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The Weapon Against Inequality That 2016 Forgot

Saheli April 17, 2016 Education Comments Off on The Weapon Against Inequality That 2016 Forgot

Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, shake hands before the start of the Univision, Washington Post Democratic presidential debate at Miami-Dade College, Wednesday, March 9, 2016, in Miami, Fla.

For education reformers, the 2016 presidential primaries have been a wasteland. The Republican circus has produced many memorable moments, but few if any have touched on education.

Even on the Democratic side, education has been virtually invisible. The major issue is rising inequality, and public education has long been our society’s major instrument to combat that problem. Yet neither of the candidates has said anything positive about the one strategy that has made a real difference for low-income children: charter schools.

Could it be that they fear the wrath of the teachers’ unions?

Reducing inequality without reforming our education system is probably impossible, because the tide is flowing so strongly in the opposite direction. Twenty-five years ago only a third of public school students were low-income (eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch). Today, for the first time since the data has been compiled, a majority are low income.

While the achievement gap between races is narrowing, the gap between poor and nonpoor students has widened. The gap in standardized test scores between affluent students (those whose families earn more than 90 percent of the population) and low-income students (those whose families earn less than 90 percent of the population) has grown by about 40 percent since the 1960s, according to Stanford University’s Sean F. Reardon. Today it is nearly double the gap between whites and blacks.

A more recent study found that the gap in college enrollment between families making $108,650 or more a year and those making $34,160 or less has narrowed since 1970, from 46 percentage points to 37. But the gap in college completion has grown. Some 77 percent of the higher-income group earn a bachelor’s degree by the age of 24, but only 9 percent of the lower-income group do.

As everyone knows, education levels have an enormous impact on incomes. The graph below shows how much the gap between those with and without college degrees has widened over the last 50 years.


These two realities – the education gap widening and education levels mattering more in the job market – have created a vicious cycle. Affluent children do better in school, receive more education and are then more likely to earn more and have children who do better in school. All the while, inequality grows.

We need a new model for the knowledge economy.

We need to turn our education system inside out, because the challenges facing our schools have shifted as we have moved from the Industrial Revolution into the Information Age. Today students need more than high school degrees to get and hold jobs that will produce middle-class incomes. Yet our inner-city populations have become increasingly isolated from the economic mainstream, their children harder to motivate and educate. Immigration has once again accelerated, bringing many students who do not speak English into our classrooms. And computer technologies have created enormous opportunities to personalize education, so each student can learn at his or her own pace.

Yet traditional districts have largely been unable to meet these challenges or seize these opportunities due to their bureaucratic structures, rules and unions. Too many reform efforts have run headlong into the limits of Industrial-Era school systems: teachers who cannot be fired because of tenure; principals who cannot hire the teachers they want or control their budgets because those decisions are made at central headquarters; districts that are too politically captive of their employees to close weak schools and replace them with something better.

The only cities that have dramatically lifted the prospects of inner-city children have been those that have embraced a fundamentally new model. Cities with significant numbers of charter schools, where authorizers close failing schools and replace them with better schools, have produced dramatic gains in test scores, high school graduation rates and college enrollment rates.

The largest national studies of charter performance have been done by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University. Its methodology compares charter students to demographically similar students in traditional public schools who have had similar test scores in the past. In its 2015 study of 41 urban centers, the center found that charters on average produced 40 more days of learning in math and 28 in reading compared to traditional public schools.

For low-income students, they did even better. And the longer students stayed at charters, the larger the benefit: “By the time a student spends four or more years enrolled in an urban charter school, we can expect their annual academic growth to be 108 days greater in math and 72 days greater in reading per year than their peers in [traditional public schools].” Since traditional school years last about 180 days, this is the equivalent of an extra half-year of learning, every year.

Studies of graduation rates and college-going rates show equally dramatic gains for charters. Why do they produce better outcomes? For three big reasons:

Autonomy. Traditional schools don’t work well for many low-income students, who often arrive at school with little motivation. To create schools that motivate such students, charter leaders have fundamentally redesigned the nature of schooling. Only if they have real control over the key decisions at their schools is this possible. Yet in traditional districts, decisions about curriculum, hiring, school budgets, school design, length of school day and year and a hundred other things are made at central headquarters, not at schools.

Accountability. In traditional districts, schools often live on year after year, despite terrible results. In contrast, charters that fail to educate their students are supposed to be closed by their authorizers. In the past, states such as Arizona, Ohio and Texas have fallen down on this job. But leaders in the charter world have made closing failing schools a top priority in recent years, and last year those three states each closed more charters than they opened.

Closures not only weed out failures, they keep every charter employee aware that if their students are not learning enough, their jobs are at risk. This urgency is one of the reasons charters perform so well.

Choice. Since charters are free to develop innovative school designs, they offer parents a choice of different options for their children. Parents and children who actively choose a school tend to be more committed to it than those who are assigned. More importantly, not all children learn in the same ways; hence not all schools should teach in the same ways.

Charters have pioneered dozens of alternatives to traditional schools. Consider Washington, D.C., which alone has Montessori charters, bilingual immersion charters in four languages, preschool charters, adult education charters, a charter that serves both adult immigrants and their young children, “expeditionary learning” charters, “blended learning” charters, intensely academic charters, a residential charter, alternative charters for at-risk teenagers, charters that emphasize public policy, law, arts, and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and many more.

Because charters educate only six percent of public school students, most people think of them as an innovation around the edges of the system. But in some cities, charters are becoming the system – either supplanting the traditional system or emerging as a parallel system beside it. Just as happened a century ago during the Progressive Era, reformers are building a system organized to better fit today’s realities. Those who have gone the furthest have produced the most dramatic increases in student outcomes: New Orleans and Washington, D.C.

To combat inequality by closing the achievement gap in public schools, our next president should do four things:

1. Enlarge federal financial support for charter schools. Charter schools on average receive 28 percent less funding per student than traditional public schools.

2. Encourage the expansion of charter schools. Use a “Race to the Top” style competition to encourage school districts to expand their charter sectors, close failing schools and replace them with charters.

3. Promote performance accountability. Use a similar competition between states to encourage them to weed out charter authorizers that fail to close low-performing charters.

4. Educate the public about charter school potential. Use the presidential bully pulpit to educate the American people about the power of the emerging 21st century model.

If Democratic leaders fail to offer bold reforms, they risk ceding the political initiative to conservatives, who have their own strategy for K-12 reform: vouchers. Last year Nevada enacted the nation’s first law creating almost universal access to vouchers (technically called education savings accounts, or ESAs). Conservatives in Arizona are trying to be next, and all Republican presidential candidates support the expansion of vouchers.

Vouchers undermine equal opportunity, because parents who can afford it add their own money to the voucher and buy more expensive educations for their children. A voucherized education market will stratify schools by income, far more than today. In a decade, the education market will look like the markets for houses, cars and other private goods, with huge disparities based on wealth. Mixing of students from different income groups – something essential to the healthy functioning of a multi-racial, multi-cultural democracy – will disappear.

The charter model offers a third way that every progressive ought to support: decentralization, choice and competition, but within a framework of equal opportunity and accountability for performance.

[Source:- US news]

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