Last year, the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof highlighted a fundamental inconsistency in the increasingly heated discussion about public education in America. In other walks of life, no one would challenge the notion that you get what you pay for. Kristof pointed out that it only made sense that if you wanted better educational outcomes in the US, you need to pay teachers more. But the public wants a pony: higher quality education while demonizing teachers and cutting their pay.
In the 1970, teacher starting pay in New York City was only $2000 below that of starting salaries at top law firms. But now, as the relative status and pay of public school teachers having declined, so too has educational achievement among teachers. A recent McKinsey study found that nearly half of the K-12 teachers in the US had graduated in the bottom third of their college classes. It recommended increasing starting teacher pay from an average of $39,000 to $65,000 in high needs classes in order to attract instructors who had graduated in the top third of their classes.
So why should we be surprised that charter schools, which pay teachers less than public school teachers in the same geographic area, are having trouble delivering the educational goods? And remember, charter schools do have a serious advantage over public schools: they don’t have to accept all comers. Parents apply, and the charters screen both the parents (for level of involvement) as well as the students. So you’d expect charter schools to report better outcomes simply by virtue of self-selection, by skimming off students and parents who are more serious about education.
In Chicago, where mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Tribune, among others, are promoting charter schools, the idea that you can get more by paying less is rationalized through the spectacle of the lazy, overpaid teacher sheltered by the union. Get rid of those freeloaders and you can improve performance with lower pay! That’s an interesting theory, particularly given that there is no tenure in Chicago schools these days.
So how are those charter schools actually doing? As Ben Jarovsky reports in Chicago Reader (hat tip Jan F):
…the foes of the teachers’ union declare that we should pay close attention to the all-important standardized test scores. So let’s take a look.
There are 541 elementary schools in Chicago. Based on the composite ISAT scores for 2011—the last full set available—none of the top ten are charters. None of the top 20, 30, or 40 either.
In fact, you’ve got to go to 41 to find a charter. Take a bow, CICS Irving Park!
Most of the 49 charters on the list are clustered near the great middle, alongside most of their unionized neighborhood schools.
The top scorers are public schools with unionized teachers who are members of the Chicago Teachers Union…
I had to look hard to find an UNO school [a charter school operator touted by Rahm] on the list…
The highest ranking UNO campus, Marquez, came in at 99. UNO’s Fuentes campus—the one the Tribune highlighted—ranks 128. That’s two positions behind Linne, the unionized public school in the neighborhood. I hope it’s not too late for the Tribune to rewrite that editorial.
For the record, Linne’s student body consists largely of low-income Hispanic kids, as does Fuentes’s. I mention that because charter supporters usually whine that it’s unfair to compare them with higher-scoring schools whose students come from wealthier families. Which is the exact argument they disdain when public school backers use it. “The soft bigotry of low expectations,” as the aforementioned President Bush put it.
When they’re calculating their rankings, the charter backers like to rule out comparisons with unionized middle-class neighborhood schools, magnet schools, selective enrollment schools, baccalaureate schools, and schools that don’t serve fish sticks for lunch. By the time they’re finished playing with the test scores, they somehow manage to have the charters ranked near the top. Using this logic, I am the world’s greatest basketball player…
Anyway, for all those keeping score back at home, the highest-ranking UNO school comes in at 99, the lowest at 407.
Quick—fire some teachers!
If I wanted to be a jerk, I’d say that the charter school teachers are to their unionized counterparts what the NFL’s replacement refs are to the real things—pawns being used in a larger game.
Actually, the worst is that the students are the real pawns, and the scores suggest that the charter experiment in “we can get more for less” is not panning out as promised. Quelle surprise!