Don't Blame Teachers for Our Education Failures

Are teachers really different in charter schools? Sean Gallup / Getty Images

I think it's fair to say that most people know we're in the midst of an educational emergency. Just this week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told CNN, "There isn't one urban school district in the country—Chicago, L.A., New York, D.C., Philly, Baltimore—there's not one urban system yet where the dropout rate is low enough and the graduation rate is high enough." And for those people who work in the school system, no issue has come to represent the struggle to save public education more than the fight over charter schools. For the sake of clarity, let me just note that a charter school is one which uses public funds to run a school that is managed privately, thus giving them the freedom to experiment as well as hire nonunion teachers. Charters such as the Harlem Children's Zone HCZ in New York have longer school days (and a longer school year) with kids often required to come in Saturdays to work with tutors. The most successful charter schools (and they are not all the same in either quality or mission) have produced stunning results. At the Harlem Success Academy, 100 percent of third graders passed their state math exam and 95 percent passed the state English exam.

I am thrilled by these test results and I am very glad that the educational needs of poor urban students are finally being addressed in a serious way. But lately I've grown increasingly cynical about the assertions of charter-school advocates that the most pressing problem facing our public education system is the plethora of lazy, incompetent teachers who cannot be fired under any circumstances. As Steve Brill wrote for The New York Times Magazine last week: "Indeed, the core of the reformers' argument, and the essence of the Obama approach to the Race to the Top, is that a slew of research over the last decade has discovered that what makes the most difference is the quality of the teachers and the principals who supervise them." Maybe it's because I was a teacher's pet growing up, or because of my undying love for school supplies, but a lot of this sounds to me more like a full court press to break the admittedly powerful teachers' unions than simply an effort to improve public schooling.

Full disclosure: my husband is a public-school teacher in a middle school in one of Brooklyn's toughest neighborhoods. But we try not to discuss education reform for the sake of our marriage. Personally, I'm a little confused about the all-out push for charter schools by billionaires such as Bill Gates and Bruce Kovner. On the one hand, I support charters for their ability to prove there are solutions to some of the huge and seemingly intractable issues facing our country's education system. I'm very grateful that schools like HCZ have proven that the achievement gap between urban students and their suburban counterparts can be closed. But I do not support using their existence to demonize teachers. For the vast majority of public-school teachers, so much of their job is out of their control that asking them to be held accountable for their students' performance is tantamount to blaming car salesmen for Toyota's accelerator problems. Poverty is still a huge barrier to learning, for instance. Just a quick look at some of the other differences between charters and their public-school brethren should be enough to prove that the path to an improved educational system is not all about firing teachers.

1. Charter schools, by their nature, have students whose parents are motivated and involved in their education. On the off chance that charter-school parents are not motivated to help their children succeed, they are often given support and help by the charter school itself. Indeed, New York Magazine revealed that parents of kids at the Harlem Success Academies "must sign the network's 'contract,' a promise to get children to class on time and in blue-and-orange uniform, guarantee homework, and attend all family events." The same cannot be said of public schools, which are required to take any child who resides in their district and do not have the resources or mandate to teach parents as well. But rather than push to raise the cap on charter schools, why not copy and fund some of their parental-support programs for existing public schools?

2. Charter schools often receive the same amount of public funding per student as public schools, and also benefit from their ability to raise and use charitable donations. Public schools receive their budgets from their local departments of education and have no ability to receive more. In fact, they're prey to budget and service cuts and layoffs—New York City expects to lay off 4,400 public school teachers this year but no charters will be affected.

3. Charter schools have many more resources than the public schools they're trying to replace. Surely, classroom teachers would have more opportunity to teach and teach well if they had enough books and study materials for all their kids. Donors Choose, a charitable organization where teachers submit proposals for funding by ordinary folks like you and me, estimates that the average public school teacher spends more than $500 of his or her own money on supplies for their students, or more than $1.3 billion dollars nationally. As Charles Best, founder of Donors Choose and a teaching veteran, told me, "We were all spending our own money on basic stuff—copy paper and pencils. We had a tough time innovating and none of our ideas would go past the planning stage. Now, at any one time, there are 15,000 to 30,000 live classroom requests on our site. This is a testament to the character and spirit of teachers."

4. Charter schools are not required to accept special-needs children or children with learning disabilities. Diane Ravitch, author of "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," wrote in The Wall Street Journal that "The students who are hardest to educate are left to regular public schools, which makes comparisons between the two sectors unfair. The higher graduation rate posted by charters often reflects the fact that they are able to "counsel out" the lowest performing students … This is not a model for public education, which must educate all children."

5. When discussing charter schools, advocates often mention the difficulty in firing public-school teachers. In that same Times Magazine article, Brill notes that "Once they've been teaching for three years and judged satisfactory in a process that invariably judges all but a few of them satisfactory, they are ensured lifetime tenure." But teachers are not judged by themselves, but by their principals and other administrative staff. So isn't there a way for school systems to strengthen their professional development programs or put forth proposals for more effective teacher observation, mentoring systems or remedial teacher training, if necessary?

It is simply not true that teacher quality is the sole difference between charter schools and public ones. As I've written in the past about the Harlem Children's Zone, but which also applies to many other charter schools, "what the HCZ does is first recognize that the amelioration of poverty does not begin and end with an excellent education, but also requires a full belly, parental education, safety, advocacy, and the expectation that every student will succeed." So until charter-school advocates can show me how teachers and teachers alone can be held responsible for all the learning that charter schools provide, I just can't believe that holding only teachers accountable—and not the school systems they work for—is the fair or even the best way to improve public education.