Law in Contemporary Society

Wasting an Opportunity: The Distraction of Results-Driven Cultures in Charter Schools

-- By AjGarcia - 02 May 2012


Charter schools are no-tuition primary and secondary schools that receive public money but are not held to the same regulations and standards as public schools. They are given significantly more freedom in determining curriculum, school governance, and teacher and staff hiring and firing. In exchange, they are held accountable for their academic and financial results. While this system was created to “reduce the level of bureaucratic control . . . to innovate create more effective and efficient programs” that “create opportunities for learning and access to education for all students,” some “successful” charter schools are getting it wrong. These types of charter schools measure success according to standardized test results. I argue that schools that focus on the ends—instead of the means—are missing an opportunity to foster creativity, inspire intellectual curiosity, and develop a love for learning in their students. Instead, schools like this teach students how to take a minimum-standards test well, which gets students a high school diploma and entrance into college at the expense of creativity, critical thinking, and real learning. While they could use their flexibility to experiment with pedagogy, culture, and learning, they waste their freedom on test results and distract us from finding real solutions to the systemic crisis in education.

Framing the Discussion

I taught two years at IDEA Public Schools in Brownsville, TX. At my campus, every teacher was expected to produce test results that met the minimum standards for an exemplary rating. The successful teachers that surpass these standards are given stipends and awards. The teachers that fell below these ratings are fired. Borderline cases are put on “improvement plan,” where they received detailed attention to lesson plans, a greater number of classroom observations, and coaching. I had the highest passing and commended rate for high school science in the district both years of my teaching experience. Therefore, I was exalted as a leader, named science department chair of the school my second year of teaching, and given numerous financial rewards for my “diligence.” In essence, my first year, I taught my students how to cheat a minimum-standards test by learning test-taking tricks and strategies and petty mnemonic devices that taught superficial understanding instead of deep critical analysis and true intellectual curiosity that would lead towards sustainable self-teaching and learning skills beyond my tenure as their teacher. When I confessed this realization to our director and superintendent of our schools, I was told that “the results were in the numbers” and that the other “soft” results were “difficult to measure.” They said I could make soft goals for measuring this type of “learning,” but my attention needed to be on “producing results.”

Sacrificing Critical Thought

The system currently in place at these schools stifles critical thinking, deep analysis about society and the surrounding world, and a passion for learning. Instead of teaching students how to problem solve and approach complex issues, they tell them to “jump” and expect them to tell them in return “how high.” Instead of learning by doing and constructing knowledge autonomously, they believe learning and success are measured by the results of a minimum standards test and by rote memorization. High performing students are shoved aside to focus on lower-performing ones to get them to satisfy the minimum standards.

Some might argue that this results-driven attitude grounds the conversation in hard data and provides a framework for talking about which systems are working and which are not. It’s true, it’s easy to measure learning by numbers, it’s convenient to point to data as measuring true growth, and it grounds the conversation for tracking students' progress. But it’s superficial and lends itself to people being satisfied with using this means to gauge if learning is actually happening. My first year of teaching was deemed a success, but I didn’t really teach anything worth learning. The system discourages teachers from teaching critical thinking, problem solving, and analysis and instead rewards them for turning students into test taking robots that can pass a minimum skills exam.

Instead of providing an impetus for framing the conversation, results become the ends by which success or failure is measured. Worse, it’s insulting to students to say their improvement in learning can be pinned down to a number on a minimum standards exam. It comes at the cost of nuance that a hard number precludes by its nature.

Wasting Their Flexibility

Schools like IDEA are wasting the opportunity to do something truly transformative in the community. They waste the flexibility they have by sacrificing learning, critical thinking, and problem solving for results-focused achievement that doesn’t measure growth in learning. Charter schools could be used as a laboratory where the absence of bureaucracy allows teachers and administrators to find creative solutions and approaches to learning and critical thinking and respond quickly to things that don’t. Instead of being a place of “innovation,” they end up being a place where creativity goes to die—sacrificed for “terrific results.”

The Distraction From Larger Issues

A bigger problem is that these “terrific results” on paper give the misperception that the achievement gap is closing and students are being educated. This solution attempts to turn a band aid into stitches, when in reality the wound is gushing so much blood you can’t even see the infection underneath yet. It fails to ignore the larger institutional problem of what’s going on in the public school system. There are roughly 800 students that go to IDEA Brownsville, while there are over 50,000 students go to Brownsville, I.S.D. There were 9,0000 students on our waiting list when I left, and I’m sure there are even more now.

Charter schools, used in this way, detract money, focus, and brainpower from solving the bigger problem at hand: what are we doing about the other 49,200 students? They are at best Band-Aids. I think they would have utility if they exploited their freedom to be laboratories of pedagogical experimentation and places for innovation. Instead, I fear they’re being used as an ineffective micro-solution and as an excuse to avoid talking about the systemic issues in our school systems.

(984 words)

Professor Moglen,

I'd like your feedback for this paper. Right now, I feel like my paper is torn in two different directions--one focusing on the problem of results in charter schools, and the other about the distraction of charter schools in general. I try to reconcile both in the paper, but I find I keep making it worse. I'd like to know which is worth exploring more for the next draft of this paper, and if I should narrow my discussion to one of these.


It was interesting to read your reflections on teaching in a charter school and your connections to the greater problems of the public school system. Your ideas on the distraction of charter schools in general was of particular interest to me. My first years of teaching were at a public school, and when I was deciding between continuing in education or attending law school I visited charter schools as an alternative. After spending a day at a local charter school, talking with the teachers and observing the students, I left feeling that the model of charter school education which I was exposed to that day was bound to fail. My opinion came more so from observing the teachers and discussing the amount of time involved in teaching classes that are double the size of a public school. From your experience, how much of IDEA's mechanisms do you think were attributible to funding, or to holding on to the notion of charter schools' ability to outperform public schools? If charter schools are able to receive money without the same regulations, I would lean towards believing that some of these schools are acting with an alterior motive. AbiolaFasehun - 10 Jul 2012

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r6 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:09:45 - IanSullivan
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