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The Evidence On Charter Schools


I still think it's hiding the ball on the Mathematica 2010 nationwide study to emphasize the no-overall-differences finding, when the subgroup finding is so much more interesting and relevant: " We found that, among the higher-income group (those not certified for free or reduced-price meals), charter school admission had a negative and statistically significant effect on Year 1 mathematics scores and Year 2 reading and mathematics scores. . . . Among the lower-income group, charter school admission had a positive and significant impact on Year 2 mathematics scores. Moreover, the difference in impacts between the higher- and lower-income groups was statistically significant for all outcomes except Year 1 reading scores. The findings suggest that the study charter schools had positive effects in mathematics for more economically disadvantaged students and negative effects in both reading and mathematics for more economically advantaged students." In other words, charter schools helped poor kids but harmed rich kids. Not that harming anyone's achievement is a good thing, but one can hardly imagine a better way to close the achievement gap. So for people who are interested in the achievement gap, it would be spectacularly wrongheaded to think of the Mathematica study as anything but highly supportive evidence.

Stuart, I'm not sure how I'm "hiding" anything, given the fact that I mentioned explicitly the findings by prior achievement and duration of attendance. MD

Yes, but it deserves more emphasis. From the perspective of someone who keenly cares about the achievement gap, that finding from Mathematica should be the headline of a blog post, not something that is barely mentioned in passing in a single phrase in the middle of a dozen paragraphs devoted to arguing that charters overall make little or no difference.

Asking whether charter schools are any better than traditional publics is like asking whether a "motor boat" will beat a barge in a race across the Atlantic. The correct answer? "It depends." To be clear, a "charter" refers to nothing other than a governance structure. The board of directors of a state-charter typically does not answer to a local BOE. That is the extent of the structural differences between charters and traditionals. Sounds like a small difference, right? Well, as a result of that small governmental difference, the charter is not required to hire administrators from the existing system. (There goes patronage politics and typical BOE cronyism) It is also not required to start out with a collective bargaining contract (Out with sclerotic adult centered negotiations over things like bus duty, extended days, and summer school). So a seemingly small change in governance and accountability can make all the difference in the world, or it might mean no change in performance. So back to the boat analogy. If its a smallish motor boat with one 10 hp outboard engine, an untrained crew, and not enough fuel, we can expect that the barge however sluggish will belch its way to victory. The 2nd place motorboat may never even make into the harbor. If however, the motorboat has 2 200hp outboard engines, an excellent skipper, a trained and motivated crew, and plenty of fuel, well, it wins the race by far. The barge will always be the barge. It wasn't built for speed. It is ludicrous to suggest that it be re-built for speed. It is also ludicrous to conclude that if 50% of motorboats don't run properly then NO motor boat is any good. The fact that 17% of charters outperform their host ditricts is very promising and is the successful conclusion of our 20 year charter school experiment. Next steps? Close the bad charters down. And replicate the great ones a rapidly as possible.

Uh, Jeff...? A motorboat race isn't a good metaphor for education. How many passengers does your motorboat have to toss overboard to reach the speed it was "built for"? Schools are built to educate the children in them. The notion that "patronage politics" is out the window for charters is even further from reality. Bloomberg has built an empire of patronage with his charter awards in New York City, for instance. The Grassroots Education Movement has released a powerful documentary film exploring the real impact of charters on education in NYC. People are showing it all over the country, and you can get a copy and show it yourself to any honest groups of people who want to understand how charters can also work to damage communities in their competitive "races" to the public trough. Just click, "order DVD" Matt, I Googled around but I couldn't find anyplace where you've discussed the film, or GEM. You've seen it, haven't you? You should, because you did take a leading role in confronting the false narrative of the original Superman propaganda film. I especially hope you will discuss it up there, under your Shanker Institute byline, where such discussions belong (don't they?) Also, take a look at Stan Karp's recent post on Common Dreams: I'll quote at length from hopeful sign #3: "The two large teacher unions, the AFT & the NEA, have had mostly weak and defensive responses to the policy attacks of the past few years. But they are being pressed by both their members and by reality to develop more effective responses... Years of failing to effectively mobilize their membership or develop effective responses to school failure in poor communities have taken a big toll on the ability of our unions to lead the charge in defending public education. But their role remains crucial and activists have begun to rebuild that power on the basis of new politics and new coalitions with the communities schools serve." There's a conversation going on about the heart and soul of the union movement, and the Shanker Blog should be part of it. You should be part of it, and in fact you already are. Step forward, and talk about it.

By the way, Stuart, as your quoted passage notes, there was no effect on reading scores of low-income students, so the statement that these charters "helped poor kids" is really only half true. The negative effects for non-poor students were, in contrast, significant and meaningful in both subjects (so you're right - this might still close the achievement gap in reading). It's also important to keep in mind that these are relative and not absolute effects.

I really appreciate the thoughtful analysis of the charter research. I also appreciate your focus on trying to identify the underlying reasons for school success, regardless of governance model. It is no doubt important to look at actual practice, but the question of governance model still needs to be addressed. Some states are still grappling with whether to adopt charter laws and states with charter laws may want to improve them (or get rid of them). Test-based evidence is important and there are still questions in this area. There are also other factors to consider such as diversity/segregation, how well all students are served (especially special needs and ELL students), other student outcomes, and how well the governance models promote democratic involvement in schools and society. I would love to hear a broader discussion from this site on these other questions.

So what? Oodles of educational interventions affect math scores more than reading.

One thing I don't see mentioned much is how much per pupil spending correlates with charter performance. The recent Mathematica study mentioned above showed wide variation in both test scores AND per pupil spending (from just over $5K to just over $20K per pupil), but surprisingly I don't see any analysis done on this in the study.

Matthew; I'm not sure what you mean by "very well done" studies in New York. For one thing, test scores in New York have been manipulated to make the schools (all schools) look to be better performing than has been the reality. Does your statement account for that? Did you mean the Hoxby studies? her work has been chewed over and spit out by the very CREDO you have mentioned. This constituted a "peer review" that Hoxby rarely subjects her work to. CREDO found Hoxby's methodolgy to be wanting in several respects. Stirred up quiet a little controversy in the so, so respectable halls of Stanford. It should be mentione too, that CREDO is not just at Stanford. CREDO is part of the right-leaning (totally bent over, actually) Hoover Institution. The computers must have been melting down the day the CREDO charter study was released. The right-wing, pro-charter/voucher, foundations that support Hoover could not have been pleased with those conclusions and some nasty emails must have been sent.



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