more than financial remuneration is at the heart of the enterprise.

So why, then, does the attrition of teachers from charter schools remain so high? Though data does show a slight decline in this attrition, the length of commitment falls way short of what many researchers argue about children from poor homes in general—that they need long, established relationships with teachers as an ingredient of their success. Is the charter school industry, though seemingly an attractive venture for millennials, actually a spectacular mismatch for the way this generation is made?

There is an innate mobility in a generation searching carefully for the right commitment.  In a generation sprung from the protean world of the Tweet and The Cloud, younger professionals don’t hang around for long as they look forward to a fast track to leadership, a compatible mission, or opportunities for entrepreneurship.  There is a difference between fidelity to an institution and fidelity to a cause. A cause can be fulfilled inter-changeably. The complex psyche of an institution is not a challenge to overcome if it hobbles the practice of an ideal or the aspiration for leadership. Shed the institution, but remain faithful to the cause! There is a heady excitement in this principle, except that it omits that critical element I alluded to earlier: the need for students, particularly those who are younger, poorer, Black and Latino—and particularly males– to forge long-term, established relationships with mentors in their schools, mentors who provide stability, love, and persistence. Most educators will agree that character development, emotional intelligence and commitment to school are traits that in the long term have more staying power than test scores for students. And close, extended mentorships are a key ingredient of these traits, at all grade levels.

To be fair, the counter argument—that the short tenure of a committed, engaging teacher has more impact that the long tenure of a disengaged, unimaginative teacher—has some legs. But charter schools came into being to counter the lack of grit and prevailing lethargy of the district school serving the underserved. The standard should be pegged to engaging smart teachers with longer tenures, since those predictable relationships are essential to tracking and consolidating the success of these children.

The most impressive and sometimes troubling trend I encountered during my initiation into the world of school reform was the amount of data and curriculum delivered from a network of people (whether the Charter Management organization itself or young consultants) to the ground forces. Those managing the professional development scene in the education reform movement in general are often less than ten years out of school themselves or, if older, have limited experience in a classroom.  The ground forces, overworked and learning their craft, come to expect a system of smooth delivery from people barely getting it right themselves, under the strictures of constant centralized expectation. The best schools do this in a reflective, deliberate, sophisticated way, but many do not. The tenured district school teachers used to treat such top down and transient expectation with cynicism—as a recursive routine that may not amount to much because they’ve seen it all before–but this is changing now as leadership training changes.  As the movement matures, the quality and experience of these delivery mechanisms may improve as well.

Yet the anxiety about proving that efforts to close the opportunity gap are effective and the related prospect of staff “churn” lead in turn to that tremendous emphasis on mandatory, top down professional development. Veteran school people know that deep professionalism develops over time, that the best teaching is a product of deliberately refined experimentation that ferments into intuition. This constant interplay between intuition and scientific application is something even the best young teachers can only know in time. Given these persistent tensions, school children have to be protected by a coherent, even choreographed program.  If the only way to prove that reform works is data, honestly and constantly assessed, then the controls have to be firm. Data becomes not only the means but the end itself.

And here, then, is the rub. When we look back on the experience of the young, talented but inexperienced cadre in the charter schools, how will we evaluate this fierce reliance on data and delivered material and its concomitant reduction of classroom autonomy? As diminution of a teachers’ creative power, or as a protection of poor children from the vicissitudes of poor curriculum delivery? Will data be seen as a means to a better end, or mistaken for the end itself?

It is easy to misapply priorities and training. Professional development per se is not about building a reflective, robust adult culture if it only trains people in how to deliver a product. What I hear again and again in the world of Charter schools is that only the kids matter—that if we want to close the gap we can only be hyper-focused on results and children. This makes some sense in response to the criticism that too many district schools in high poverty neighborhoods were selfishly focused on unionized adults. But the polarity presented above is a binary picture, and like all binary views of the world, necessarily limited. If teachers, particularly younger teachers, are merely vehicles for an end that has to be accomplished quickly, they become disposable, as if the healthy mindset we want to cultivate in children doesn’t apply to the adults that do the cultivation. This is a problem that Charter schools—and maybe most American schools—have understood far too late.

In both the earlier scenario (blame poverty, not schools, for the gap in skills) and the newer scenario (deify data and place the burden on teachers to deliver a scripted curriculum with a minimum of detour), we risk treating children as abstractions. School cultures are not immaculate conceptions; they have to deepen over time, with intelligent trial and error, and staying power—the kind of patience that does not mix well with urgency. When the history is written, Charter Schools will have either served as a temporary means to an end, or they will have proven their resilience, becoming an end in themselves, a pilot that proved durable enough to change the entire system and then become the key component of the system itself. In either case, we have to ask harder questions about the system we want– students often absorb the cognitive identity we offer them through how we assess what we teach them. That outcome cannot be divorced from looking more carefully at how the key component of any school beyond its students—its teachers—live their lives and grow as part of an institution.

Peter Herzberg


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