Charter Schools in America (and Why I Quit Teaching at One of Them)

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Liz Long graduated from the University of Alabama in May 2016 with degrees in Religious Studies and Psychology. She then moved to Indianapolis with Teach for America and taught second grade and preschool for three months total before leaving the program. She now works for the Indiana Department of Child Services.

Earlier, I wrote about Teach for America (TFA) and issues in the American education system. In this post, I’ll dive deeper into public charter schools.

You may have seen John Oliver’s segment on charter schools. In the video, Oliver dives into the lack of accountability present in charter schools. Charter schools are run like businesses, and are not part of local school districts (though there is a type of charter school called an innovation school that does partially use district funds). Charter schools are independent, though they receive state funding and are (in theory) subject to the same standards as a public school. As Oliver outlines, however, charter schools frequently close and are often not subject to the same accountability in reporting test scores, attendance, etc. Depending on the state, charter schools may be authorized by outside companies or non-profit organizations. In Indianapolis, where I taught, charter schools are authorized by the mayor’s office.

The biggest issue with charter schools is the lack of accountability and supervision. Oliver does a better job explaining the lack of financial accountability than I could, but he leaves out another major component of the accountability issue-a lack of what I’ll call moral accountability.

As I’ve already pointed out, the quality of education in America is completely dependent on race and class. The quality of education in high-income, white communities is far, far better than what you’ll see in a low-income community, or one with a large racial minority population.  This goes far beyond the quality of curriculum, though. Because they are most often seen in low-income, urban neighborhoods, charter schools tend to be made up of mostly minority students (the charter network I worked for was about 98% black)  Put frankly, students in charter schools are often treated like crap.

Public schools are required to report the number of in- and out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, and are subject to consequences if this number is too high. After all, the goal is to keep kids in school, because even in in-school suspension, kids are missing a lot of vital information and learning. Public schools will, instead, look for other other consequences for negative behavior, like detentions, moving kids to another classroom temporarily, or requiring extra homework. Charter schools, however, are not subject to this kind of accountability. At the charter school where I worked, there were only two real disciplinary actions-public humiliations and out-of-school suspensions (and eventually, expulsion). On a near daily basis, you could hear the principal of our school shouting at one kid in front of their entire class (or, on some occasions, the entire school). In my second grade class, there were 11 suspensions in two months. I had one child suspended for lying on the floor when she was supposed to be sitting in her chair. And though these schools often brag about high graduation and college admittance rates, the truth is, by the time a child reaches their senior year of high school, a large number of students will have been expelled. Additionally, many charter schools intentionally lack resources for special education, effectively driving families of students with IEP’s (individualized education plans) back to public schools. Charter schools create their own image of a “worthwhile student,” and by the time a class is ready to graduate, a good-sized chunk of the original class will have been forced to return to public schools.

Obviously, not all charter schools are mismanaged, and many are respectful of their students. But when schools are allowed to run without regulations or accountability, it’s easy to become corrupt or disrespectful. And parents, who just want the best for their children, can be easily swayed by high graduation rates and successful alumni profiles. But the data put forth by these schools is often misleading because it’s allowed to be misleading.  Charter schools are a business, and if there’s nothing stopping Gushers from convincing kids that their heads will turn into fruit by eating their gummies, then there’s nothing stopping charter schools from convincing parents that their school is the answer. It’s just advertising.

As a member of Teach for America, I was frequently reminded of the gap in quality of education between low-income and high-income students. I sat through classes where the topic of discussion was the much higher rate at which black students are suspended than white students (black students are 16% of the national school population, but make up 32% of suspensions and 42% of expulsions), then went to work at a school made up of 99% black students, whose only disciplinary measure was suspension. It seemed hypocritical to me that an organization which puts so much emphasis on closing the achievement gap between black and white students would partner with a school that seemed to be in the business of suspending black students. And I couldn’t be that teacher anymore.

The Individual, the Organization, or the System? Teach for America and Blame in American Education

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Liz Long graduated from the University of Alabama in May 2016 with degrees in Religious Studies and Psychology. She then moved to Indianapolis with Teach for America and taught second grade and preschool for three months total before leaving the program. She now works for the Indiana Department of Child Services.

In the spring of this past year, I was getting ready to graduate, and desperately searching for a job. I wound up applying (and getting in to) Teach For America (TFA). So in July, after 5 (hellacious) weeks of training in Houston, I packed up my apartment and moved to Indianapolis to teach 2nd grade at a charter school here.

Around mid-September, I found myself physically and mentally unable to do my job, and with extremely mixed feelings about my position, my school, and the organization I had joined. In mid-October, I left my school, withdrew from Teach for America, and started searching for new jobs. The decision to leave was difficult – I love my students, and I still have some desire to work in education – but there were a lot more factors in play. I felt unsupported and unheard by my school, and I felt like there was considerable discord between TFA’s expectations for me and the school’s expectations for me. Additionally, I felt like a hypocrite. TFA’s mission is to close the achievement gap between wealthy, white kids and poor students of color, but it felt like my school was working towards the opposite. To make matters worse, the day I turned in my resignation marked four weeks since I’d come down with bronchitis, with no signs of recovery.

Teach for America is a nationwide non-profit organization with the goal of placing new teachers in low-income, high-need schools. A quick Google search of its name reveals countless op-eds, blog posts, and articles both criticizing and praising the organization. Since it began in 1994, it’s been fraught with controversy. Its major criticisms are:

  1. TFA does not adequately train teachers – the majority of TFA corps members did not get degrees in education, and TFA’s Institute (their training program) is merely 5 weeks of classes and the organization’s equivalent of student teaching.
  2. TFA corps members often do not stay in the classroom after their two years are up. Many move into positions in school leadership, or use the program as a stepping-stone to law school, medical school, grad school, etc.
  3. TFA perpetuates educational inequality by placing teachers with little training in the classroom.

The American education system is one based on class and race (also see these two articles). Put simply, if you’re white or middle to upper class, your education is likely far better than it would be if you were a person of color or came from a low-income family. Some critics place a majority of the blame for the continuation of this system on TFA, for the reasons listed above. Some even take it so far as to blame individual TFA corps members for entering into a corrupt organization (one which many of us do not understand upon joining-we just want to be teachers). But simply blaming TFA for its failures obscures the larger systemic problems in American education that make TFA even necessary or possible to begin with.

I can’t speak for the whole country, but I can speak fairly well for Indianapolis, though I’ve only been here for a few months. Indianapolis, like many of TFA’s placement regions, faces a teacher shortage nearly every year of 70-90 teachers. I worked with more than one person on an emergency license (meaning they also are not traditionally licensed teachers, and are often without even the 5 weeks of training TFA corps members receive). The city is also home to the Indianapolis Teaching Fellows, an organization almost identical to TFA, but the organization is much smaller. Indianapolis Teaching Fellows (ITF) also go through six weeks of training in the summer, followed by a two year placement in either a public or public charter school in Indianapolis. ITF members are enrolled alongside TFA corps members in Marian University’s Masters of Arts in Teaching program.

Despite being an almost identical program, searching Google for ITF returns mostly information on the program. On the first search page, I found only one blog post on ITF or its parent organization, TNTP Teaching Fellows. If they’re such similar programs, why does TFA take all the heat? Why are there no posts about the fact that Indianapolis needs two low-income teacher training programs, in addition to emergency licensure, and still comes up 70 teachers short year after year?

TFA is far from the only low-income teacher development program out there. Almost every state offers emergency licensure, alternative certification programs, or another teacher development program similar to TFA. In my eyes, this is indicative not of TFA’s ineffectiveness, but of a much, much larger problem in American education. All across the country, low-income school districts are facing teacher shortages for a number of reasons, chief among them low pay, high stress, and long hours with no overtime. After a few years, no one wants to be a teacher, so districts are forced to rely on teachers with little to know formal education in education. Even among traditionally licensed teachers, the turnover rate is extremely high. Only 50% of teachers nowadays stay in the profession after five years. Many traditionally licensed teachers note that a degree in education does not adequately prepare you to teach in a low-income setting. Yet, schools like this make up roughly 50% of American schools.

Perhaps I’m a bit biased by my time in TFA, but it seems more like the public is looking for a scapegoat than providing legitimate criticisms of TFA. What is needed in American education are large-scale reforms and shifts in discourse. Many have shared these videos on Facebook comparing Finland’s treatment of teachers to America’s, and the structure of Finland’s schools. I don’t disagree with these, though America would likely need a much larger education budget in order to implement the same high pay for teachers and resources for schools – even public schools in high- and middle-income neighborhoods. In some posts to come, I’ll better outline some of the issues in American education. And none of this is to say that TFA is without flaws, because it absolutely is. But in order to get at the heart of TFA’s issues, you must first look at the system it operates in.