Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Dec 24 2011

A Response to Ignorance in the Charter Wars

I don’t know when this site became such a hotbed for charter hate, but I’m getting irritated enough at general ignorance that I’m going to have to write some things I’ll probably regret later.

If you’ve been reading my blog long enough, you’ll remember the days when I was a bona-fide Charter Hater. You’ll remember I only took my current job because I wanted to move to Denver and a charter with a surprise opening was the only math job still hiring, and you might remember all the nasty things I wrote about charters before I deleted that post.

If you’re my current boss, you’ll remember the 45 minutes you spent with me on the phone last spring, convincing me that my charter criticisms were unfounded and that it wouldn’t hurt me to come see for myself.

If you are one of my college or grad school professors, you’ll remember the days I used to write epic anti-charter papers, listing the reasons they promote inequality. If you were in my classes, you’ll remember the day I startled everyone by confidently pronouncing that we should have 100% of kids in public schools, and how I didn’t support even the existence of private schools or charters. From where I sit now, I can see my Diane Ravitch collection on my bookshelf, beckoning me back.


To be clear, most of my views have not changed. I still believe it’s wrong to expel any student, with the exception only being for students who pose an extreme threat of violence. I still believe that any sort of special application process makes a school’s population inherently better off than a school without an application process would be. I still believe that plenty of charters do disgustingly inappropriate things to make their numbers look better. I still believe that retaining students in the same grade is only good for a school’s graduation statistics and is not good for children. I still believe that schools should rarely be shut down, and should never be shut down based solely on test scores. I still believe that there are plenty of fantastic things happening in public schools and plenty of terrible things happening in charters.


But what I’ve stopped believing is that everything is black and white. Like I’ve always known there were bad things happening in some public schools, I’m now willing to allow that there are great things happening in some charters. I’ve realized that education is not a Disney movie, and we don’t have to have Good Guy verses a Bad Guy all the time. There is nuance in these arguments, and it’s okay to admit to both problems and possibilities. I have also realized that every charter school is different, even those under the same network name in the same city. There is no such thing as “what charters do” just like there is no such thing as “what public schools do”.


At my charter, we automatically accept every fifth grader from the neighborhood school, which is being shut down. Only two of those kids didn’t come, and it takes more work to opt out of our school and find somewhere else to go than to just show up here. I’ll admit that there’d still be the application-bias problem for the other seats at my school, but Denver switched its process this year so that EVERY SINGLE FIFTH GRADER enters THE SAME LOTTERY for ALL SCHOOLS (public, charter, magnet) and DPS places kids into the schools they preference randomly. There’s no way to game the system, jump through hoops, or hold a million wait-list spots to get the best school. Active parents are furious because they’ve lost their advantage. You’re just as likely to place into my charter by preferencing it through dumb luck as through months of research.


We also have not yet expelled a child. Even the kids who beat up an adult and locked him in a closet last year are still here, and they’re doing wonderfully. If a child meets Denver Public School’s criteria for expulsion, we are required to forward the information to them and let them decide whether the kid should be expelled, but it’s the exact same process and criteria that every other DPS school uses.


While I still have issues with my charter and with my charter network, those were my two loudest complaints before I took my job, and it turns out they don’t even apply here. I was wrong, and I’m ready to admit it publicly here.


So I’m just asking that everyone stops and thinks before they jump on the anti-charter bandwagon. Admit that there are good things about some charters just like there are bad things about some public schools. Realize that some great things are happening in some charter classrooms, and sometimes they’re actually being caused by great teachers and not just by the Charter-ness of the school. (Relax and re-read, because I was careful to include the word “some” three times in that last sentence so you wouldn’t have a hissy fit.) At least consider that innovation at some charters might be contributing some valuable things to the education landscape. And for goodness sake, allow me to say that the process of widespread collaboration and idea-sharing is a good thing without hyperventilating because you think I just wrote a blank check for the Charter Takeover.


Thanks. If you still want to debate, I’m always up for it here or at mathinaz @ ymail . com . But if you still just want to make this a blind Us Versus Them fight, I reserve the right to go into a rage of irritation at you. I’m really over that whole thing now.

17 Responses

  1. I like this level-headed perspective. I was initially indifferent towards charters but became increasingly frustrated in the past year by the lack of best practices sharing- using charters as innovative labs rather than replacement schools. I was also upset by what I perceive to be a third year brain drain of TFA 3rd years to Charters, which leave the placement schools forced to replace an established teacher with a new recruit over and over and over… I felt that to “jump ship” to a charter would be to give up on my failing, placement school. At the same time, I currently feel compelled to research some charters first hand to gain greater perspective.

    Do you think it’s necessary to actually teach at a charter to know what it’s like or can you glean enough of the experience by observing different charter classroom learning environments and interviewing those educators? I’m torn btw what to do next year… Any advice?

    • mathinaz

      TonyB –
      For next year, you really have to make your decision on a school-by-school basis. I love the charter I work at, but would never want to work at even the other schools in my same network. I think you can get a lot out of observing and interviewing, but it has to be school-specific.

      Also, if you enjoy your placement school, STAY! But if you’re unhappy there (or like me and happy at your school but miserable in your placement city) then get out and go find somewhere you enjoy. Keep your mind open to every type of school until you find something that fits you (um, and hires you). Think of the things that matter to you (for me, I wanted to work in a similar demographic to my old school, I wanted to be supported in discipline, I wanted professional development that would challenge me, and I wanted freedom to create my own curriculum) and find them. You’ll be a better teacher if you’re happier. It might be an ideological war for everyone else, but when you’re picking a job, this is your life we’re talking about. Good luck!

      • Thanks for the advice, mathinaz! My issue is that I don’t want to “give up” on the community I was placed in and I feel like teaching elsewhere is essentially admitting defeat… that said, I too want PD that will challenge me, freedom, and more support and that’s more likely to be found in a charter outside of MS. I just wish I could bring some of the students with me because they deserve better too. I want it to be about the kids, but as you said, if I’m not truly happy and stay out of guilt and the slim chance of hope, I’ll be unhappy and worse off for everyone. Food for thought I guess.

  2. Miss L

    I’m glad you cleared up some of the misconceptions people have who blatantly do not understand that some charters do not follow the recipe for “selection bias” and other problems that have been cropping up when people have been studying the viability of charters.

    When Ms. Mathinaz came to see my charter, she saw what happens when you take over an existing middle school and keep the existing children. 95% of our 7th and 8th grade were students in school last year . They were guaranteed a spot in the school. We also educate any student who walks in the door, leading to percentages of ELL and Special Education students equal or greater than the schools in the public school district. We also follow the same expulsion policy as the public school district. If a student is “non compliant” or not upholding our values, they spend extra time at school, not less.

    And 3rd year brain drain? I stayed at my TFA placement school for 4 years. There was little room for my professional growth and development. I wasn’t learning what I needed to learn to effect greater change. I also moved to a place where TFA places, and currently work with 3 first year CM’s on staff. People move on to places that are doing great things for kids.

    So basically, please use facts when you try to stir up arguments based on charter schools. And don’t forget about the big picture of creating an excellent education for students. We’ve each chosen to do this in our own way, but we’re still working toward the same things.

  3. eminnm

    I very much appreciate this post. Making sweeping generalizations about just about anything is dangerous, doubly so in education because there is no possible way to encapsulate the whole of a school in one pithy sentence.

    I had a question about what you said about retaining students, and how retaining students is never a good idea. Did you mean in mid/high school, or ever? I teach 4th grade, and it’s a really tricky thing. How do you set a kid up for failure in 5th grade, knowing that even with all the growth they’re making they are not ready for 5th grade level stuff yet? But how do you read all the studies linking retention in 4th grade or higher to greater dropout rates and zero confidence and want that either? Ideally, we would be able to teach everybody the first time and never get to this situation, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon. I’m lucky this year because my lowest kids are making enough growth to be out of retention-zone. I was just wondering: what’s your thinking about retaining kids?

    • mathinaz

      Thanks for asking! I find this really interesting.

      The research on retention is mixed at best, but I wrote a big paper on it for grad school and came out with some pretty strong opinions. Apparently it isn’t harmful to retain a kid up through 3rd grade, or on a course-by-course basis in high school, or if the only reason they failed is from missing an egregious amount of school (like for being seriously ill).

      Otherwise, making a kid repeat the same grade generally means they just see the same material in the same way, and they usually walk out with all sorts of social/emotional damage (and a risk that is higher in everything from dropouts to imprisonment to smoking cigarettes) and not much academic gain. It’s not common to retain a kid and do things differently for them the second time around. I’d much prefer we pass kids on to the next grade (social and emotional development are a fundamentally important thing in these years, test scores or no) and provide them with extra supports to supplement their learning. (I know in most districts this is too expensive or difficult, but I think that’s the ideal.)

      There is research that supports retention too, and I’m sure that in some situations it’s okay. My concern is in schools that want to maintain some statistic (college acceptance rates, 8th grade test scores, etc.) and retain kids who “aren’t ready” because their promotion would hurt that score. I don’t think the benefits of retention are clear enough or big enough to risk kids’ development just so they are “ready” to produce good test scores.

  4. ohmygosh thank you for writing this! I’m in the MS ∆, and I want to keep teaching after my 2 years.
    I want to move to Colorado, actually, and I’ve been seeing these ads on facebook for charter schools near Denver, and they sound amazing!
    What’s weird is that I have this TFA guilt about working in a charter school, like somehow it’s “too easy” of a school. Isn’t that insane?! I just feel like with public schools I spend so much energy banging my head against the wall that could be better spent TEACHING or relaxing.
    Have you encountered this at all?

  5. p.s. it’s kind of sad that it’s 8:54 pm on Christmas Eve and I’m writing/thinking about teaching.

  6. Adrilicious

    I appreciate this post – I really do. Data, however, shows that charters have no net gain for students above and beyond that of charter schools. I hope that changes (or maybe I do, I’m not even sure because I really don’t like charter schools, or the charter movement, or charter culture). Do you sister, but back up the love with some evidence.

  7. Adrilicious

    sorry – i meant to say that charters show no net gain above and beyond that of PUBLIC schools. no net gain = we need to try something else and work for all kids!

  8. Annie

    Adrilicious, why are you making a sweeping generalization about all charters in response to a post about seeing nuance? And which part of this entry do you see as missing evidence to substantiate it? Where do you even see overt charter “love” in this post?

  9. Cal

    Charters on average provide no progress, yet they take away resources from public schools. Those are two facts, and on those two facts alone it’s perfectly reasonable to be anti-charter.

    When you toss in the fact that people vaunt charter schools as superior to public schools when data shows that they are not, it’s even more logical to be anti-charter.

    The author does nothing to rebut the charge of “creaming”, which does not require an admissions test (although many do require it), nor does it require expelling bad students (although many charters do).

    The creaming is a result of selection bias, both in original application and in deciding to stick with the demands of a charter school. There’s no evidence that low ability, low incentive kids are changed by charters, for example.

    There’s no way around the creaming charge, as it’s a simple fact of selection.

    I’m not anti-charters by the way. I see them as a waste of money and eventually everyone will figure out that they are just a way of allowing motivated kids an environment that keeps out the low motivation, low ability kids. At that point, they’ll realize it’s cheaper to boot out the low motivation kids to the charters–there are fewer of them–and keep the motivated kids in the public schools. Much cheaper.

  10. Dan NYC Teach


    You seem prone to persuasion and generalization. Most people have the acumen and perspective to not view things black and white. Please refrain from grandiose statements. Reflect more. Your language is combative.

  11. As a school board member in a district that has school transformation on its immediate agenda, I see charter schools as taking funds from the many and giving them to the few. I deeply resent any charter who wants to come into my district. I want innovation and change for all students, not just those lucky enough to get into a charter. We need to change education at its center and down to its roots — not just out on the branches, sucking nutrition from the rest.

  12. dana

    “network” now, that’s the scary part of charter. Who is this “network”? Who is running the charter and what is thier poitical agenda? Don’t be asoldier in their war to dismantale public education and abolish unions.

  13. jackie

    Investigate your own source. The Teach for America organization is busy creating their own startup charters.

  14. Does “your” charter have a publicly elected board of directors? Or is it privately managed (501c3 or otherwise) like ever other charter school I’m familiar with?

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