The myth of US charter schools

Don’t buy the hype from Michael Gove – or Arne Duncan.

Arne Duncan, Barack Obama's education secretary and the man who invited the US military to run local schools during his controversial tenure as chief executive of the Chicago state school system, is in London visiting our very own Michael Gove.

The latter, of course, has been ultra-keen to push his agenda of academies and "free schools" since taking office in May, and has become fond of citing the Obama administration's support for so-called charter schools. (Interestingly, on a side note, Gove and the Tories have very little to say about Obama's position on deficit reduction, which is closer to the Labour Party's view than the coalition's.)

From the Guardian:

Gove said: "America is a bigger country and there are differences between us, but I have been impressed by what Race to the Top has done, and impressed by many of the things that President Obama and Arne Duncan have been fighting for."

It's worth noting the cynicism, however, of Gove's approach. At first, the Education Secretary championed free schools by pointing to the supposed successes of the Swedish version, which is said to have been the original inspiration for the Tories' education reforms. But, as empirical evidence emerged over the summer that challenged the Swedish model, Gove and his outriders began pointing instead to America's experiment with charter schools. Hence today's visit by Duncan to the UK.

As the Americans reject the Obama administration, the coalition embraces one of its worst ideas. Peer-reviewed academic research suggests charter schools ain't as good as their well-funded and high-profile advocates make them out to be. Here's what the CREDO National Charter Schools Study at Stanford University discovered last year:

While the report recognised a robust national demand for more charter schools from parents and local communities, it found that 17 per cent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, while 37 per cent of charter schools showed gains that were worse than their traditional public school counterparts, with 46 per cent of charter schools demonstrating no significant difference.


It's also worth bearing in mind the view of Diane Ravitch, a leading historian of the US education system, former assistant secretary of education in the administration of George Bush Sr and one-time supporter of "school choice". Writing for the Wall Street Journal in March, in a piece entitled "Why I changed my mind about school reform", Ravitch observed:

Charter evaluations frequently note that as compared to neighboring public schools, charters enrol smaller proportions of students whose English is limited and students with disabilities. The students who are hardest to educate are left to regular public schools, which makes comparisons between the two sectors unfair. The higher graduation rate posted by charters often reflects the fact that they are able to "counsel out" the lowest-performing students; many charters have very high attrition rates (in some, 50-60 per cent of those who start fall away). Those who survive do well, but this is not a model for public education, which must educate all children.

So please don't buy the hype about charter schools – not from our Education Secretary or, for that matter, Obama's.


If you're looking for more information on US charter schools, I highly recommend the website Charter School Scandals. My favourite story from that site is the Denver charter school which "broke a new state law by offering families $400 worth of gift cards if they brought new students to the school before the day the state takes a student census", because "state money follows students into the classroom – an average of about $6,600 per pupil across Colorado, according to the Colorado department of education".

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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How “cli-fi” novels humanise the science of climate change

The paradox is that the harder climate-fiction novels try, the less effective they are.

When the Paris UN Climate Change Conference begins at the end of November, the world’s leaders will review the climate framework agreed in Rio in 1992. For well over 20 years, the world has not just been thinking and talking about climate change, it has also been writing and reading about it, in blogs, newspapers, magazines – and in novels.

Climate change fiction is now a recognisable literary phenomenon replete with its own nickname: “cli-fi”. The term was coined in 2007 by Taiwan-based blogger Dan Bloom. Since then, its use has spread: it was even tweeted by Margaret Atwood in 2013:

It is not a genre in the accepted scholarly sense, since it lacks the plot formulas or stylistic conventions that tend to define genres (such as science fiction or the western). However, it does name a remarkable recent literary and publishing trend.

A 21st-century phenomenon?

Putting a number to this phenomenon depends, partly, on how one defines cli-fi. How much of a novel has to be devoted to climate change before it is considered cli-fi? Should we restrict the term to novels about man-made global warming? (If we don’t, we should remember that narratives about global climatic change are as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical story of the flood.) If we define cli-fi as fictional treatments of climate change caused by human activity in terms of setting, theme or plot – and accept there will be grey areas in the extent of this treatment – a conservative estimate would put the all-time number of cli-fi novels at 150 and growing. This is the figure put forward by Adam Trexler, who has worked with me to survey the development of cli-fi.

This definition also gives us a start date for cli-fi’s history. While planetary climatic change occurs in much 20th-century science fiction, it is only after growing scientific awareness of specifically man-made, carbon-induced climate change in the 1960s and 1970s that novels on this subject emerged. The first is Arthur Herzog’s Heat in 1976, followed by George Turner’s The Sun and the Summer (published in the US as Drowning Towers) in 1987.

At the turn of this century, Maggie Gee and TC Boyle were among the first mainstream authors to publish climate change novels. In this century, we can count Atwood, Michael Crichton, Barbara Kingsolver, Ian McEwan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ilija Trojanow and Jeanette Winterson as major authors who have written about climate change. The past five years have given us notable examples of cli-fi by emerging authors, such as Steven Amsterdam, Edan Lepucki, Jane Rawson, Nathaniel Rich and Antti Tuomainen.

Creative challenges

Cli-fi is all the more noteworthy considering the creative challenge posed by climate change. First, there is the problem of scale – spatial and temporal. Climate change affects the entire planet and all its species – and concerns the end of this planet as we know it. Novels, by contrast, conventionally concern the actions of individual protagonists and/or, sometimes, small communities.

Added to this is the networked nature of climate change: in physical terms, the climate is a large, complex system whose effects are difficult to model. In socio-cultural terms, solutions require intergovernmental agreement – just what COP21 intends – and various top-down and bottom-up transformations. Finally, there exists the difficulty of translating scientific information, with all its predictive uncertainty, into something both accurate and interesting to the average reader.

Still, cli-fi writers have adopted a range of strategies to engage their readers. Many cli-fi novels could be classified as dystopian, post-apocalyptic or, indeed, both – depicting nightmarish societies triggered by sometimes catastrophic climate events. A future world is one effective way of narrating the planetary condition of climate change.

Some novelists are also careful to underpin their scenarios with rigorous climatic predictions and, in this way, translate science fact into a fictional setting. Kingsolver, who trained as an ecologist, is the best example of this – and Atwood and Robinson are also known for their attempts at making their speculations scientifically plausible. Also, cli-fi novels, particularly those set in the present day or very near future rather than in a dystopian future, tend to show the political or psychological dimensions of living with climate change. Readers can identify with protagonists. To some extent, the global community is represented in fictional everymen or everywomen. Or, often, it is through such characters that science is humanised and its role in combating climate change better understood.

Can cli-fi lead to change?

Could cli-fi affect how we think and act on climate change? The paradox is that the harder cli-fi tries, the less effective it is. Many writers want to inspire change, not insist on it: the line between literature and propaganda is one that most novelists respect. Literature invites us to inhabit other worlds and live other lives. Cli-fi at its best lets us travel to climate-changed worlds, to strive there alongside others and then to return armed with that experience.

In Paris, the UN will seek a global agreement on climate action for the first time in more than 20 years. There is plenty of climate change fiction out there to help provide the mental and psychological space to consider that action.

The Conversation

Adeline Johns-Putra, Reader in English Literature, University of Surrey

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.