Voices in Education

Twitter, Teachers, and the Debate over Charter Schools
If you enter #charterschools into Twitter, you’d be excused for being unsure of what to do with the search results.
On the one hand, you’d see posts claiming that charters are mismanaged and obsessed with high-stakes testing. You might click on a story from the New York Times analyzing a surreptitiously filmed video of a teacher-student encounter in a controversial New York City charter school. In the video, the young white teacher berates an African American girl, no older than six or seven, for counting improperly. Watching the video makes your stomach turn. Keep scrolling and it wouldn’t be surprising to find a link to a story about rampant charter school fraud in a particular city or John Oliver’s monologue highlighting the charter school that operated as a nightclub after hours. A kindergarten that smells like a fraternity basement isn’t what most parents want for their kids.
But then, if you scrolled a bit more through the feed, your head would whip around as you entered an alternate reality: you’d find tweets celebrating the lack of red tape and boundless innovation of charter schools. For instance, you may find a post from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools celebrating the role played by the University of Southern California in helping to foster a charter school network, Ednovate. According to the article, the collaboration shows the “potential of charter schools to deliver results that even dedicated educators and scholars struggle to attain in traditional public schools.” Or you might read about how “no excuses” charter schools are getting traditionally disadvantaged students to college and then through it. If charter schools are reducing the achievement gap, how can you be against them?
If, chastened and confused by your trip into social media, you then went to the scholarly literature, you’d find a third perspective: the charter school sector is so diverse that the term conveys nothing about how particular schools are likely to operate. From this vantage point, if you’ve seen one charter school, you’ve seen one charter school. If the label “charter school” doesn’t tell us much about what happens inside the school, why should we spend so much time talking about them?
Though the answer to this question is obvious, as our tour through Twitter suggests, it’s not clear whether the term “charter school” actually tells us anything about how a school operates. To gain a different perspective, I recently analyzed three datasets of teacher surveys, from across the nation and over the last fifteen years, to ask what they show about whether charter and public schools operate differently.
What I found is that there are some meaningful ways that charter and public schools differ. For instance, relative to teachers in public schools, teachers in charter schools report more control over the choosing of texts and content and playing a larger role in school governance. In this way, charter schools appear to foster climates that give teachers more voice. In other ways, however, the picture is muddy: perhaps most disappointingly for charter advocates, teachers in charter schools did not report feeling more accountable for their work relative to public school teachers.
How might findings like these inform the raucous national debate over charter schools? Most important, the three perspectives outlined above aren’t equal: I found that there’s more evidence that charters are operating better or as well as public schools than there is that they’re doing worse. However, the point shouldn’t be oversold: in a variety of ways, charter schools aren’t doing better. Since charter schools, in at least some ways, diminish public control over education, it is worth asking if the observed gains justify such losses.
Also, although there were some ways that the teaching climates of charter and public schools were static over time, in other respects, the analysis revealed a changing landscape. Thus, we need to continue to monitor differences between the climates of public and charter schools and keep our attention on the national picture. In other words, we need to be careful about generalizing from the high- and low-flying charter schools to the sector as a whole. Nuance and conditional statements might make Twitter more boring. Nonetheless, we need such research and commentary if we are going to truly grapple with the successes and failures of the charter school experiment.

About the Author: Zachary Oberfield is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Haverford College. He is the author of Are Charters Different?: Public Education, Teachers, and the Charter School Debate (Harvard Education Press, 2017).