Columns » Max Brantley

Charter schools struggle, too

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The state Education Department last week released the final 2011 count on how schools in Arkansas are doing in meeting the No Child Left Behind Standards, which require that all students be testing at grade level in math and reading by 2014.

With each passing year, the pass rate required for a "sufficient" rating rises. Consequently, the school failure rate has risen because of the unrealistic expectation that all children can be lifted above average.

Of the 1,091 public schools in Arkansas, only 335, or 31 percent, were classified as achieving in 2011. By this, I mean not only were total populations of those schools hitting the required pass rate on state benchmark tests, but the pass rates were also met among subgroups – poor kids, black kids, Hispanic kids, special education kids. It only takes missing the mark in one category for one year for a school to be placed on "alert."

These numbers have limited value, unless you are a slave to standardized tests. Some schools don't have enough of a target population – black, special ed, poor – to be rated in subcategories. Some schools barely miss in a single category. Some schools are almost entirely populated by impoverished students, sometimes speaking English as a second language.

The state wants a federal waiver from this unforgiving required annual progress. As it stands, a spokesman noted, schools could improve but still drop in the rankings. "This unfairly labels schools which may in fact be very good places to learn," said the department's Seth Blomeley.

Agreed. I also want to highlight a point that was obscured in the Democrat-Gazette front-page report, which focused first on non-achieving schools in the Little Rock School District, the reformers' favorite whipping boy.

Charter schools, touted as the option of choice for children in poor schools, didn't do so hot either. Sixteen of the state's 20 charter schools, or 75 percent of them, failed to earn achieving status.

These included such highly touted charters as the KIPP Delta Public School in Helena-West Helena, two of the three eStem charter schools in Little Rock, the LISA Academy Middle School in Little Rock, the Academics Plus Charter School in Maumelle and the Arkansas Virtual Academy for home schoolers. The third eStem school also fell short in several categories, but wasn't put on alert. It was "held harmless," the department told me, on account of unusual enrollment growth.

I don't criticize these schools. But when you live by arbitrary "reform" standards (actually owe your existence to them), you should die by them a little bit, too.

The charter schools fell short in serving the very students for whom they were nominally created. eStem, extolled as a haven from what one leading Walton-paid education reform lobbyist has called the utter waste of the Little Rock School District, failed to meet cumulative progress standards with black and poor students at every level. Academics Plus in Maumelle, nominally established to reach underprivileged kids, also fell short in serving the relatively few black and poor kids it enrolls.

None of this is surprising. There's no magic in standardized tests or in charter schools. Great teachers and principals are the foundation of any good school, but they can add only so much value to the raw material that walks into class every day and the commitment of their parents to their success. Poverty, health and family issues aren't overridden by gimmicks, not even at segregated charter havens that are allowed to get rid of the hard-case students the conventional public schools must enroll.

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