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August 21, 2004

another thought on charters

I commented earlier on the recent finding that students in charter schools perform somewhat worse than other students on standardized test. This finding was reported in a New York Times lead article that has prompted much criticism. A certain theme has emerged in some of the blog commentary on that article ...

Matthew Yglesias: "'charter school' doesn't really name a kind of school, so much as a kind of procedure for creating a school. Different charters are very different from one another and different jurisdictions have different rules for how a charter school can be created. Aggregate data about charter school performance, then, is much less useful than comparative data about what sorts of charter schools succeed (and what sorts fail) and what chartering systems tend to generate good ones (or bad ones)."

Chester Finn: [C]harter schools are astoundingly varied. We've known for ages that hanging a 'charter' sign over the door doesn't assure a good school, or predict a bad school, nor can one readily generalize about them. In fact, the variability among charter schools surpasses that of regular public and private schools. That's one reason they're hard to study—because having a 'charter' may be less important than the school's core mission, which might be dropout recovery, or the arts, or bilingualism, or giving new options to disabled children. Some of the best schools I've ever been in are charter schools, some of which are blowing the lid off test scores in such vexed communities as Boston, New York and Chicago. And some of the worst—and flakiest—schools I've ever been in are charter schools. Yet people are choosing them."

Fair enough--I agree with this. Whether a school is a charter or not isn't the important thing; what matters is the curriculum, the personnel, the leadership, the mission, the level of parental involvement, and so on. But note what this implies. Charter schools do differ from almost all conventional public schools in a couple of key respects: they compete for students and they develop their own rules and philosophies, independent of educational bureaucracies and teachers' unions. Many people believe that bureaucracies and unions are the problems in education, and that competition and choice are the answers. If that were true, then charters, as a category, should be substantially better than non-charters, even granting that there is variance within the charter category. Instead, they are no better, even controlling for student demographics.

Although EduWonk is much more critical of the New York Times story than I am, I agree with his bottom line: "Charters are about creating space for good providers of public education to enter the educational sector, there is nothing magical about the charter label per se. ... Is every charter school great? Of course not. Are there too many low-performing ones? Yes. However, the solution to that problem is not to do away with charters but rather to ensure that public policies rigorously weed-out the low-performers while not hamstringing the many high performing public charter schools changing the lives of youngsters every day. For that to happen though requires a détente on all sides of this debate and Eduwonk doesn't see that happening anytime soon since most charter critics don't want good charter schools, they want no charter schools and some in the charter movement don't seem to have much use for the 'public' aspects of public schooling."

Posted by peterlevine at August 21, 2004 02:02 PM


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