First Person

Charter Schools Are Still Not Public Schools

Last week, I explained why I no longer think that charter schools are public schools and asked for comments from GothamSchools readers. I’ve given a lot of thought to the ideas that others have presented.

First, no one has come close to rehabilitating the argument that charter schools are public schools simply because they accept public funds. Many organizations have their operations paid for — in whole or in part — by public funds, and not all of them are public in the way that “our public schools” are. If charters are public schools, this is not why.

Second, I raised the issue of democratic accountability. To what degree do elected officials and their appointees have authority over arbitrary aspects of charter school operations and staffing? For example, years ago Mayor Bloomberg required all schools to hire parent coordinators. Under mayoral control, Bloomberg can mandate curriculum and spending decisions, and any spending not controlled by existing contracts. Generally, elected officials and their appointees can even remove principals and other administrators for arbitrary — though not discriminatory — reasons. (Because New York City principals have a union contract, this authority is severely constrained. But this is unique to the city and could be negotiated out of the contract.)

There have been many arguments raised against this point, but they generally fall into two camps. One was that there are other public institutions that are led by people who cannot be so removed, but these responses have been based on admitted ignorance (e.g. how are members of the NY Board of Regents appointed and how can they be removed?, what are the laws regarding removal of charter board members? etc.). The other response has been that elected officials and their appointees can pressure charter schools to remove a principal. My understanding is that this pressure only comes in the form of withdrawing a school’s charter. I am sorry, but I do not think this argument works. By this argument, major accounts of a private company have the authority to fire salesmen at that company because they can threaten to move their account if the company does not accede to their demand. Going back to one of my examples, the private construction firm who builds schools for a district could be threatened with losing the job if some kind of site supervisor is not fired. That does not make the company part of a district or a public entity.

To state this more plainly: Demands that only have power if backed by the threat to pull a charter or contract do not equate to the sort of ongoing democratic oversight that fits into to my understanding of public schools

Third was my most important criteria, the obligations to educate all comers. One reader, Gideon, wisely pointed out that this would imply that our so-called public universities would be excluded. I do not have a problem with that. I think that the distinction between public and private higher education is rather thin and am therefore happy to say that public universities are not public at all like our public schools are.

Another response, perhaps the most common one, has been that many public schools do not serve all comers. There are exam schools, for example. And the kind of school choice model we have in New York City means that few, if any, schools serve all comers. However, I anticipated much of this argument before writing last week. School districts have a responsibility to educate all comers. It is our public schools who collectively – in the form of districts – meet that obligation. District offices are obliged to figure out how to do this and may not direct children to charter schools as part of their solutions

Let me be clear: Charter schools are not district schools. Virtually the entire purpose of charter schools is to free them from districts and their authority. Any argument that states that charter schools are part of the public schools because they are part of the mélange of schools that educate our children applies equally to unquestionably private schools. If those who advance this argument cite the use of public funds, they would have to claim that private schools that accept publicly funded vouchers are also public schools, an argument that I do not think they want to make.

However, I am also willing to concede that in most meaningful ways, selective so-called public schools are really not public schools. And I would further say that meaningful public status is certainly questionable for any school that students cannot attend simply by following the standard normal procedures that all students/families must follow — including my own high school.

Ken Hirsh and others have raised the point that charter schools are subject to government oversight, including inspections and perhaps various well or lesser known state and federal legislation. The mere fact of regulation and inspection however, does not a public entity make. Meatpacking plants are subject to federal inspection. Restaurants are subject to government inspection. Most organizations are subject to regulation in one form or another, though the degree of regulation often varies from industry to industry.

In fact, there are many regulations that only apply to those who receive public funds. For example, the City of New York enforces much of its own legislation by requiring compliance as a condition of contracting with the city. The fact of regulation does not make these entities public.


So, what am I getting at? I think that public schools must be both responsive to and responsible for the public.

There is no question that charter schools — like many private organizations and entities — are somewhat responsible to the public (as expressed in the form of democratic government). They certainly are more responsive to the public than traditional private schools, but it is not at all clear that they are more responsive than other private entities (i.e. other than traditional private schools) that accept large portions of their operating budgets from the government. By design, they are less responsive than traditional public schools, even if they are more responsive than traditional private schools

Clearly many charter school operators do personally feel responsible for the public and its children. Many charter school leaders work hard to build a school culture that will outlive them and that is infused with that sense of responsibility. I, therefore, understand why some who work in charter schools think of their schools as public schools. However, they build this culture voluntarily; it is not intrinsic to charter schools generally or even a requirement of their charters. The very fact that they are only required to select a student body from among those who apply in the first place makes for a qualitative difference from public schools. Districts cannot place additional students in charter schools when all district schools are overcrowded, nor can they enroll students whose families failed to take part in the normal school selection process in charter schools. In this respect, charter schools are more like traditional private schools than they are like traditional public schools.

And so, while charter schools are clearly not traditional private schools, by design they are not like traditional public schools, either. Even if we acknowledge that there are differences between different charter schools, and between charter school laws, neither of these terms seem appropriate. Those who insist that they are “public schools” or “private schools” clearly have some sort of agenda and some idea other than a full examination of the meaning these terms carry. This leaves us with a need for a third term, as neither “public” or “private” would be appropriate.

Luckily, we already have the term “quasi-public” from other sectors. I do not love this term — or even really like it — but it is surely better than either of the others.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.