Self-Selection: The Passive Filtration of Charter School Admittance

“The research is overwhelmingly clear: when parents play a positive role in their children’s education, students do better in school. They have better test scores and higher grades, enroll in higher level classes, attend school and pass their classes, develop better social skills, graduate from high school, attend college and find productive work.”
– Betsy Landers, past President, National PTA

Shockingly, in any public school there is always a certain percentage of students who might not want to actually be at school. I suppose, it is simply part of our human nature to desire to engage in things based upon our own choice. Getting up every morning to go to a place where someone has planned for you when you may or may not eat, talk, and work is something which is not naturally appealing. Adults, likewise, had typically rather be doing many other things than being at work for the majority of the day. The main difference between adults and children is that adults have hopefully matured to the point where they see work as a means to obtain personal satisfaction and (perhaps more commonly) to obtain money used to meet the various needs and wants for them and their family. Parents, typically being somewhat mature adults as well, usually see the point of their children going to school and putting forth the proper effort. While the child does not think far enough ahead to envision the long term rewards of education, the parent typically does and is willing to take the steps necessary to insure their children are at school participating in educational activities. But, for every general principle there are certainly exceptions and there has been and will always be a certain percentage of parents who do not encourage their children to give their maximum effort in the classroom.

Parents, as we all know, are simply regular human beings who happen to have children. As such, they reflect the full spectrum of human behavior both positive and negative. Some of these traits inevitably affect how they view the education of their children and the actions they are willing to take to encourage educational participation in their children. Again, most encourage and push their children to attend and participate in school, but a certain segment does not. Some of these parents may have physical diseases occupying much of their mental and physical energies which keep them from helping and pushing their child to participate in school. Others might have mental ailments also occupying their energies and perhaps even clouding the ability to which they are capable of participating in the education of their child. Some parents have very little education themselves with a portion of this number even being virtually illiterate. Some parents may be actively engaged in illegal activities, fraud, stealing, drug abuse, or other types of dysfunctional behavior which occupies a much higher importance to them than the education of their child. Yes, there are many different negative situations, some by choice and some far from voluntary, which can prevent a parent from being any sort of real partner in their children’s education and on rare occasions even resulting in a parent being a full-blown saboteur of the child’s education.

Ideologies, philosophies, politics, and religion can all likewise figure into how much encouragement a parent might give a child into pursuing their education and engaging in positive behaviors at school conducive to learning. Parents sometimes see little use for formal education and think it does not suit their “non-conformist” outlook and/or lifestyle. Philosophically, they may believe childhood is better spent playing and regimented learning or work should be saved for adulthood. Politically, they may not agree with the curriculum being taught or assignments given in modern schools. Sometimes, the parents themselves may view the entire school system as something of little value and coercive for a variety of these reasons mentioned and impress these views onto their children. Religion may even play a part with parents of certain religious ideologies viewing school as unimportant at best and an enemy of everything their faith values at worst. Parents with this lack of motivation and participation in their child’s education are the parents who never come to Open House or Meet the Teacher Night, who repeatedly miss the prearranged parent/teacher conference about the student’s grades, who rarely help their child to study at home, and who the teacher struggles to get a signature from on graded work or any type of form sent home with the student.

Regardless of the variety of reasons or lack thereof which drive the negative behavior, many parents do not motivate their children to participate with maximum effort in school and perhaps might not even encourage them to attend at all. However, you can ask any teacher and they will universally tell you that when a parent values the educational process, learning, and putting forth a strong effort, it is inevitably reflected and sometimes even multiplied in the amount children learn. Ask any school administrator and they will tell you that often the children who are the most significant disciplinary problems and the most disruptive to the learning process are simply a reflection in one degree or another of the attitudes of the parent. Ask any school attendance officer and they will tell you that the vast majority of their repeatedly truant students have parents who either do not care or are oblivious to the child’s school attendance. Some children consistently miss the maximum number of days allowed per year or perhaps even regularly exceed this number resulting in court actions or the threat of court actions. Any educator will tell you that a lack of regular attendance has a profound impact upon educational achievement and learning. The amount of effort put forth by the parent to encourage their children to attend and participate in the educational process at school no doubt correlates with the amount of success the children have educationally.

Perhaps at one time in history, the actions and outlook of such parents would result in the child not attending school at all or quitting at a very early age. However, our government years ago took away the option from parents as to whether or not children could opt out of childhood education. For a variety of reasons, including educational motivations and even competition from children not attending school for adult jobs, compulsory school attendance laws were passed. Thus, children who are school age must attend some sort of educational program. Typically, this results in a child attending the public school which serves his or her geographic area of residence. The school bus from the local school comes by and picks the child up every morning and drops them off every afternoon regardless of whether the parent is one who encourages learning in the child, whether they simply want them out of the house during the day, or whether they simply desire the attendance officer along with the threat of criminal charges for truancy to stay off their back. Regardless of the participation or motivation of the parent, if any child of school age does not end up at the school assigned to that child’s area of residence the parent will be forced sooner or later by the judicial system to rectify this lack of attendance or prove that an alternative education is being provided. They may not be motivated parents and perhaps they are questionably conscious parents, but they are the parents of a certain percentage of the students who attend public schools across our state and nation. Thanks to our laws and judicial system, children of school age will more than likely end up in their local public school as the most reasonable and readily available course of satisfying the legal obligation of the parent to educate their own child, regardless of the parents’ degree of motivation.

Now, let me pose a question. If these parents with all of their various reasons for non-participation or limited participation in the education of their children were not required to send them to school, would the students still come with any regularity? If the answer is “No,” this leads to another question. If there were two schools in the local community serving the geographic area where these non-engaged parents and their children live, with one school requiring no steps for the child to attend and another requiring a two page form to be printed, filled out, and mailed to a certain address for the child to attend, which one would more of the parents’ children described above end up attending? Personally, I cannot imagine what might motivate any of the non-engaged parents mentioned above to take these extra steps involved in such an application process. Some might even be physically or mentally challenged making the simple process of filling out and sending in these forms more of a daunting task. If you philosophically or religiously care little for school in general, why would you be motivated to take additional steps to attend yet another school? The path of least resistance will almost always be taken unless someone has a reason and the motivation to expend energy and effort to follow a different path. For the parents described above, the path of least resistance is certainly going to be the public school versus the charter school.

Imagine how much quicker and more advanced the teaching would be for a public school teacher if the only students in her room were those whose parents were highly motivated for them to be in her class with all others conveniently gone to another room down the hall. Do you think his or her class’s average scores at the end of the year will have increased? Would it be fair to compare the two rooms’ scores head to head? I believe we can all agree that on average the children of the non-engaged parents will inevitably achieve less academically than their peers from homes with educationally motivated parents. If you were to take the local public school and move every single one of these children with non-engaged parents immediately out to another school leaving only the other students whose parents were more engaged, would that school not do better than before in regards to test scores and the number of students who progress on to obtain a diploma? I cannot imagine a scenario where the honest answer to this would not be “Yes, the overall scores for the school will inevitably increase.” Children who grow up in this type of home environment will stand a much greater chance of struggling with academic coursework, failing one or more grade levels, and ultimately dropping out of school.

If you have followed the reasoning up until this point and agree that such students going to another school would inevitably lead to higher achievement for the school they departed from as a whole, then you have answered the question of why a charter school with all things being equal should almost always average out better scores and graduation rates than its public school counterpart in a community. The charter school can technically be honest when it says that it is “open to any and all students who live in the geographic area being served.” The charter school truthfully is not forbidding anyone to come. However, the charter school requires additional effort on the part of the parent in order for the child to attend. The drug addict looking to obtain his next fix of methamphetamine will probably not go to the website of the charter school to print off the form, fill it out, and turn it in for their child to be accepted and enrolled at the new charter school. The same can be said for the numerous other examples given above.

Do not misunderstand me, the public schools are more than willing and have always been willing to serve any and all students to help them reach their full potential academically regardless of the participation or lack thereof on the part of the child’s parents. Hopefully, the charter school is just as willing, but as long as public schools are the “default” for all students who live in an area and the new charter school established down the road only takes the students whose parents are willing and able to apply to attend, any comparison between the two institutions is comparing apples and oranges. The application itself is merely the first level of this self-selection of students involving charter schools which are technically “open to all.” How many parents of children with significant special needs affecting learning or cognitive function would apply to a school which has officially been chartered to “provide a college preparatory curriculum with strong emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) coursework?” The examples are too numerous to list of the various criteria which serve to “filter out” certain students with various educational risk factors from ever attending the charter school and remaining in their local public school.

The only way to remedy this “self selection” among parents who are willing to take these additional steps or who are even able to understand these additional steps would be to simply randomly assign students to charter schools in the communities they have been approved instead of requiring applications or requests to be made by the parent for attendance. After the students are randomly assigned with some to the charter and some to the public school, then a parent could fill out a form and mail it in to request that the child go to a different school, if they wished. This switch would now give both the charter and the public school a true sampling of the children in a geographic area while still allowing no one to be “forced” to attend one versus the other. However, now the parental effort must be made for the student not to attend the charter, if assigned there, versus the parental effort being required to attend the charter in the typical scenario. Such a very simple step, but one which I have yet to hear or read about being enacted. As things currently function, charters only end up with students whose parents are willing to invest some extra effort and extra time for their child to attend the different school. But, this same slight bit of effort, engagement, or motivation on the part of such a parent is often the main determinant as to whether the child would be successful in his or her schooling in the first place.

-Clint Stroupe

***I feel it is important to note that in spite of the self-selection and filtering taking place in who charter schools actually end up serving in a community, the data does not seem to show a clear pattern of superior achievement on the part of charter schools versus traditional public schools ( http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB9433/index1.html ).  In spite of this lack of conclusive data demonstrating any real advantage to charter schools, I am not opposed to the concept of a such a school whose charter from the state allows it to function free from much of the bureaucracy and restrictions of traditional public schools.  In fact the idea sounds so very appealing, I simply cannot understand why the pro-charter lawmakers on the state level do not follow the suggestion put forth by at least one former district superintendent to convert all public schools to charter schools by placing them under the same, supposedly superior, operational regulations and rules as the new charter schools.  However, it seems to me the vision of how charters work their expected magic is curiously dependent upon another functioning public school still existing nearby for some of the students in the area to attend.

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