Cunningham: On School Segregation, Teacher Union President Randi Weingarten Is Projecting

Sahm: Newark’s Charter Schools Deliver on Their Original Purpose — and Spark Innovation Across the District

Cantor: When a Bounty of Options Aren’t Enough, How Poor Parents Really Practice School Choice

Cook: Pettiness Blocks Progress in Louisiana, as Governor Vetoes Common Sense Education Bill

Analysis: How the California Teachers Union Is Spending Its Summer

Simpson: When Teachers Act as Coaches, Everyone Comes Out a Winner

Ladner: ‘Frontier Justice’ From Parents at ‘Wild West’ Charter Schools Yields Great Results for Students

Cantor: Falling in Love Again (With School Policy) Binge-Watching ‘The West Wing’

Weisberg: Paying Teachers Not to Teach Is Absurd — but Reviving NYC’s ‘Dance of the Lemons’ Hurts Kids

Richmond: Autonomy or Accountability? Good Charter School Authorizing Means Balancing the Two

Union Report: The Sad Triviality of the National Education Association’s Annual Conference

Lieberman: ESSA Allows States to Focus on Often Overlooked Pre-K Ed Players — School Principals

Analysis: Ed Tech Decision Makers Are Under Pressure in Higher Education

Irvin & Gray — Reforming the Way We Govern Schools: Stronger Charter Boards Are Essential to Education Reform

Antonucci: NEA’s New Charter Schools Policy Isn’t New, Just Matches Union’s Long-Held Action Plan

Arnett: Schools Will Be the Beneficiaries, Not the Victims, of K-12 ‘Disruptive Innovation’

Boser and Baffour: Making School Integration Work for the 21st Century

Williams: Raising LA High School Graduation Rates by Any Means Necessary Is an Empty Accomplishment

Rice: Charter Schools Are Advancing the Cause of Black Education in America for the 21st Century

Slover: Remembering Mitchell Chester, the ‘Johnny Appleseed’ of U.S. Education Policy

Smith: A Few Thoughts About John Oliver’s Bleak, Unrepresentative Sample of Public Charter Schools

Photo Credit: Getty Images

August 22, 2016

Talking Points

.@NelsonSmith60: A few things to keep in mind about @iamjohnoliver's unrepresentative sample of charter schools

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I love John Oliver’s epic rants. So that harrowing sound is my heart being wrenched, after watching his very funny but off-kilter takedown of charter schools.

What’s most painful is that I agree with a lot of Oliver’s talking points: Charter schools aren’t pizza joints and they should NEVER open so feebly as to shut down in the first month.

No, it’s not OK when an administrator has her hand in the till (and then cites Bible verses as an excuse!) And hell no, it’s way not OK when somebody gets a charter by plagiarizing language from another successful applicant.

If this stuff were actually typical of charter schools, I would have bailed out of the movement years ago. But it’s not, and I haven’t.

Now, the writers at Last Week Tonight probably aren’t statisticians, but this is known as an Unrepresentative Sample. Except for a brief nod to KIPP’s graduation rate, the entire segment was a parade of horror stories, including one dredged up from 2010. Not since Dick Cheney got hold of the Iraq briefings have we seen cherry-picking on this scale.

Here’s what I mean, starting with some simple math: There are now more than 6,600 public charter schools nationally, educating about 3 million kids. All Oliver’s stories strung together account for a small percentage of that total, while the vast majority of charter teachers and administrators go to work each morning prepared and determined to do right by their students. Those kids left stranded when a school shut down weeks after opening? Awful—should never happen! But among the 642 new public charter schools that opened in 2014, just 3.4 percent closed before year’s end.

To be clear, we shouldn’t—and don’t—apologize for closing schools when they fail their kids. It’s part of the model and it’s called defending the public interest. Researcher Paul Hill contrasts charter accountability with what happens in traditional school systems: “We bury our dead.”

Speaking of research, shall we say it was used with some…selectivity in the show. Oliver’s primary source was CREDO, the Stanford University shop known for comprehensive analyses of charter performance. One of the cherries he failed to pick was CREDO’s finding that the charter sector made strong gains between 2009 and 2013—due mostly to closures of low-performing schools.

Another bit of research he missed is CREDO’s more recent, massive urban charter study, which looked at 41 regions and found that “urban charter schools on average achieve significantly greater student success in both math and reading, which amounts to 40 additional days of learning growth in math and 28 days of additional growth in reading,” compared to traditional public schools. Given that about 60 percent of charters are located in cities, I would say he missed a big, bright-red Maraschino with that one.

My colleagues here at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) spend a whole lot of time trying make sure that the great work of the charter movement isn’t undermined by those lurking in Oliver’s rogues’ gallery. We still have a lot of work to do, but let’s not ignore progress because it might spoil the joke.

For instance, Florida was featured prominently in the show—but the state has now developed new professional standards for charter authorizing.

Just last year, Ohio passed a major overhaul of charter accountability, tightening conflict-of-interest rules and shining a light on management-company expenditures. And they’ve got a tough new authorizer evaluation program to weed out those that don’t understand the term “oversight.”

That said, Pennsylvania was singled out for good reason. Like some other states, it needs to get cracking on fixing its outdated charter laws.  

As the great Jon Stewart once said, “The Internet is just a world passing notes around a classroom.” A day after its broadcast, there were already more than 600,000 views of the Oliver segment on YouTube. It was a pretty funny show, and said some things that should be said, but I sure worry about the viewers for whom this is their first impression of charter schools.

When their laughter subsides, I hope they remember that the parents of 3 million kids take public charter schools really seriously.