A Taste of Cherry Picking

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.

One size does not fit all. 

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.

Related Posts

Notes from a Charter School Lottery

Lessons from the Bronx

Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Baltimore City Charter Schools


11 Responses to “A Taste of Cherry Picking”

  1. Glad you are encouraging conversation about choice and the few posts I have seen show an interest in the full story. I appreciate also the thoughful comments above. Like “a parent” above, I think there is a particular story and history in Baltimore that needs to be better understood. Before there were charters, Baltimore created some schools within the system and the goal was to create more inclusion opportunities for special needs students. My daughter is fully included in one of these schools that later converted to be a charter. My daughter attended BCPSS Baer School for preschool (could write a BOOK about how wonderful they are!). BUt she had no real choices (in my view) in the public system at the time she started K, were it not for this school embracing her. As I have started to pay attention to the national discussion on education, I find the rampant use of generalizations, and global pronouncements not helpful, whatever the point of view. So I look forward to a conversation that tries to address our particular local scene. Please think about “exclusive” and”inclusive” and “of course charters filter” as not the best starting frame. For example, at least 4 charters here serve a neighbborhood zone. Others seek to serve high needs students – a reverse filter, if you will. Charter doesn’t always equal great, but it doesn’t equal exclusive either. Happy to provide some more background. In fact, started a blog out of support for a group of city transformation schools AND charter schools (that’s uniquiely baltimore right there), maybe we can expand the conversation more… Thanks for being engaged.


    • Thanks, Carol. One quick clarification on neighborhood charter schools: There are a handful, but starting a charter school that confines enrollment to a particular zone is no longer an option. So we won’t see their like again.

      I agree that it’s hard to find nuance at the level of the national discussion. It’s also hard to find much in the way of discussion! Thanks for helping me get this one going.


      • Correct about zones under charter (I think that since the district authorizes, it still has its power to establish zones, but that’s for lawyers to argue about) – though nothing is stopping the district from opening a zoned school, charter or not. under a contract as they did with New Schools years ago.


  2. Edit

    Diane Ravitch and Bill Gates are basically two sides of the same coin. I don’t believe teachers should be held accountable for poor test scores or that public education should be jeopardized, but at the same time, the teaching profession should not be exalted and the public school system should not be hailed as a solution to all problems.

    It is naive to think all students can benefit from a one size fits all curriculum or that students of different abilities, interests, desires, and conduct can and should be placed in the same classroom. She has cited a number of charter schools that denied admission to “disabled” students, which in this case is code speak for emotionally disturbed and behavior. She has come out against the option of virtual high schools, which I believe I would have benefited from as I am an independent learner, did not enjoy the high school social experience and believe it set me back many years. When I was in eleventh grade, I opted to leave my high school and get my degree through taking equivalent courses at a local community college but was told that it had been ended because they believed the social experience is essential to a students development. Diane Ravitch would deny me the opportunity to study in an environment that made me feel more comfortable. Virtual high schools could be beneficial to many students particularly the underprivileged, as many students feel unsafe in their local schools and others who need to work and would like to get their degree at the same time. It is my understanding that Diane Ravitch believes subscribes to the belief and supports public schools which have now made extracurriculars and community service mandatory for graduation, which seems out of touch with particularly with underprivileged students who may have ater school jobs and would only alienate uninterested students.

    Since the teaching profession cannot compete with more financially rewarding professions that require advanced degrees so prospective teachers tend to enter the profession for idealogical, rather than financial reasons, which can be both good and bad. I find these teachers generally fall into three categories; those who genuinely care about their students, though many may be naive and misguided about what students and their parents. I find that young, starry eyed idealistic teachers tend to incoporate their visions into their work, without considering what those who they purport to serve actually want. The second and largest group are those who are particularly passionate about and motivated in their field but could not find a position elsewhere and did not want to leave their field of interest. These teachers often enforce their idealogies onto their students and often are disheartened that their students do not share their passion for their particular subject or their political views. The third and least common group are those who take advantage of their power and abuse their students. One usually thinks of physical and sexual abuse (particularly common among those who work with the disabled) but can also come in the form of mental and emotional abuse.


  3. @ SteveK – “With charter schools offering options, now everyone else has the same benefits.”

    Charter schools by definition control class sizes to make them more attractive to parents and to provide a more flexible learning environment. Each school, in their application, defines how large the school will be. Right now, if every charter was at full capacity, they would only service 15% to 20% of the student population. Even in New Orleans which is looked upon as the high mark for charters, they do not offer choice for 100% of the student population.

    On a different note there is a interesting article in the NYT about parents in an affluent NJ neighborhood fighting the opening of a “boutique” charter school.


  4. A close reading of the story shows it’s not really a black-and-white type situation. To me the most interesting quote from the story was:

    “She also offered counterexamples, like Iris Ayala, whose 6-year-old son, Alexander, has an attention disorder and speech problem but has thrived at a Success school.

    Ms. Ayala said Alexander often acted up, running out of the classroom. But the school gave him special-education help, she said, and now he is reading above grade level. “I love the school,” Ms. Ayala said.”

    You have to read between the lines, but it would seem that the school can handle some kids and not others, or maybe some teachers do a better job with challenging kids than other teachers do? It’s really hard to tell exactly what’s going on. That being said, this is one specific kid, at one specific school that isn’t in Baltimore, so I’m not sure, even if the story were clear, that it sheds much light on our charter schools.

    In Baltimore, the idea that all charter schools refuse to serve special needs students is false, as proven by my significantly disabled son and the many special ed services I saw when touring charter schools. The argument brought up in the article is that unless you have isolated special ed classrooms (LRE C in Special Ed speak) you aren’t really willing to serve special needs students. I would argue that an inclusion setting with most of the time spent in a general education setting (LRE B or LRE A) are really optimal for most special needs students. I know that parents of non-special needs students typically don’t know a lot about the details of services provided by schools and really, given the complexity, I don’t know why you’d want to understand if you don’t need to. On the other hand, if special ed services are going to be thrown around as problems that charter schools have, you need to understand services and inclusion. One of the best intros I know that talks about the whys and hows of inclusion is from the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Council and can be found here – http://www.mcie.org/docs/publications/BlueprintforMaryland.pdf on the The Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education’s website – http://www.mcie.org/

    One more point, reinforcing SteveK’s comment – not all schools are good fits for all kids, especially special needs students. My son MUST have a regular, predicable schedule or his stress will be unmanageable. Some schools emphasize student directed learning and open classrooms and the like. These are not good settings for my son, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t kids that would thrive there. We have found a charter school (actually 2 since he aged out of the first) that is a good fit for him, so we have options. The standard (non-special ed specific) independent schools that SteveK refers to will never be an option for him because of the services he needs, but charter schools are.


  5. Steve,

    Thank you for your comments. I’ve been meditating on them.


  6. Actually, this article is a solid argument for schools of choice. No school can be all things to all children. The schools involved and the family in this situation have discovered this and the child is where he can now get the best services. I see this as a win.

    Those of us who have the luxury of using independent schools have known this for some time; we just have the resources and interest to choose the right schools for our children. With charter schools offering options, now everyone else has the same benefits.



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