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August 17, 2004

the latest on charter schools

Charter schools are publicly-funded institutions that operate independently of the main educational system. Each one develops its own ideas about curriculum, governance, admissions, discipline, and financial matters, negotiates an appropriate contract with the local or state agency that will fund it, and recruits students to fill its classrooms. In an earlier post, I argued that charter schools were not very promising means to improve student achievement (as measured by standardized test), but they were valuable because they gave Americans opportunities to "propose solutions to public problems, band together voluntarily, and then work directly to implement [their] ideas."

Today's New York Times leads with the news that students in charter schools scored lower than other public school students on almost every part of the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). This is a very preliminary finding. Possibly, charter schools are more effective than other public schools, yet they attract a more disadvantaged student population, and this is why their scores are lower. As Tom Loveless commented after the release of his earlier study of charters, "One possible explanation for the lower test results is that the charter schools are not doing a very good job ... But an equally plausible explanation is that charters attract large numbers of students who are struggling academically in public schools before ever setting foot on a charter school campus."

In any case, strong supporters of charter schools are evidently shocked by the raw difference in student performance. "'The scores are low, dismayingly low,'" said Chester E. Finn Jr., a supporter of charters and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, who was among those who asked the administration to do the comparison." Finn and his colleagues apparently felt sure that schools that competed for students would dramatically outperform conventional public institutions.

The results reported in today's Times suggest that charters are (at best) only slightly more effective than standard schools; and they are probably less good on average. Since charter schools operate in a competitive market, this finding should worry people who believe that competition is the best solution to educational problems. I have always been skeptical of that theory. After all, by what mechanism should competition improve schools? Perhaps

1) ... by motivating teachers and administrators to work harder? Competition might force schools to shed the individual burn-outs and shirkers in their workforce. However, I doubt that a lack of motivation is the major problem in schools. Many educators are already overworked and underpaid. Nor will teachers and administrators be motivated to expand the size of their schools, since they don't profit from expansion, and it may weaken their institutions as communities.
2) ... by promoting experimentation and developing better models? Maybe, but this assumes that there are cost-effective, replicable "solutions" that could be developed in one school and implemented elsewhere. It is not clear that education works like that.
3) ... by providing more options to parents/guardians and students? Diversity and choice are good, but they can be provided in many ways--not only through competitive market systems. A typical suburban high school rivals a shopping mall in the number of choices it offers its students. My sense is that skillful and motivated kids benefit from choice, but kids who start on the wrong track simply make bad choices and get into worse trouble.

People like Chester Finn not only believe in competition; they also believe that most public schools--or at least most urban public schools--are scandalous failures. It certainly is true that graduates (not to mention drop-outs) of urban school systems are poorly prepared for a competitive labor market. But it is not clear that the schools themselves are doing a poor job with the resources they have. It's always worth asking: "Compared to what?" Compared to state-funded but competitive and innovative charter schools, standard schools appear to be doing fairly well.

Now that the raw difference in test scores has turned out to favor the non-charter schools over the charters, the government's attitude toward research seems to have changed. According to the Times:

In a significant departure from earlier releases of test scores, Mr. Lerner said the charter school findings would be formally shown only as part of a larger analysis that would adjust results for the characteristics of charter schools and their students.

In the 1990's, the National Assessment Governing Board had rejected requests from states for such analyses, with Mr. Finn, then a member of the board, contending that explanatory reports would compromise the credibility of the assessment results by trying to blame demographic and other outside factors for poor performance.

Although I haven't read Finn's remarks from the 1990s, I suspect he argued that it would be morally wrong to adjust test scores for factors like income and race, since that would imply that there was something intrinsically wrong with being poor or belonging to a minority group. Some conservatives advocate color-blind research as well as color-blind law and public policy. I'm sure they sincerely hold this view. I would respond that race is always only a proxy for something else; but we typically find differences by race, and we need to analyze them in order to develop appropriate responses. Likewise for family income, parental education, and gender.

Anyway, Finn and his colleagues expected that charters would perform better than non-charters on the NAEP. They may have feared that this advantage would be reduced once demographic factors were included in a statistical analysis. When charters scored worse than standard schools, there was suddenly an appetite for multivariate statistical models. The best hope of charter proponents is that those schools will score higher than standard institutions once we adjust for race, income, prior performance of students, urban residence, etc. However, an AFT study (pdf, p. 17) finds that charter school students are less likely to be poor than other students in the same districts. While much more research needs to be done, it appears that charter school students come from more advantageous backgrounds than other students, and yet score lower on the NAEP. I continue to favor charters because of their potential for democratic and civic renewal, but I wouldn't argue that they raise test scores.

Follow up: Robert Garcia Tagorda led me to the AFT's 2004 study of Charter Schools, which I should have seen earlier. In this study, charters performed no better, but not much worse, than non-charters, controlling for student demographics, location, etc. Tagorda and other critics of the AFT and the Times think that this report favors charters, because they performed almost as well as other schools; the gap reported in the Times article vanishes once when controls for demographics. [The previous sentence is not fair to Tagorda; see his comment.] But one could just as easily interpret the results as an argument against competition as a panacea. Even though charters compete for students, they get slightly worse test scores than standard schools with comparable populations.

Various bloggers--for instance, Togorda, EduWonk, and Daniel Drezner--see the AFT's fingerprints on the Times story and assume that the union is working against charters. Drezner says, "Shame on the Times -- and its editorial board, for that matter -- for buying the AFT spin hook, line and sinker." It does seem likely that the AFT prompted the story. But that doesn't mean that the union is an implacable enemy of charters. AFT President Al Shanker first proposed the whole concept in 1988. The people I know at the union remain generally in favor. Perhaps the AFT isn't trying to destroy charters but just wants more rigorous research, now that we've seen a sequence of relatively discouraging preliminary results.

If you were worried that charter schools were bad for education, then the AFT study suggests that you can relax. I wasn't worried about that--I guessed that they would be marginally beneficial. If, however, you believed that charter schools would quickly and substantially raise test scores, because they operate in a free and competitive market, then the AFT study should send you back to the old drawing board.

Posted by peterlevine at 10:34 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

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