Charter schools are the Justin Bieber of education reform – a fad gone too far
Among all the programs that face cuts in President Obama's new budget, education is a clear winner. Charter school funding, however, suffers a slight decrease. And this may be a good thing. Charter schools have become another silver-bullet 'idea fad' racing through education reform.
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Perhaps the most apparent sign that charter schools had made it big time was the release of the film “Waiting for Superman,” directed by Davis Guggenheim of “An Inconvenient Truth.” The documentary chronicled several students entering a charter school lottery, aiming to reveal a purportedly obvious truth about our supposedly failing educational system: It would all be made better through more charter schools.Skip to next paragraph
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No panaceas for complex challenges
The error in this kind of thinking is not that it encourages us to try new, innovative solutions to well-worn problems. It’s that it assumes there are genuine panaceas for notoriously complex social challenges.
Some charter schools are incredibly effective and serve as examples of how we can begin to connect some of the least advantaged students to educational success. But many are not. A 2009 Stanford study of over 2,000 charter schools found that nearly half (46 percent) of charter schools do no better than their public counterparts and 37 percent perform worse.
There are charter schools that work, but that is the primary paradox of the “idea fad.” Innovative ideas – especially those that target seemingly intractable problems – tend to generate such frenetic energy and enthusiasm that they persuade us to pursue them headlong, instead of tailoring them to specific cases.
Characteristics of an idea fad
This dynamic derives from at least three idea fad attributes.
The first is that they appear as fresh approaches to longstanding challenges. Anxiety over the state of education in America is as old as President Reagan’s “A Nation at Risk” report. Charter schools have offered a radically different model for improving education, holding out the promise that they can target the root causes of failing schools.
The second feature of these idea fads is that they often align well with other political agendas. In the case of education, charter schools have fit well into a growing narrative of failing schools with little accountability, bad teachers shielded by evil unions, and crippling achievement gaps that threaten to topple the whole system.
The third trait is that idea fads attract the same kind of buzz as fads in other domains, such as entertainment and fashion. Charter schools have not lacked in persuasive – even celebrity – spokespeople or inspiring stories. These advantages have helped to build a sense of coolness around the charter schools concept.
None of these idea fad characteristics means that the ideas that become fads are bad ones. In the right place, under the right conditions, charter schools have had the power to transform educational practice and results. But the zeal with which supporters have often blindly pursued charter schools means that they have been over- or misapplied as a solution to educational achievement gaps.
The result is a movement that commands more than its share of public and private resources and that has spread far faster than sound research can keep up.
Now may be the time to think twice about the charter school bet, rather than doubling down.
Sam Gill is a political consultant and was a Rhodes Scholar.