Are we asking charter schools to do too much?

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Every day I learn about another charter school that has found a way to help low-income, often minority, students graduate from high school and get accepted into college at an unbelievably high rate.

For the community that I work with, Latinos, this is fantastic news. Statistics from the Pew Research Center show that the high school dropout rate for Latinos is higher than all other groups: 12 percent. Additionally, 66 percent of Latino high school graduates polled told the National Journal that they intended to enter the workforce or join the military directly after high school.

Sure, not every kid has to go to college, but the benefits of a college degree are well known, so I wholeheartedly cheer on the work of these charters. The reality is that the kids in the neighborhoods these schools serve haven’t been avoiding college to follow some other fruitful path—they’re falling into a seemingly inescapable cycle of poverty. When charter schools break that cycle, they change the trajectory of entire families.

But, in a dubious new trend, critics of charters—and even some supporters—are focusing on their graduates’ college drop out rate. Not long ago, an article in USA Today called this issue charter schools’ “thorny problem.” It highlighted the fact that, while high school graduation rates were high at a California charter school, three out of four of the school’s graduates failed to earn a four-year degree within six years after high school.

That number is far from ideal, sure, but it’s unfair to blame charters for college dropouts. For starters, the charter school college graduation rate of 23 percent is still much higher than that of high-minority urban schools’ 15 percent rate and low-income students' overall rate of 9 percent. Compared to other institutions working with kids of similar backgrounds, charter schools are doing a solid job and deserve credit for that.

There is a more important question than whose statistics are higher, though. The central question is what, exactly, should schools be accountable for? Test scores, graduation rates, and any number of other things over which schools have some control of seem like reasonable yardsticks of success. Judging charter schools by the decisions their graduates make long after they’ve left school, however, is unjust and nonsensical.

A while back, I volunteered to be part of a mock interview program at a nationally-ranked charter school. This school, like many charters, has a low-income and mostly-minority student body. But these kids are a lot like any kids of the same age: optimistic, energetic, and—on that particular day—excited to practice interviewing.

One interview question I was required to ask was about a personal value the student has and how that value could be applied to a professional environment. One student replied “generosity,” an answer that no one else gave. When pressed to explain her answer, the student told me a story. She recalled a time when her family was struggling and had little to eat.

“My little brother and I were hungry,” she said. She told how her mother began “hiding” the food they had as a way to ration it and save it for later. One day, the kids found some hidden food. The student let her little brother eat what they found. That was her example of putting generosity into action.

As a high schooler, I remember feeling generous when I contributed something from my mother’s pantry to a canned food drive. My experience doesn’t compare to this girl’s. In high school, I could never have imagined the harsh life this student has survived. As an adult, I’ve never experienced the fear of that mother hiding food from her own kids.

There is no doubt that violence, poverty, and hunger—things outside the school building—impact student performance. A well-fed student will find it easier to concentrate than one who is hungry. But we can’t fix everything at once. Those of us involved in education need to carefully delineate our area of responsibility.

Isn’t it enough to help a child who is years behind grade level get caught up and graduate on time? Are we really going to do that while eradicating drug cartels and, while we’re at it, hunger too?

Kids suffer, it’s true. But they are also incredibly resilient. When I grimaced at my interviewee’s story, she waved it off and said “it’s all behind me now.” What she wanted to talk about was how she could become an engineer. Her pet interest was in how to make drinking water cleaner for families.

Without that student’s charter school experience, it’s not very likely she’d be dreaming so big. Just as important: She wouldn’t be learning the math and science she needs to make her dream real.

I will never contradict a fellow education reformer who expresses concern with how violence, drugs, hunger, teen pregnancy, or other issues impair the ability of students to learn. They’re right. We all should be worried about social problems that threaten kids’ lives and weaken whole cities.

On the other hand, as an education reformer, perhaps the best thing I can do in my professional work is to stick to my knitting. It’s time for focus, and my focus is on schools. I want to make sure that schools are safe. I want teachers in them to be prepared to reach kids. And I want kids to come out of there smarter and more disciplined—ready to keep on learning and working to make the world a better place. 

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.