An opinion piece in Le Monde co-authored by Samuel Abrams, Director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, warns against a charter school proposal in France inspired by the “no-excuses” model pioneered by the “Knowledge is Power Program,” or KIPP charter schools, in the United States. Such schools, which include rigid contracts for parents and students, have “perverse effects” and “risk compounding the problem of segregation already present” in French public schools, assert Abrams and co-author Philippe Bongrand, Associate Professor in Educational Studies at Cergy-Paris University.

Read the original French version here, or Abrams’s translation below.

“Charter Schools Risk Adding to Segregation”

Translated by Sam Abrams 

In outlining the educational platform for her presidential candidacy in a speech in Venoy (Yonne) on October 12, Valérie Pécresse proposed transforming 10 percent of the nation’s public schools into "a new kind of public school under contract, inspired by ‘charter schools’ found in England and Sweden.” These schools, which would be primarily located in marginalized neighborhoods, would benefit, Pécresse declared, from the managerial autonomy currently exercised in France by private schools under contract, which account for 15 percent of the nation’s 60,000 primary and secondary schools. In these charter schools, “enrollment will depend on parents and students abiding by a charter of commitment.”

Mistakenly attributed to Sweden and England by Pécresse, charter schools, in fact, originated in the United States in 1992. Charter schools benefit from exemptions from conventional rules governing administration and curriculum in exchange for exhibiting a certain level of performance by their students on state-mandated tests. They now constitute 7 percent of American public schools. Sweden’s free schools (friskolor), also launched in 1992, and England’s academies, established a decade later, comport far more with the ideals of a free market in education than with the concept of posting specific results for their students on standardized tests.

In her speech, Pécresse echoed the typical arguments of charter school advocates, vowing to "combine the best of public and private teaching methods" to increase the effectiveness of teachers and to narrow the achievement gap for disadvantaged children. However, the research accumulated over the past thirty years calls for vigilance, to say the least.

First, rigid contracts at charter schools for parents and students have had perverse effects. Not all families have the necessary resources to commit to and abide by such contracts. The rigidity of these contracts alone discourages many parents from entering lotteries to enroll their children in such schools. For many of the students who do enroll, the steep academic and behavioral expectations prove to be too much, leading to high levels of attrition. Conventional neighborhood public schools then find themselves with even higher concentrations of struggling students, which, in turn, reinforces the desire of many parents to avoid them. Such charter schools in France would accordingly risk compounding the problem of segregation already present due to many selective pathways [including those created by the private schools under contract].

Sam Abrams, Director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education

Samuel E. Abrams, Adjunct Assistant Professor. (Photo: TC Archives)

Second, the highly directive pedagogical methods that define such charter schools cultivate mechanical compliance rather than nurture the agency necessary for students to become independent learners. These charter schools, commonly referred to as "no-excuses" schools because of their quasi-military code of behavior, share a telling acronym, SLANT: “Sit up; Listen; Ask and answer questions; Nod in acknowledgment of understanding a point or lesson; and Track the eyes of the speaker.” In Scripting the Moves (Princeton University Press, 2021), the sociologist Joanne W. Golann documents how this strict approach to instruction undermines authentic learning.

Third, the arrangement whereby charter contracts hinge on student results on state-mandated tests can place untenable pressure on staff. Such pressure engenders relentless teaching to the test and leads administrators to quantify the "added value" of teachers. The leading network of "no-excuses" schools (named KIPP for “Knowledge Is Power Program”) loses a third of its teachers each year. Such turnover over time compromises pedagogical continuity and thus the quality of instruction.

Foreign policy borrowing should derive from substantial academic research. There are far better lessons to be learned from looking abroad. Academic progress in Finland, for example, has not been the result of rigid contracts with parents and students, nor, more generally, from the privatization of schooling. The Finnish model is based on better training and pay for teachers along with a more holistic approach to learning, involving many classes in music, art, carpentry, and cooking, all of which make school more enticing for students while implicitly teaching important lessons in math and science.

Skeptics reflexively reject the example of Finland because the country is small and homogeneous. Yet Finland’s Nordic neighbors—Denmark, Norway and Sweden—are similar in size and composition. For the seven administrations of the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), (administered every three years) from 2000 to 2018, the mean score for all OECD students in science was 497. (One year of learning corresponds to about 35 points.) The mean score for students in France was 499; in Denmark, 492; in Norway, 493; in Sweden, 499; and in Finland, 543.