Friday, July 9, 2010

Charters No Answer to the Achievement Gap

Today I want to talk about charters as a solution for closing the achievement gap. I want to begin by emphasizing that there are plenty of good charter schools. This post isn't an attack on, or endorsement of, any charter school. This post challenges the current craze in Washington, among certain business circles, and in St. Paul, that claims, against all the evidence, that a nationwide charter push is a solution to the achievement gap.

In 2009, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, CREDO, issued a report measuring the performance of charter schools in 16 states. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes was established to improve the body of empirical evidence about education reform and student performance at the primary and secondary levels. The report is called, Multiple Choice, Charter School Performance in 16 states. You can read it here. The report summary states the following:

The study reveals that a decent fraction of charter schools, 17 percent, provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools. These findings underlie the parallel findings of significant state‐by‐state differences in charter school performance and in the national aggregate performance of charter schools.

The report continues:

Charter schools have become a rallying cry for education reformers across the country, with every expectation that they will continue to figure prominently in national educational strategy in the months and years to come. And yet, this study reveals in unmistakable terms that, in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well as their Traditional Public School counterparts. Further,tremendous variation in academic quality among charters is the norm, not the exception. The problem of quality is the most pressing issue that charter schools and their supporters face.

I've been writing for the last couple of days on the topic of education reform. In the first post, I argued that many of the Obama-Bush reforms coming out of the Duncan Department of Education are unproven and inappropriate for many schools and school districts. In the second post, I argued that the key to genuinely successful reforms in our school district is to unleash the creative energy of our best leading teachers and other education professionals. In coming posts, I'm going to discuss some reform ideas that I think are worthwhile, and others that I think that are over-hyped. But in today's post, I want to ask why, in the face of this evidence, is the Obama administration so fixated on forcing States to join the charter movement?

In my prior post, I emphasized that everyone who writes about education policy should confront these issues with a sense of humility. The history of education policy is riddled with failed fads supported by convincing education scholars who assured us that "the research says...." When I post these ideas, I am cognizant of my own limitations. I could be wrong about the failure of charters to pay the promised dividends on the achievement gap. But shouldn't the evidence be overwhelming, for the federal government to decide to cram an idea down our throats?!

If the evidence were overwhelming that charter schools were making clear difference in closing the achievement gap, perhaps one could understand why the federal government in both the Bush and Obama administration has been so adamant that charter schools represent a critical element of national education reform policy. But actually, the evidence does not support that claim at all. Some are good, some bad, just like so-called TPS (traditional public schools). It seems to me that even if the evidence is merely neutral, wouldn't it make sense to let states and localities choose their own path to reform. Indeed, the CREDO report, and others like it, suggest that on the average charter schools are just plain old public schools pretending to be something radically different. A Schick instead of Gillette. A Grain Belt instead of a Pabst.

DFL governor Rudy Perpich was an early leading proponent for the charter school idea. He argued that charter schools would induce an element of competition into public education and that the new competition would especially result in improvements in low performing urban schools serving students in profound poverty. I want to point out that there are other reasons that one might start a charter school, besides those reasons. This post is not a criticism of any charter school. Maybe you want to start a school with a very different curriculum than in your local school district. Maybe you are a fan of the Saxon math program (I am not), or maybe you want to create a bio-science magnet school, even though your own schools are providing excellent opportunities. You can make a case for the benefits of the freedom to start up new schools for reasons like that with public money. In Minneapolis they are starting new schools with public money at the same time as they are shutting them down. Maybe you think that the benefits of starting new schools while closing down others is justified by the freedom to experiment. But that's not the reason that the national department of education is pushing charters right now. Rather, the feds (and St. Paul) claim that putting a whole lot of money into charter schools will make a huge impact on the achievement gap, and substantially improve the performance of students in those neighborhoods where proficiency scores are abysmally low.

A recent auditor's report here in Minnesota authored by the Minnesota legislative auditor found that:

As a group, charter students posted lower test scores and their schools were more likely to wind up on a watch list dictated by No Child Left Behind goals. Half of active charter schools failed to make adequate yearly progress and were subject to federal sanctions,compared with 32 percent of district-run schools. (Minneapolis Tribune, June 30, 2008.

This conclusion about Minnesota charter schools is echoed in the CREDO report as well. It bolsters the suggestion that I have made in my last two posts, that that school improvement doesn't come from shuffling the education deck, but instead requires sophisticated use of best practices by dedicated professional educators, and that the key to success is insisting that public schools engage in continuous improvement through adoption of those best practices.

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