Michael Winerip’s piece in the New York Times this Sunday, “Message From a Charter School: Thrive or Transfer,” tells the story of a mother whose bright but sometimes unruly son – age 5 – was counseled out of Harlem Success Academy 3. He was placed in Public School 75, where he is “thriving.”
Matthew’s story raises perhaps the most critical question in the debate about charter schools: do they cherry-pick students, if not by gaming the admissions process, then by counseling out children who might be more expensive or difficult to educate — and who could bring down their test scores, graduation rates and safety records?
This story plays right into the hands of the education reform backlash because it points to a very real difference between charter schools and public schools – the difference between schools that are exclusive and those that are inclusive. It’s exclusivity, if that’s the right word, that is part of charter schools’ appeal to parents who worry about the effects of sending their children to the default school – the one that’s open to everyone (or, rather, anyone) in a delineated area on a city map.
Of course charter schools filter. That’s why they’re perceived to have better climates than regular public schools. And it’s the climate – not test scores or teacher quality or track records – that leads to oversubscription, and the lotteries that make getting into a charter school seem like more of a treat than it might prove itself to be.
Exclusive versus inclusive is one way to frame the difference between charters and “traditional” publics. But it’s not the only lesson to be gleaned from this story.
Another is the lesson of the benefits of individual attention. While statistics might show that Harlem Success Academy – a chain of schools – raises performance levels on tests of reading and math, each child is unique. Some cherries are bigger than others. Some riper. Some slower to mature. Some easier to bruise and faster to spoil.
That’s an argument for differentiating instruction within a classroom. Whether or not it’s a winning argument for public school choice – the turning of public school systems into a marketplace of schools representing an array of educational philosophies – is a separate question.