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Personal Motivation and Charter Schools

Posted by Larry Doyle on March 25, 2010 12:58 PM |

If we do not educate our children, we can bend over, kiss our ass, and wave our future good-bye. In fact, we are well on our way to this reality. Go ahead and point the fingers at whomever you would like for this reality, but let’s ask those in the inner cities screaming for an opportunity for a better life that ONLY comes through education.

To this end, I share with you two exceptionally well scripted letters on this topic in today’s Wall Street Journal. The letters not only address the benefits of charter schools, but the need for real change within public schools. The change that will come only when the stranglehold of the administrations and unions is unleashed. Remember, it is supposed to be about the kids.

I humbly submit, Charter Schools and the Fragility of Motivation:

Paul Peterson cites several reasons in his March 16 op-ed “Charter Schools and Student Performance” for expanding choice through charter schools: Public school performance hasn’t improved in four decades; parents, particularly African-Americans, overwhelmingly want charter school options; and credible, unbiased studies based on longer-term data show that charter schools significantly improve student performance. The illogic of maintaining a public school monopoly dominated by teachers’ unions and government administrators is another unmentioned, but compelling, reason to open the floodgates for charter schools.

The majority of Americans would reject government monopoly power in just about every other aspect of their lives—from health insurance to Internet and television services to college education. Imagine if one’s only post-secondary education alternative was an in-state, government-run university. Would that likely improve the overall quality of higher education? Die-hard liberals who think the government is capable of effectively providing services or running industries without private-sector competition generally represent no more than 25% of the electorate (one of the reasons that ObamaCare is so unpopular). And when it comes to public schools, many liberal, urban, ethnic minorities drop out of that 25% segment.

Passionate opposition to charter schools generally comes from public-sector unions and affluent white liberals worried about the deleterious effects on minorities left behind in failing public schools when more concerned or luckier parents move their children to charter schools. Until excellent schools are available to all, liberals don’t think it’s fair to let some students escape the public system.

Every grand, left-wing effort to replace systems of choice and competition with monopolies run by benevolent governments has been a failure in the past century. Only a minority of Americans committed to a perfect system of social justice would choose to eliminate choice in their lives and rely instead on one all-powerful public service provider. Such a system makes no sense from a cost or quality standpoint. The results are clearly evident in today’s troubled public school performance. But the system is superb for teacher job security and pay, and liberals are willing to wait forever if need be for perfection—hope and no change.

L.B. Brown

Fairfax, Va.

Mr. Peterson is clearly wrong in his claim that the efficacy of charter schools is demonstrated by “randomized experiments that compare students who win a charter lottery with those who applied but were not given a seat,” all of whom are assumed “to be equally motivated because they both tried to go to a charter school.” The lottery losers were kept in the same dysfunctional, dispiriting environment that they were attempting to escape, a fact that likely explains the superior learning outcomes attributed to charter schools.

I taught law and society for more than 30 years at Franklin High School in Seattle. In my dedication to equity, I offered the same curriculum and experiences to both my honors and non-honors classes. A clear majority of the school’s highly motivated students were in the humanities honors program, leaving the so-called “regular” classes without a critical mass of the motivated.

In the non-honors classes I never received more than 20% of essays turned in on time, in honors classes, never fewer than 80%. The student dialogue was far more stimulating in the honors classes (the reading having been done prior to class discussions by virtually every student), and students were motivated to prepare extensively for mock trials and mock appellate courts. The peer environment was one that valued academic achievement, and strove to excel. The opposite obtained in the “regular” classes, where some students were embarrassed to be among the few to have done the assigned reading (and thus reluctant to give any sign of having done so), and smiled sheepishly for violating peer norms by completing their essays.

Shouldn’t we expect that a motivated student will achieve more after experiencing the richer, future-oriented peer environment of an honors program than he would have had he been offered the same curriculum in the desiccated, present-oriented, and non-achieving peer environment of a “regular” one? The reason parents and children cry when they lose in the lottery for one of Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone schools is because they—unlike the educational researchers quoted by Mr. Peterson—appreciate that motivation is a fragile thing, that peer environment matters (the 1966 Coleman Report concluded that it was the only school-related factor that does matter), and that hope can easily be transformed into hopelessness.

Rick Nagel

Mercer Island, Wash.

I concur.


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