Laboratory Schools

Something notable happened this week that did not involve another Donald Trump scandal or twitter absurdity (those happened too). The first-ever charter school teachers strike took place in Chicago.

The teachers at Acero (who is Chicago’s largest charter school system and runs 16 schools) are demanding higher pay, increased diversity among teaching staff int heir majority-Latino schools, smaller class sizes, and access to adequate special education services and teacher evaluations.

If you have worked in a charter school, or know a teacher who has, in practically any part of the country this should sound familiar to you. These are not localized issue to Chicago. They are not bugs in the system. They are essential parts of the charter school model.

Charter schools are largely funded with tax-dollars. They take funds that would have followed the student into their public school and allocate them as they see fit. Charter schools do not have to play by the same administrative rules as public schools– in many areas, they do not have to provide services for special education or physical handicaps (the public schools legally must). They do not have to accept every student who lives in their area. They can pick and choose. And above all, they have tried desperately to insulate themselves from all teachers unions.

The pitch is that with less oversight, red-tape, and administrative bloat, charter schools can experiment with their curriculum, reward good teachers and remove underperforming ones, and succeed where public schools fail. In practice, despite their advantages over the public schools, charter schools often perform similarly as public schools in the same area, only they carry with them the massive risk that they might just shut their doors on you one day, with no warning or explanation. What a deal!

Back to the strike. One of the key “disruptions” that the charter school industry is based on is suppressing teacher pay. It turns out you can run schools much more cheaply if you just don’t pay teachers anything. Who knew? This has been foiled in the public schools, where pesky unions demand things like wage increases, hiring more teachers so that effective student to teacher ratios can be maintained, safer schools, and fair evaluations. Charter schools looked at that and said, what if we just didn’t deal with the unions? Couldn’t that work?

Ever the short term grifters, the charter school movement failed to account for the long-term impact of such policies. Few good teachers want to be paid substantially less than their colleagues in the public schools for teaching in the same community. While you might keep a few young true believers in your model, ultimately, most of the quality teachers move on to more lucrative schools. No big deal– we create surpluses of teachers every year! True. But a lot of that has to do with burn out rate. We actually need that surplus because a lot of teachers do not get past the first three years. Turns out, teaching (especially in underprivileged communities where jobs are most prevalent) is really hard! And you can make as much money serving people food and drinks in half the number of work hours.

Where pay is not the problem (and it almost always is one of the problems) the lack of agency or a voice is. Teachers are professionals. They have advanced degrees. They expect to have at least as much input into how their institution is run as a floor leader does in a factory. Many charter schools ignore this. Instead, they institute canned curriculums, prefabricated top-down management strategies, and centralized planning in the case of larger charter programs.

It turns out that disrupting the education market by constantly churning through young, inexperienced teachers has major drawbacks. It is as though good teachers who prove themselves expect to see their wages rise and to have some voice in the development of the school. Who could have known?

Just about everyone who studies educational policy.

There was never any real reason to reinvent the wheel on how we try to provide access to a quality education for all American children. In fact, there was a historical model for the very kind of experimental schooling that charter advocates promote. But profiteering grifters rarely know their history. We called them laboratory schools.

Laboratory schools worked in conjunction with universities, normal schools (which I strongly advocate for re-establishing), and teachers colleges to run experimental schools using expert knowledge, controlling costs through the use of subsidized labor (undergraduate and graduate students). They created great outcomes for K-12 students, contributed deeply to research in education, while generating experienced young leaders who graduated from these universities and colleges and went out to lead schools as teachers, principles, and superintendents. Some of them are still in operation (I recall the Burris Laboratory School as part of a discussion I had about a 3/3 teaching load at Ball State back when I was in grad school).

Having experimental schools run by highly qualified teachers and academics rather than “entrepreneurs” is a no-brainer. These institutions can provide oversight at a low cost (they are familiar with all the state rules they need to comply with and already interact with those agencies), provide a high-quality, vetted workforce, and use experimental methods and curriculums that have a basis in peer-reviewed educational research rather than coming from their “gut” or right out of their ass. Those grifters are free to set up private schools that do not use tax-dollars as their funding base if their model is so damn successful. You can reopen ECOT anytime you want as a private online prep school, William Lager. Maybe then you could repay the 80 million you stole from the tax-payers in the state of Ohio.

Expanding this more stable, supervised, and expert school model would not be hard. There are more colleges and universities with large teacher education programs than ever before. Many of them are in or near the very communities that need an alternative model to the over-worked, underfunded public schools in the area. So why is this never an option mentioned by the school-choice crowd? Historical ignorance that laboratory schools ever existed is likely part of the reason. But even the most historically illiterate person interested in shaking up the educational status quo would eventually think “we have all these colleges with experts in educational theory and a huge potential workforce of undergraduate and graduate students… could we somehow leverage that into making better schools?” The school-choice folks never do. I suspect that it is because this option has no profit motive. There is no way for the charter school owner or board to create a vertically integrated scheme funded through no-bid contracts between their publicly supported school and their textbook publishing company, learning centers, food services, building management, and/or janitorial supply companies. Nor would it advance the cause of privatizing the public schools.

Perhaps I am being too cynical here. I’d love to hear from school choice supporters who have a rationale for why they ignore all data from the laboratory model and never propose anything like it as a possible alternative to traditional public schools. Is it simple ignorance or is there something specific about the model you think does not apply? Or am I right– was this all really about how much money you can make off of educating working-class children?


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