Inequality in Education

Throughout all of my posts about education, ranging from the teacher shortage to charter schools, the real topic has always been inequality—there is an inherent difference in the quality of education children receive, and that charter schools and the teacher shortage perpetuate this inequality.

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Looking back at what I’ve written about the teacher shortage, the real problem is not only that teachers are in short supply because they are underpaid and under appreciated, but also that good teachers are leaving the schools that need them the most.  These schools in need have students who face the challenges of poverty—parents who are too busy working multiple jobs to be able to read with their children, or help with their homework, as opposed to schools with affluent families that don’t have these issues.  As one can imagine, these disadvantaged students can pose more of a challenge for teachers, and in a profession where the pay and respect are both low, many teachers will choose to find jobs in schools whose students are less disadvantaged.  These districts also pay better, because school funding is based in part upon local property tax levels, so districts in more affluent areas will have more funding and less challenging students than districts with students of low socioeconomic status.  This funding pattern will drive good teachers to the areas where they get paid more, leaving the poorer students to have poor quality teachers.  These students will have less of an opportunity for quality employment due to their lower quality education, when compared to students from affluent areas, further contributing to the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

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This pattern of inequality is echoed once again in charter schools, which, despite not performing any better than traditional public schools, market themselves better, and so have grown in popularity.  These schools serve as a magnet for those parents and teachers disillusioned with the problems of traditional public schools—but not every teacher or family has that opportunity.  The fact is that when students leave traditional public schools for charter schools, they take their public tax dollars with them, and that does nothing to help the school they’ve abandoned, in fact it makes the school worse.  Those without the opportunity to leave, be they the less skilled teachers or the students with behavioral problems, stay in the traditional public schools, bringing already falling testing averages down, causing more people to leave, and the cycle repeats, once again widening the gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged.

Government is intended to break these cycles, and quality public education is a part of that.  But what good is a quality education that excludes those who need it the most?  How can we tolerate a system that will inevitably stratify people into the plebeians who went to traditional public school, and those who were able to escape and take the charter option?  How can any  great teacher justify staying in a district that pays ten to thirty thousand dollars less than a neighboring, affluent district?  This cycle needs to be broken.

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Is a Private Model of Public Education Worth Pursuing?

I believe that although charter schools have some valuable ideas, they are not the right way to go about reforming our education system.

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The private model of education involves allowing success and failure.  If a traditional public school fails, it it will be called a “program improvement” school, and given additional support so that it can overcome the areas where it falls short.  Charter schools are different in that, while they consume funding from the same source as traditional public schools, their failure is not treated the same way.  If they fail, a new charter will vie for its funding and location, and take over the “business” of education.  This new school will have, perhaps, a different model or way of doing things that may be more successful, or it may put a different emphasis on a subject (e.g. become a school for science and math).  Some people love this idea, and I’ll grant you, it does have some value.

The true value in charter schools is that traditional public schools can learn from them, see where they succeed and where they fail, and choose to follow accordingly.  There can be several of these “experiments” going on simultaneously, and it may seem like a great way to explore new possibilities in the education system.  These charters are given less oversight, which allows the teachers to focus more on actually teaching than prepping their students for assessment after assessment.  Some teachers really like this, despite the lower pay scale they receive compared to traditional public schools.

I feel like the downsides, however, outweigh the gains.  Firstly, according to a CREDO-Stanford study, charter schools don’t really do any better at educating students in English or math than do traditional public schools.  The study, in fact, says that some more affluent children do worse, while some less well off children do better (but not by much).  The fact that charter schools can kick out children easier than traditional public schools, however, throws shade onto the fact that some poorer students do better, because what it really means is that the poor students who still remain tend to do better.  This is pretty easy to do when you kick out all the poor kids with discipline problems or learning disabilities, but those are also the students who need the most help.

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And what if a charter school does have a successful model?  Competitive parents who want the best for their children will want to take them from traditional public schools and put them in the hot, new charter in the area.  These students on average do well wherever they are, but when they aren’t in traditional public schools, the testing average of that school goes down, it develops a stigma of being a “bad school,” and even more affluent families will tend to avoid it.  The same thing goes for teachers who don’t want to work at a bad school full of students who couldn’t cut it at the local charter.  What happens here is polarization, where charter schools can be treated like one end of a magnet that draws all the “good” (read affluent)  kids in (rejecting or spitting out the “bad” (poor) ones), while the other side of the magnet is the traditional public school, that is forced to take the remainder.  This not only diminishes the quality of traditional public schools, while simultaneously lowering their funding, it perpetuates a class based system where the affluent families get the “good” schools and the poor families get the “bad” ones.  This is the exact opposite of the purpose of public education, which is supposed to be “the great equalizer.”

Although charter schools have their merits in advancing innovative educational practices at a more rapid pace, the costs are high, the benefits are low, and it simply isn’t worth sacrificing an egalitarian institution upon the altar of competition.