Thursday, March 25, 2010

Is Education on the Wrong Track? Nelson Smith responds to Ravitch

Nelson Smith, President of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, responds to Ravitch's misguided critique of charter schools in her book:
Your main contention is that charters "have never done better than regular public schools" on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). As someone who used to head the research and improvement office at the U.S. Department of Education, you must know that NAEP is the wrong barometer for this kind of evaluation. And, as someone who rails against evaluating teachers on the basis of a single test, it's ironic that you return repeatedly to this one measure.
NAEP is a snapshot. It doesn't follow students over time. That's of small consequence when the assessment is used as intended, to paint a broad picture of national progress. But it's not calibrated for a small group of schools--just 175 charters out of nearly 4,000 were sampled in 2007, spread across 40 states. Since charters typically enroll kids who are behind their peers academically (well-documented by RAND and other outfits), it's almost inevitable that, in any given year, charters will do worse, on a comparison of national averages, than district schools.
National NAEP results are also swayed by the larger samples of charter schools in big states. As Andrew Rotherham notes, chartering is powerfully influenced by state policy and regulation--and some of those big states in the NAEP sample have terrible laws and negligent authorizers, which can skew national outcomes.
Looking at NAEP's state-level results, however, you can hardly maintain that charters have "never done better." In 2007 (the most recent year for reading results), in states where sufficient numbers of charter schools were surveyed, charters outperformed other public schools in eight of 13 states at the fourth-grade level, and in ten of twelve states at the eight-grade level. In the 2009 math results, charters outperformed other public schools in ten of 18 states in the eighth grade, and eight of 18 states in the fourth grade. Remember, also, that charters are usually clustered in cities--and for urban schools to compete even this well against statewide results is an accomplishment.
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.)
Is Education on the Wrong Track?
A TNR Symposium.
Nelson Smith
March 21, 2010 | 5:50 pm
From: Nelson Smith
To: Diane Ravitch
Subject: Public charter schools are community schools, providing a model of success that we know can work. They deserve more credit than Ravitch gives them.

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