Saturday, August 26, 2006

Exploding the Charter School Myth

This NYT editorial is so depressing.  The NYT editorial page had actually shown some signs of progress and appeared to be doing more than just mouthing the "reforms" proposed by the forces of the status quo -- and then they come out with this stink bomb.  I wonder if anyone on the NYT editorial board has EVER, even once, visited a charter school.  It is impossible for me to believe that anyone who's set foot in a KIPP (or Amistad or Uncommon Schools, etc.) could write such rubbish.  Here is my critique of this editorial:
1) The first half of it blindly repeats the results of the recent study, without acknowledging the flaws that make it worthless for judging charter schools -- other than to tell us what we already know, which is that charter schools serve a much more disadvantaged student population, for which they should be applauded!  Well down in the editorial, there's a faint stab at evenhandedness ("Charter school advocates denounced the new federal study even before it was released and took issue with its methodology, which is not perfect."), but it fails to mention that the "study" covered a mere 5% of charter schools, failed to adequately adjust for students' disadvantages and didn't track progress over time.
2) This is a very clever line: "The evidence so far shows that charter schools are not inherently superior to the traditional public schools they often seek to supplant — and that they are sometimes worse."  Regarding the last part of this sentence, it is irrefutable that SOME charter schools are worse than SOME public schools -- but so what?  One could just as easily have written that public schools are "sometimes worse" than charter schools.
As for the first part, one could argue endlessly about which model is "inherently" better (I think the charter model has, net, more advantages, but the rubber really hits the road at the individual school level, based primarily on the school leader and teachers).  But what really matters is whether students at charter schools are PROGRESSING MORE than comparable students at regular schools.  Here, the evidence is clear: as I cited in my email last week, the significant majority of studies (more than 60%) show that charter school students ARE, in fact, progressing more and almost none (15%) show public school students progressing more:
Bryan Hassel of Public Impact has looked at 44 such studies that include both snapshot and longitudinal perspectives. Of the 18 snapshot studies, 12 found that charters did worse than non-charters, and 6 found that charters did the same or better. Of the 26 change studies, 16 found that charters did better than non-charters, 6 found roughly comparable results between charters and non-charters, and 4 found that charters did worse. Of the 16 positive change studies, the most common theme was that charter students start out behind and catch up and surpass non-charter students over time.
Is the New York Times editorial board unaware of this data or choosing not to include it?!
3) I don't understand this at all: "lawmakers will back away from the part of the act that offers charter schools as a cure-all."  I'm not aware of any part of NCLB that offers charter schools as a cure-all.  What I AM aware of is that NCLB says that if a public school is a chonic failure, year in and year out, that the school district must provide alternatives to the students who are being victimized by the school.  One of these options is charter schools.
Note a huge difference, however: unlike traditional public schools, which students are often forced to attend even when they're well-known failures, no student is ever forced to attend a charter school.  Instead, students and/or their parents can CHOOSE to attend if they find one acceptable to them.  If a charter school fails to attract students, it will rapidly shut down.  This imposes an important market discipline on charter schools -- not a perfect one (there are indeed too many lousy charter schools that manage to keep their students and remain operational), but FAR more so than regular public schools.
4) The editorial is sloppy in its wording.  At one point it says this: "They should instead home in on the all-important but largely neglected issue of teacher training and preparation — which trumps everything when it comes to improving student achievement."  Two sentences later, it says this: "Beyond that, Congress needs to grasp the obvious, which is that the quality of the teacher corps is more crucial to school reform than anything else."  The latter is exactly right: teacher quality trumps everything else when it comes to student achievement.  But "teacher training and preparation" are only a small part of the effort to raise teacher quality.  What about recruiting higher-caliber people into the profession?  How about closely and quantitatively tracking teacher performance so that the best (and worst) teachers can be identified?  What about reintroducing differential pay for: a) teachers in teacher shortage areas like math and special ed?; b) teachers in the toughest schools?; and c) the best teachers, defined primarily as those whose students make the most progress?  What about streamling the process for removing the worst teachers?  If "teacher training and preparation" is simply a euphemism for spending more time at ed schools, then this will not only fail to improve teacher quality, it will likely DIMINISH it!
5) On this point: "The original law required states to provide highly qualified teachers in core subject areas by this year. But the Education Department simply failed to enforce the rule, partly because of back-channel interference by lawmakers who talked like ardent reformers while covering up for state officials clinging to the bad old status quo."  This makes it seem like the DOE has deliberately not enforced the law, which, as best I understand it, is not the case (see recent articles I've sent out about the DOE cracking down).  The sentence should read: "The Education Department has tried to enforce the law, but with only mixed success due largely to back-channel interference by lawmakers..."
6) While I agree with this conclusion, "Four years later, the national teacher corps is still in a shambles. Until Congress changes that, everything else will amount to little more than tinkering at the margins.", this editorial clearly fails to connect improving the teacher corps with fundamentally changing the SYSTEM that recruits, trains, places, evaluates, motivates and hold accountable these teachers. 
A major lever for changing the existing system is charter schools, for two main reasons: a) they are laboratories for innovation and are doing a hugely disproportionate amount of the most exciting things in educating K-12 students, especially the most disadvantaged ones; and b) they provide an alternative for desperate parents; and c) in many cities, they provide real competition to the existing, failing system -- and there is now extensive evidence that such competition IS TRIGGERING significant reform and improvement in the regular system.
Exploding the Charter School Myth
Published: August 27, 2006

A federal study showing that fourth graders in charter schools score worse in reading and math than their public school counterparts should cause some soul-searching in Congress. Too many lawmakers seem to believe that the only thing wrong with American education is the public school system, and that converting lagging schools to charter schools would cause them to magically improve...

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