My personal musings about anything that gets on my radar screen--heavily dominated by politics.


Charter Schools and the NAEP

From Diana Jean Schemo in the NYTimes:

A federal Education Department analysis of test scores from 2003 shows that children in charter schools generally did not perform as well on exams as those in regular public schools. The analysis, released Wednesday, largely confirms an earlier report on the same statistics by the American Federation of Teachers.

The department, analyzing the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress test for fourth graders, found charter students scoring significantly lower than regular public school students in math, even when the results are broken down for low-income children and those in cities.

Then, from the House Committee on Education and the Workforce:

U.S. House Education & the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-OH) today called attention to a new report that refutes claims made by charter school opponents about student academic performance in the nation's fledging charter schools. The report, released today by the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), shows there is no measurable difference between white, African-American and Hispanic fourth graders enrolled in charter schools and students of similar backgrounds in traditional public schools in mathematics and reading scores on the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

"This is the second major report released in recent days showing that charter schools are not 'falling short' by comparison to their traditional public school counterparts, as some charter school opponents have claimed," said Boehner.

According to the report, there was no measurable difference in mathematics between the performance of white, African-American and Hispanic fourth-graders enrolled in charter schools and traditional public schools. In reading, there was no measurable difference between students with similar ethnic backgrounds in charter schools and traditional public schools, despite the fact that "charter schools have higher proportions of students from groups that typically perform lower on NAEP than other public schools have."

So which "report" is right?

Maddeningly, it is very likely that both reports are correct. That is the problem with isolated raw datae--without context, they tend only to reveal what somebody wants them to reveal.

For instance, to pick up on the point at the end of the House quote: it is entirely possible that charter schools do perform at a level slightly below the average public school. For instance, little Charlie Charter, a fourth grader, may be reading at only a second grade level, while Peter Public, also a fourth grader, is reading at a third grade level. At a surface glance, CC is behind PP.

But that doesn't interest me very much. Suppose the reason Charlie is in a charter school is because his parents recognized that he was not getting the type of instruction he needed in third grade--a very reasonable supposition. Further suppose that what brought Mr. & Mrs. Charter to this conclusion was that at the end of third grade Charlie was barely reading at a Kindergarten level.

Looked at that way, Charlie has made remarkable progress in the charter school, even though the raw data suggests that the charter school is being "outperformed" by the traditional school.

The question should not be how do charter schools perform in relation to public schools--the question should be how do charter STUDENTS perform in relation to how they could reasonably be expected to perform in a traditional school.

But that's not the end of the contradictions. First, from the Times:

Also, schools that were not chartered by a school district but functioned as independent districts tended to do worse than those over which districts exercised some oversight.

Then from the House Committee Report:

Students attending charter schools where schools administrators had control over teacher and staff employment decisions scored three points higher on average than students who attended charter schools without the ability to make employment decisions.

---At charter schools where administrators had control over curriculum requirements, students scored eighteen points higher on average than students attending charter schools without this leeway.

---Students attending charter schools where administrators had control of finances and autonomous budget authority scored twelve points higher on average than students attending charter schools where administrators did not have this option.

So, how to resolve this apparent contradiction? Well, the Times cites no numbers, employs no expert analysis, and does nothing to demonstrate its point. The House Committee, on the other hand, puts out three very specific, measureable indicators which support its position. Score that argument point for the Charter Schools.

The Times article does reference the House Committee's work, but immediately follows it up with a rebuttal by--surprise, surprise--a teachers' union representative.

Look, I've had some very close dealings with charter schools, and I find them a mixed bag. In some cases they are a wonderful niche environment to serve a population that needs a different approach. I also found it astounding how many resources the charter schoool had at its disposal compared to traditional schools. For a teacher or administrator looking to do something innovative, a charter school is really a great way to go--still within the public system, but (in many cases) largely autonomous and self-governing.

However, charter schools are not a panacea for all that ills education. Many charter schools are subject to abyssmal fiscal management, and many of them fail to ever articulate a clear purpose for their existence. There is also data that suggest schools run by parent oversight committees--as charter schools often are--tend to have staff and administrator turnover rates between three and five times higher than a traditional school. And, believe me, students appreciate and respond to a stable environment. So, in many cases, schools that start out doing extraordinary things become quite ordinary after a few years when they lose all the people who created the school to start with (this tracks with another quote in the Times' piece: the only charter schools that outperformed regular public schools in reading were those that had been in operation for less than a year. Otherwise, test scores generally declined the longer a school had been operating as a charter.

The one thing that all of these contradictions should lead us all to do is to go to the next level--read the NAEP data and research, and take the middle men (Schemo and the House) out.

We should also all recognize what is most often true of every "innovation": charter schools are neither a "magic bullet" (as charter advocates sometimes argue), nor are they the fall of Western Civilization (as teachers unions tend to argue). The beauty of charter schools is that each one of them is, or, at least, CAN and SHOULD be, unique. If a certain charter school meshes with a certain students' need, it can be a wonderful thing. But square students cannot be forced into round schools and expect to thrive.

Sadly, most traditional public schools are round, and students come in many shapes and sizes.

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