Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Despite Push, Success at Charter Schools Is Mixed

The NYT had a cover story on charter schools over the weekend, which gave well-deserved props to Williamsburg Collegiate (part of the outstanding Uncommon Schools network), but which had a number of flaws (see below):

But for all their support and cultural cachet, the majority of the 5,000 or so charter schools nationwide appear to be no better, and in many cases worse, than local public schools when measured by achievement on standardized tests, according to experts citing years of research. Last year one of the most comprehensive studies, by researchers from Stanford University, found that fewer than one-fifth of charter schools nationally offered a better education than comparable local schools, almost half offered an equivalent education and more than a third, 37 percent, were "significantly worse."

Although "charter schools have become a rallying cry for education reformers," the report, by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, warned, "this study reveals in unmistakable terms that, in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well" as students in traditional schools.

Researchers for this study and others pointed to a successful minority of charter schools — numbering perhaps in the hundreds — and these are the ones around which celebrities and philanthropists rally, energized by their narrowing of the achievement gap between poor minority students and white students.

But with the Obama administration offering the most favorable climate yet for charter schools, the challenge of reproducing high-flying schools is giving even some advocates pause. Academically ambitious leaders of the school choice movement have come to a hard recognition: raising student achievement for poor urban children — what the most fervent call a new civil rights campaign — is enormously difficult and often expensive.


Here's a friend with a comment on the article:


I really think the reporter misses a chance to frame positively the movement of excellent urban schools.  Yes, there are lots of bad charter schools, but there's a greater proportion of bad district schools.  At least charter schools are held accountable and closed.  And the very best nonselective public schools are charter schools and the number is growing.  And the philanthropy required based on the numbers in piece is not crazy, especially when you consider that many charters are under-funded relative to their district counterparts.


Here's a critique of the NYT article from the Center for Education Reform:


The Center for Education Reform (CER) is readying a full-scale public information and advocacy campaign after faulty and inaccurate data about charter schools is once again prominent front page news in The New York Times.


In calling on supporters to use National Charter Schools Week—this week—as an opportunity to tell the stories of charter success in their communities, CER said that the organization will bring to light the scores of real data about the achievement, the composition and the character of charter schools in the hopes that editors at papers like The New York Times take a bigger, broader view of the critical reform effort in the future.


According to CER, the Times article's hypothesis, that "the majority of the 5,000…charter schools nationwide appear to be no better, and in many cases worse, than local public schools," is demonstrably inaccurate and based on widely discredited research by a California group called CREDO.


CREDO's work, "contains a serious statistical mistake that causes a negative bias in its estimate of how charter schools affect achievement," according to a widely-cited 2009 analysis by Caroline Hoxby of the National Bureau of Economic Research and Stanford University.


CREDO's conclusions rely on the creation of "virtual twins" from traditional public schools to compare to real charter school kids, a methodology fraught with error. The data used to assess poverty—and thus compare students—is widely acknowledged by the government to be flawed as it is often self-reported and rarely validated.


"Overwhelming, peer-reviewed research demonstrates that charter schools disproportionately serve disadvantaged students and educate them at higher levels than traditional public schools," said Jeanne Allen, president of The Center for Education Reform (CER). "The notion that The New York Times is allowing one biased and discredited report to trump the overwhelming body of evidence demonstrating the success of charter schools is more than troubling, it borders on journalistic malpractice."


Far from underperforming, America's charter schools are generating stellar learning gains in students. Research demonstrates that students in charter schools are more likely to be proficient in math and reading than their public school counterparts—despite the fact that charter schools receive far fewer funds than traditional public schools.


In 2009, the most comprehensive study on charter schools ever performed—on students and schools in New York City—found that low-income, disadvantaged children who went to charter schools for their academic careers boasted the same academic performance levels as their affluent peers in higher-income neighborhoods.


"Charter school success is not up for debate—it is settled fact. Parents across the country know that charter schools are making a positive difference in the lives of their children," Allen said. "In fact, to satisfy the overwhelming parental demand for charter schools, we'd need to double the number of schools available in America today."


Nelson Smith, President of the National Association of Public Charter Schools, responded to Ravitch's use of the CREDO study in her book (http://edreform.blogspot.com/2010/03/is-education-on-wrong-track-nelson.html):


Your book cites the 2009 CREDO report and its adverse national findings about charters, but, given its limitations (including a charter sample dominated by first-year test-takers), a sharper lens is needed. In 2008, researchers Julian Betts and Emily Tang at the University of California at San Diego analyzed a set of charter studies using only the most sophisticated methodologies. They wrote: "Despite considerable variation among charter schools, the overall evidence suggests that charter schools more often outperform than underperform their traditional public school counterparts." We would love to see serious new funding that could broaden such local and statewide apples-to-apples studies to the national level.


In your passion to rethink, you've apparently decided that the book on charters is already closed --although after 18 years, we're just in the opening chapters. Let's remember that the real question is not whether an average of charters works, or whether a group of charters happens to work, but whether the charter model itself can work—allowing variation at the outset, ensuring high accountability for outcomes, and cycling upward with the strongest performers in the lead. As with any innovation, there have been hits and misses. We've learned what kind of laws help produce strong charters, and seen the consequences when oversight is lax. Now we're putting these lessons to work, fueled by new federal funding for expansion and replication of the most effective charter models, and by our own determination to replace the weak performers. (In fact, according to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, large authorizers who oversee most charters are already refusing renew to about 15 percent of charters annually, and revoking a smaller number in mid-course.)


My take on the CREDO study (and overall charter school quality) is as follows:


A) The CREDO study found that students underperformed at charter schools ONLY in the first year (by a large amount), and in EVERY OTHER YEAR, made GREATER progress.  This makes no sense to me, and it makes me question the methodology and validity of the study.


B) Because the number of charter schools is growing rapidly, there are many more first-year charter schools in the study, which isn't exactly a fair comparison vs. established regular public schools.

C) Some states have good charter laws, and it's hard to get a charter – applicants must demonstrate solid financing, a strong educational program, experienced staff, etc.  Other states pretty much give a charter to anyone who applies.  This has two implications: a) States with crappy charter laws have a much higher percentage of crappy charter schools; and b) States with crappy charter laws have MANY MORE charter schools.  In other words, in any broad-based study, the number of schools in states with crappy charter laws is far higher than states (like NY) with good charter laws, which skews studies like CREDO.  Very importantly, when CREDO did a study of New York's charter schools (NY was not part of the original study), they found (even using the same questionable methodology noted above) that charter schools did MUCH better (see: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/charters_better_at_readin_rithmetic_024bR8bAzHq4lp1iWCeeeI#ixzz0bkO7WU7F)


Despite Push, Success at Charter Schools Is Mixed

Published: May 1, 2010


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