How Do Charter Schools Succeed? By Cutting Loose Students Who Aren't Good Enough

I worry about the ballast.

Charter fans brag about their successes. They tell the starfish story. They will occasionally own that their successes are, in fact, about selecting out the strivers, the winners, the students who are, in fact, their own children and allowing them to rise. And it is no small thing that many students have had an opportunity to rise in a charter setting.

But I worry about the ballast.

How do these lucky few rise? The charter doesn't have better teachers. In many cases the charter doesn't have a single pedagogical technique or instructional program that is a bit different from its public school counterparts. What it has is a concentration of students who are supported, committed, and capable.

Those students are able to rise because the school, like the pilot of a hot air balloon, has shed the ballast, the extra weight that is holding them down. It's left behind, abandoned. There's no plan to go back for it, rescue it somehow. Just cut it loose. Let it go. Out of sight, out of mind. We dump those students in a public school, but we take the supplies, the resources, the money, and send it on with the students we've decided are Worth Saving.

This may be why the charter model so often involves starting over in another school-- because the alternative would be to stay in the same school and tell Those Students, the ones without motivation or support or unhindered learning tools, to get out. As those students were sent away so that strivers could succeed, it would just be too obvious that we are achieving success for some students by discarding others.

The ballast model is an echo of a common attitude about poverty. If you are poor, it's because you chose badly, because you didn't try hard enough, because you don't have grit, because you lack character, because you deserve to be poor. Insert story here of some person who was born poor and use grit and determination and hard work to become successful, thereby proving that anyone who is still poor has nobody to blame but himself. Just repeat that narrative, but instead of saying "if you are poor" say "if you are a poor student."

This is a societal model based on discarding people. This is a school model based on discarding students.

Because  after all, if a student is failing, that is because the student is faulty, or possibly the teacher. Even learning disabilities, we've been told, have no effect on the student's achievement if the teacher's expectations are high and the student has grit.

So I guess that makes it okay to discard the ballast, the extra weight that is holding the Better People back.

I repeat-- it is no small thing that some students are carried aloft, lifted high among the clouds in that basket of high achievement.

But I keep thinking of the ballast. Somebody cuts a rope, and the heavy bag goes rocketing downward, plummeting to earth and disappear in a cloud of impact far below. Except they aren't just bags of dirt. They are human beings.

That's the charter model. Cut loose all the dead weight, all the students who aren't good enough, who cost to much time and trouble and money to lift up. This is one more reason that public school folks remain unimpressed by charter "success"-- we always knew that cutting loose the ballast would help everyone else, but our mandate is to lift everyone, not just the chosen few.

Maybe cutting loose the ballast is necessary. Maybe we've decided that's how school should work now. But we should at least be honest and have that discussion, not just cut the ballast loose while nobody is paying attention and then declare, "Well, look, we're headed up now. It's like magic!" If we're going to abandon ten students in order to rescue one, we need to talk about whether or not we're okay with that. We might even have conversation about getting a bigger balloon, one with enough lift to carry everyone and not just the chosen few.

I am glad that a few more students are being lifted up, and that is no small thing. But still, I worry about the ballast.

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