‘Tis the season for annual testing results and in my state of Rhode Island, that means we are hearing about how we did on PARCC. There is some good news in terms of the direction we are moving, mostly bad news about where we actually are, and a real life example of why charter schools can never be talked about as a monolith in terms of quality. And John Oliver, who I know would never be able to hide his disdain for a drive-thru loving Mom like me, should still listen up because he got a little bit right and a lot wrong.
There are only three schools in Rhode Island that serve a majority of low income students and also beat state averages in math and English Language Arts. All three of them are charter schools. One is an independent charter, one is a network of schools that only serves two suburban and two urban districts in northern Rhode Island, and one is part of a network with schools in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York. Contrary to Oliver’s characterization, they have never closed six weeks into the year or converted themselves into a nightclub at sunset or taken their students on field trips every single day.
They have longer days, conduct home visits, enjoy tremendous flexibility in hiring, and are uniquely able to fail fast. This freedom from entangled bureaucracies ensures that their students don’t end up stuck in academic quicksand while school committees convene and vote to approve a needed change to a reading curriculum about which they know absolutely nothing.
Rhode Island also has two charter schools that had zero percent of their students proficient in math. Zero. The ELA proficiency for these two schools peaks at 10 percent. (Some district schools found themselves in that category as well.) John Oliver or anyone else would be right in holding up these two charter schools as examples of failure and I’d join them in calling for their closure or for a turn-around plan in which new and better leaders be given an opportunity to build a team to right the ship.
So even here in Little Rhody, the tiniest state in the union, there is wild variability within the charter sector. While some are literally narrowing and even closing achievement gaps, others can’t claim a single student who is doing math at grade level. Not a single child.
The problem with Mr. Oliver and all the other folks who glom on to anti-charter talking points is that their information is woefully incomplete. Oliver is being irresponsible when he makes quips about the schools of poor kids that at best are half truths and worst are downright lies. And while sad, he knows that many in his audience accept his version because it comes in fun packaging: a splash of satire, lots of f-bombs, and even a laugh track.
In the case of Rhode Island, the only three schools to exceed state averages and serve poor children are now lumped in with the horror show schools that were featured during Oliver’s eighteen minute segment on charter schools. And while I understand those who downplay any influence he may have, it is naive in 2016 to think that people aren’t getting their information and forming opinions from what is now known as “infotainment.” Our attention spans are shorter and HBO is “cool” so for many it’s a natural place to land to get a bit of information, feel smart, and laugh really hard.
But the people who watch John Oliver’s show aren’t the ones stuck on wait lists. They aren’t the ones who can’t afford to move to a zip code with better educational offerings. And the vast majority of them look nothing like the vast majority of children whose parents are quite literally desperate to get them into a better school. And that scares me.
It especially scares me this year when voters in Massachusetts will be deciding the fate of more than 30,000 students stuck on wait lists for charter schools. While most of the children shut out of the schools of their choice are black and brown and from low income families, their fate rests on whether white suburban voters decide to check yes or no in November. And despite Massachusetts’ rank of number 1 for charter quality, far too many will only know John Oliver’s side of the story before they head to the voting booth.
That is sad. And definitely isn’t funny.