UCLA says charter schools are more segregated than public schools

October 16, 2010 at 8:55 am 8 comments

Oof!  UCLA’s new report says that charter schools are “a civil rights failure” and actually do not have “superior educational performance.”

The charter school movement has been a major political success, but it has been a civil rights failure. As the country continues moving steadily toward greater segregation and inequality of education for students of color in schools with lower achievement and graduation rates, the rapid growth of charter schools has been expanding a sector that is even more segregated than the public schools. The Civil Rights Project has been issuing annual reports on the spread of segregation in public schools and its impact on educational opportunity for 14 years. We know that choice programs can either offer quality educational options with racially and economically diverse schooling to children who otherwise have few opportunities, or choice programs can actually increase stratification and inequality depending on how they are designed. The charter effort, which has largely ignored the segregation issue, has been justified by claims about superior educational performance, which simply are not sustained by the research. Though there are some remarkable and diverse charter schools, most are neither. The lessons of what is needed to make choice work have usually been ignored in charter school policy. Magnet schools are the striking example of and offer a great deal of experience in how to create educationally successful and integrated choice options.

via Choice Without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards — The Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  October 16, 2010 at 9:19 am

    The Magnet program in LA has historically been linked to busing, with the requirement that a Magnet school’s students be selected by lot according to the ethnic ratios of the city as a whole.

    We worked for 7 years in the LA Open Magnet School in the late 80s and early 90s, and it was a comprehensive rainbow of children from many different backgrounds. It was a superb school in our opinion, from a combination of how Magnet schools were organized (driven by the parents and the principal and not LA Unified), a really great principal, good teachers, and parents who actively helped regardless of economic background.

    I always think of this school as a model of what can actually be accomplished in a democracy (coupled with a law that starts the school off with comprehensive demographics).

    Too bad that charter schools seem not to be learning from the magnet experience.



  • 2. Michelle  |  October 17, 2010 at 2:06 am

    I just read an article about segregation and charter schools this week (not this one, I’m pretty sure). There’s an assumption that segregation is always bad; if families are willfully choosing decreased integration, there’s probably a reason, and perhaps we should find out what it is before we condemn it.

    The article I read also pointed out that statistically, students who choose charter schools perform worse on standardized tests (before they leave) than the students who stay in the regular public schools. So the worse performance of charter schools may be in part due to the students who choose them. It may also be due to charter schools’ ability to focus on things other than testing, such as non-cognitive skills.

  • 3. Fred Martin  |  October 17, 2010 at 7:51 am

    Diane Ravitch, the former H.W. Bush official who recently came out against NCLB, made some pretty poignant remarks about what’s wrong with the charter school movement.

    Inskeep asked, isn’t competition good and the American way, is there something wrong with that?

    Ravitch’s reply:

    Prof. RAVITCH: Yes. There should not be an education marketplace. There should not be competition. Schools should operate like families. The fundamental principle by which education proceeds is collaboration. Teachers are supposed to share what works; schools are supposed to get together and talk about what’s succeeded for them. They’re not supposed to hide their trade secrets, and try to have a survival of the fittest competition with the school down the block.

    See http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=124209100 for the whole thing. Fred.

    • 4. Alan Kay  |  October 17, 2010 at 8:41 am

      Thanks Fred!

      As you know, Diane is more than a former Bush official. She has been an actute and passionate observer of American education for years. I’ve had many good conversations with her over the years. I was surprised when she got sucked into the Bush Darwinian BS, but not surprised when she recanted.

      I think she is quite right about competition, both in general, and with special regard to American education. Cooperation is much better than competition (which can be thought of as giving up thinking in favor of simple biology).

      Best wishes,


      • 5. Erik Engbrecht  |  October 17, 2010 at 11:51 am

        I’m curious why you consider competition and cooperation to be opposed? It seems to me competition is essential to achieving cooperation at all but the smallest scales. Competition is essential to suppressing the expansion of bureaucracies and other non-core functions that may do things like deny educations researchers access to their schools because it’s more important to hide weaknesses (because higher level bureaucracies may punish you) than to improve one’s competitive stance.

        Perhaps you are referring more to the “simulated competition” that is so en vogue within large institutions (government and industry alike) where quantitative metrics are used to rank elements of the organization and dole out rewards and punishments accordingly. Coming up with clear statements of organizational values is hard, and translating the those into metrics that both accurately reflect those values and can be efficiently measured is near impossible. Good metrics can yield good results, but bad metrics or too narrowly focused metrics just lead to higher bureaucratic burdens and suppression of innovation.

        This is very different from market driven competition. In the above, the measures of success and failure are determined a priori by a small number of people (relative to the size of the institution) and tend to be rather homogeneous, while in market driven competition the values are highly diverse, and tend to be more influenced by outcomes rather than predetermined measures expected to correlate with those outcomes. Transfer of innovations and best practices improves because institutions will seek them out to improve their chances of success, as opposed to fear them lest they rock the boat.

        Now there are problems with market driven solutions. One is that the government is loathe to allow them, and prefers to label things “free market” while keeping the players so ham strung with regulations that they are anything but (the energy industry is a good example of this). If we ignore that one, the real problem is that markets rely on active, rational consumers to work. In the context of education, the decision makers (parents) in the areas that are most in need of improvement are also the least likely to take active, rational involvement.

        My point is that simulated competition implemented via metrics (e.g. heavy standardized testing tied to interventions), competition implemented via psuedo-markets (e.g. heavily regulated charter schools), and free markets are all very, very different beasts. Their affects on the creation and spread of effective practices (in other words, cooperation) should be considered independently.


        • 6. Alan Kay  |  October 17, 2010 at 12:14 pm

          Hi Eric,

          The problem is that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” has no brain!

          And he assumed as an 18th century rationalist that it would.

          This is one reason why there is a new field called “Behavioral Economics” which studies people as they actually act, rather than how they are supposed to.

          A bigger reason is that many people don’t realize that Darwinian processes don’t optimize. The processes find rough balances over populations, and these are fraught with random events and instabilities from time lags and other systems characteristics. This makes these processes *weak methods* (or plan Zs).

          So they aren’t in opposition to cooperation, just more like a last resort.

          Most people who advocate these ideas have never read “The Wealth of Nations”. But the most important book Smith wrote was “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”, and it is here that we find the context for what he really meant in “Wealth of Nations”.

          It is the case that systems do learn via Darwinian processes but very slowly. However, the slow evolution of nervous systems into creatures who can “think a little and cooperate a little” cosmically changed how learning can progress.

          Thinking and design and cooperation trump simple minded competition. Both in general, and especially for a species that is living on a finite set of resources, and as Carl Sagan once said “Acts as though they have somewhere else to go after they have ruined Earth”.

          Taking a market-driven approach to important problems is not just a bad idea, it can be a disaster. For example, if a system is near a toppling point, it can be pushed beyond this even as the pricing is well set and the market is responding. The actual systems dynamics are only well matched to real thinking, planning, design and actions.

          It is hard for business types to see this, partly because they tend to treat the planet and even the technological resources in “hunter-gatherer” fashion, as something given to them by Providence to be made use of. This is why they rarely fund research. But “Pleistocene behavior” is much too simple minded an approach to scale to today.

          This is why real education is important. (Hint: it’s not about competing for jobs and money!)

          Best wishes,


          • 7. Erik Engbrecht  |  October 17, 2010 at 5:10 pm

            I think I see your point. If the goal is to have near universal real education, then a more pure market driven approach would never work. The system dynamics are only a minor side issue. Simply put, many parents would elect to place their children in schools that teach their own ill-conceived ideologies. Many more would give the issue little or no consideration beyond perhaps proximity of the school to home or work.

            So we can clearly see why a market driven approach would fail in the overall objective, and in some groups it would directly undermine it.

            But I think it would likely work in areas where a sufficient percentage of parents possess sufficient judgment to assess school choices rationally. While this may represent the minority of students, and likely those are who currently receive the best educations, it would still be improvement.

            I’m sure we could enumerate many more ways a market driven approach would fail to reach threshold, if I may borrow your term. But that begs the question, what evidence do we have that the current system, which is driven by a combination of politics and bureaucracy, can either be made to perform as well or torn down and replaced with something better?

            I have a classmate (I’m back in grad school part time) who teaches math at a community college. She was grading assignments before class and showed them to me. They were for a basic math class and the questions were all arithmetic with fractions. Many of the students were failing miserably. But that’s not the worst part. She said the students who failed would then come to her, and ask her why she didn’t “give them” a better grade, and feel entitled to it because “they tried.”

            The systemic failures that lead to a people graduating high school and enrolling in college (or graduating middle school!) without knowing arithmetic and expecting grades based on self-assessment of effort are truly mind boggling.

            What kind of pressures lead to teachers and/or administrators just passing these students through? What has changed so much since we were kids?

            Those aren’t the only pressures. Any effective education system needs to deal with the type of people who will file lawsuits in order to have intelligent design taught side-by-side with evolution.

            We are where we are for a reason. A system that provides near universal real education needs to be able to withstand the pressures that got us here. A non-universal could hope to isolate these pressures so they don’t spill into the system as a whole and poison it.

            In short, I’m having trouble seeing plans A-Y.

            Thanks, and I appreciate the dialogue,

  • 8. Alan Kay  |  October 17, 2010 at 7:24 pm

    Replying to Erik Engbrecht | October 17, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    Plans A-Y are indeed the big point and the big questions.

    1. One question is whether there is a form of democracy that has what we would call “freedom” that could also set up an education system for everyone that we would call above threshold.

    2. And another is whether the current education system has already toppled into a state where as they say in Maine “you can’t get theah from heah”.

    I think the answer to the first question is “yes”, but the bootstrap could be difficult and improbable. And, similarly, I think the answer to the second question is “no”, but mustering the will and energy to crawl out of the black hole could be “difficult and improbable”.

    An intermediate question is interesting. What if the goals were great “training” rather than “great education”? (Most Americans say they want the second but don’t understand it well enough and are actually asking for the first without realizing it.)

    In many ways this is what the US is currently flunking. And the desired outcomes are mostly practical. There are very interesting examples of places in the world that are more acutely aware of their actual position with regard to finite resources and the surrounding system, and who have responded to this nationally. To give just one example, consider Singapore, which is also interesting for its highly varied ethnic makeup and “unusual” form of “democracy”.

    Japan is perhaps more interesting, partly because of its large population, and because its education system gets somewhere between mere training and real education for all. And we can see the perils of “gaming the system” in both Japan and the US.

    I think one important point for us to ponder is that the US was set up as a republic, not a democracy, for good reasons. And in many ways it is the republic part of our country that has really broken down. One of the reasons to have a republic is that it should be able to make better decisions than a democracy. And especially to make decisions that are good but that the majority would not vote for.

    The founders wanted to somehow get what was good about a republic, but let democracy deal with who would be the guardians and for how long. As Jefferson noted, this requires the demos to understand how the system is supposed to work and “be in the same conversation” and to have the “needed discretion” to do their part. “The remedy … is to better inform their discretion by education”.

    It has always been the case in the US, especially since universal secondary education was mandated, that Plan A through a few letters of the alphabet had to be multi-decade plans with time spans longer than more understandable projects such as building an interstate highway system.

    Such plans done successfully can be found in the past — for example, those who started building a Gothic cathedral knew they would be long dead before it was finished. But that level of faith, trust, and societal coherence is hard to find these days.

    For systems designers, our problem today is excruciating because the “bootstrapping entry points” have really been eroded. One magically produced highly educated generation of new parents and voters would make question 1. work. But we are getting killed by the depth of the hole that has been dug and the slippery sides of it that makes question 2 so hard to answer.

    Still, Plan Z is not likely to work because money can’t carry enough of the quality of the goals that need to be sought. As Diane points out, it is not about competition and trying to win, but cooperating to get everyone over the barriers.

    Best wishes,



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