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November 05, 2004

No on Charter Schools

Washington voters just rejected Referendum 55, which was seeking to allow charter schools in Washington.

The article includes the charter school pitch:

R-55 would have made Washington the 41st state in the nation to allow charter schools. Those schools would be publicly financed and operate under a charter, or contract, with local or state education officials.

The charter identifies a school's mission and educational plan. Charter schools typically operate free of many regulations that apply to conventional public schools, setting their own curriculums and schedules, for example, or hiring with a freer hand.

I am very pleased that this initiative was voted down (the third time in the last ten years that Washington voters have nixed charter schools). Bill Gates was a big supporter of the referendum, donating $1 million to the cause. Although I think Bill is a smart guy, in this case he was wrong, wrong, wrong.

It's not so much charter schools per se that I object to. I think if parents want to get that involved there are plenty of opportunities to volunteer at their local public school. I think the charter schools do a worse job of educating their students, and the reason rich people want them is because they want the "benefits" of a private school (read: no kids from broken homes, with discipline problems, etc) on the cheap. But hey, if a bunch of parents want to play school principal and tube their own kids' education, who am I to oppose it.

No, the real reason I dislike charter schools is because they are a sympton of a societal illness which I will call "I'm Smarter Than You Syndrome" (ISTYS). ISTYS is why people think they know more about how to solve congestion than traffic engineers, and more about their own health than a doctor, and more about education than the people running public schools. You see ISTYS in action when people start asking for "transparency" in a process, which is slang for "the people doing this are stupid, they need a smart person like me looking over their shoulder."

It's no surprise that Bill Gates supports charter schools, since Microsoft fosters an ISTYS attitude. It hires smart people and tells them, "You are smart, you can do anything." It encourages people to speak up when they think something is being done wrong anywhere in the company. That's well and good inside Microsoft. But when you export that attitude to your personal life, you're not being proactive and quality-driven. You're being obnoxious and uninformed.

The notion that because you are smart you could "fix" public schools, and the related notion that because public schools need fixing indicates that the people running them are not smart, indicates a lack of understanding about other people, and a large ego to boot. In other words, you come across to people the way George Bush comes across to Democrats. Someone once compared Microsoft to the United States, saying that the way Microsoft is viewed by the rest of the computer industry is the same way the United States is viewed by the rest of the world. That's ISTYS at work. So Bill, let me humbly suggest that there are better ways to spend your $1 million.

Posted by AdamBa at November 5, 2004 09:36 PM

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Hi, my name is Dennis and I have ISTYS.  Not to mention all of the warning signs for testosterone poisoning. 

And I don't think that advocacy of transparency is about ISTYS. It is about turning claims into demonstrations and being responsible how one identifies mistakes, learns from them, and being dependable. It can also be a way to provide a grounded, fact-based visibility by organizations that want to demonstrate their accountability, whether to the public, to customers, or to an industry.

That's what transparency is for me and what I seek to provide in my activities.

I am not prepared to know whether the notion has been perverted in the case of public oversight of school systems or not. I am not a stakeholder in those conversations, other than as a member of the general public. I am concerned about transparency being tarred with ISTYS. I don't think it is part of that affliction, whether or not the afflicted might use it as a cover for their attentions.

Posted by: orcmid at November 6, 2004 09:59 AM

Here's the problem with your view on charter schools, Adam. Public schools don't work, and public schools CAN'T be fixed. Public schools can't hire and retain great teachers, public schools are terribly underfunded, and public schools are not designed to educate ... they are designed to indoctrinate. Public schools failed me, I wasn't getting the education I needed, and it wasn't until I entered a separate privately-funded program in the district that I finally found something that worked for me, and I'm much better off today for it.

The whole idea behind charter schools is to free the educational process from the constraints imposed by bureaucratic school districts and get to work on solving the problems of the terrible education our kids are getting. It has nothing to do with me thinking I'm smarter, it has to do with wanting to get to a solution.

The main reason, however, that I'm for charter schools is that they have accountability. They are not only accountable to the school district, but they are accountable to each and every parent as well. It has nothing to do with rich people wanting a cheap private school for their kids. I'm most certainly not rich, we can barely exist on what my wife and I make. But I voted for charter schools because my research has shown that they can and DO work, and actually can improve education in public schools as well.

I found this comment somewhat funny: "But when you export that attitude to your personal life, you're not being proactive and quality-driven. You're being obnoxious and uninformed." I think that your opinion on charter schools (and public schools, for that matter) is precisely that ... uninformed. You stated that chater schools do a worse job of educating children, but you gave no support for your opinion, no evidence.

In the interest of fair disclosure, I should point out that after planning to be a teacher, and studying education in our country in college, I decided that there was little point in trying to fix a fundamentally broken system. John Taylor Gatto was an award-winning teacher who quit teaching because he no longer wanted to hurt kids, and his words really resonated with me.

Posted by: Rob Stevens at November 7, 2004 10:08 AM

I can't agree with you when you say public schools CAN'T be fixed. I agree with you that "Public schools can't hire and retain great teachers, public schools are terribly underfunded". That's the way it is now, and the first is a consequence of the second. Public schools need lots of funding -- that's EXACTLY what they need, not mandatory tests and charter schools. When you say public schools are designed to indoctrinate, I'm not sure what you mean. Who, at the various levels of the public school decision-making heirarchy (state government, school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers) views public schools as an indoctrination method, what are they trying to indoctrinate, and how do they go about it?

I went to public schools and thought they were fine. My wife went to private schools and thought they were terrible. The personal experience of one person is not much of a data point.

When you say "free the educational process from the constraints imposed by bureaucratic school districts", to me that is ISTYS. The assumption is that education professionals are NOT attempting to educate your children, and that you, via the control you would have over a charter school, would be able to change this.

What charter schools have is small classes and involved parents. Small classes is a funding issue. Involved parents could happen at a public school also, except that parents are less willing to get involved in schools when they feel that "accountability" is not there...that is the problem with ISTYS.

As for evidence, there is not much point in flinging up evidence on this. There's a recent study of charter schools (http://www.nea.org/charter/testscores.html) that stated students tested worse; I'm sure you could find similar pro-charter-school studies if you looked.

Posted by: Adam Barr at November 7, 2004 04:27 PM

I think charter schools are a natural reaction to the huge, impersonal beaurocracy that so many of our large school districts have become. It's an attempt to return complete control to a local entity and to try to define the challenge of educating in such a manner that success is possible. The current trend of hiring on another highly-paid carpet-bagging superintendent of schools who lasts for a year or two while firing his own initiatives left and right has got to stop. The politics behind school districts, both large and small, often distracts from the task at hand. Personally, I think that the huge school districts in my part of the US are not the optimal solution.

That being said, the track record of charter schools in the Washington, DC area is absymal. Many individuals or organizations use charter school initiatives as a way to get public funding for a private school that serves their own agenda, including enriching individuals that are not qualified to teach or be administrators.

Posted by: Mike Kelley at November 9, 2004 07:18 AM

"When you say "free the educational process from the constraints imposed by bureaucratic school districts", to me that is ISTYS. The assumption is that education professionals are NOT attempting to educate your children, and that you, via the control you would have over a charter school, would be able to change this."

No, that's not what I'm saying at all. Yes, they are trying to educate our kids, but they aren't. What they're doing is trying to educate as many people at once as possible, and that simply doesn't work in a lot of cases. Communities teach kids better than any sort of rigid system does. Like I said, I just finished studying this, so it's not exactly the ISTYS that you speak of. The public school system is supposed to teach our kids, but it's not set up in any sort of ideal situation to be able to do that. In fact, all the things that you would do if you wanted to teach kids are precisely the things that don't happen. The whole process gets undermined.

While I don't necessarily subscribe to the theory that it's being done intentionally, I also don't think that lack of funding is the entire problem. There are a lot of great teachers out there that risk their jobs by trying to do better, and many of them get fired because they didn't do something precisely the way the school district wanted it done. I want my teachers freed to teach the way the students need to be taught, not the way the school districts think it should be done. The teachers are the ones that are interacting with the students on a daily basis ... if anyone has this ISTYS, it's the school districts.

I'm not saying that we should scrap the entire process and start over. I'm saying that I think that we should have alternatives and options. Quite frankly, I think that charter schools could actually make public schools better by making those classes smaller and giving the kids more individual attention. I just think there needs to be something better, and I know that public schools just aren't getting the job done.

Posted by: Rob Stevens at November 10, 2004 10:57 AM

Skipping over the school debates, I think you hit on something with the ISTYS concept, of course the Psalmist had it quite awhile ago in the form of Proverbs 16:18. :) But simply having “smart people” is not enough, strategy is execution, as they say. Furthermore “smart” doesn't easily translate into a “market”. ISTYS may work, and in fact be necessary, within an intellectual-capital programming environment, but outside of that small bubble, it won't stick, as try ISTYS on a CIO, watch how fast you are shown the door. I think a better method would be more along the lines of cultural anthropologists, so to speak.

And to get educational slash historical, the “ISTYS” of the British Empire and the autocratic King George III created this country. No matter what the Colonists did, it was never good enough, no matter how opulent and elegant, always something wrong. Had our Founding Fathers not made to feel, at every British turn, like second-rate provincials we might as well have had a differing ‘Passport’.

Posted by: Christopher Coulter at November 11, 2004 01:02 AM