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Charter Schools

Tuesday, March 08, 2011
In honor of Leslie-MB, I'm going to start off with charter schools. Let me begin by saying that in principle I have nothing against charter schools. The idea of creating experimental laboratories of education reform that are under the loose supervision of public authorities is a good one. I especially like the original vision of charter schools, which would be organized by teachers eager to try out new means of teaching students. Seriously, let a thousand flowers bloom: modified curricula, team teaching, alternative assessments, differing class schedules, ability grouping, etc. etc. In the beginning charter schools looked like a wonderful opportunity to field-test ideas about improving eduction. If the charter school movement had stuck to this original conception, I would be moderately supportive.

Sadly, in practice charter schools have not worked out that way. Now we can't know for sure how innovative charter schools are because there isn't a lot of research on the subject. Which should tell us something! I mean, if the whole idea behind charters is creating new educational methods, why isn't there an avalanche of rigorous data? To the extent that we do know what's happening in charters, it appears that on the whole charters teach students in ways quite similar to traditional public schools. The chief "innovation" of most charter schools is to avoid having teachers unions. The most successful charters, like KIPP, have adopted a model that pushes its teachers extremely hard - we're talking 60+ hours a week hard. The results are predictable: high teacher turnover, periodic bouts of union activity, and a model that can't be scaled up. (To be fair, some evidence suggests that the higher turnover is due to the kind of teacher that is hired by charters rather than personnel policy, but this hardly makes things better)

There is a huge volume of literature analyzing the effects of charter schools, some of a fair amount of rigor and some not. Meta-analysis by CREDO studying the overall effects of charters suggests that charter school performance is very similar to traditional school performance. Some are good, some are bad, and most provide an education that is pretty much the same as that of traditional schools. This is consistent with my impression of the research literature: that on balance charter schools as a whole are no better than other schools, once background characteristics and the like are controlled for (that last is a really vital point).

Now on one level these ambiguous results shouldn't be a surprise. If charter schools are adopting innovative teaching methods, we should expect results that are roughly comparable to other schools. However, even if charter schools ARE being innovative, we STILL wouldn't expect their performance to be radically better than traditional schools for the simple reason that not all innovations succeed. After all, if improving education were easy the regular K-12 system would have done so ages ago. Finally, there's the possibility that a focus on innovation can actually reduce student achievement.

With such limited evidence that charter schools are superior to traditional schools, one wonders why there is such a powerful constituency in favor of them. I think it stems from several sources. There are people who believe that the regular K-12 system is ineffective through some mix of bureaucratic corruption, teacher incompetence, union malfeasance, overregulation, or what have you. There are also people who, influenced by neoliberal market models, have simply deduced that a choice-based system will inevitably lead to higher performance. There are wealthy foundations who are looking for a "big win" by identifying THE educational model. There are politicians who are looking for an easy political fix to education, something that makes it look like they are "doing something."

The problem with many charter school advocates is that they have confused a mechanism for identifying educational innovations with a direct instrument for improving education. Charter schools are a means, but its most passionate champions are treating it as an end.

To boil it down even more, let me say that if the charter school advocates were right, if introducing market mechanism in education and maximizing "administrator flexibility" were the secret to educational improvements, if charter schools were the panacea that its supporters often suggest, we would already know it. There are thousands of charters serving millions of students, and so far we just haven't seen the dramatic improvements in student performance that we've been promised.

None of this is to say that there aren't very good charter schools out there. There most certainly are. There are also very poor ones. As far as I'm concerned, any pundit or policymaker (or moviemaker) who breezily argues that charters are the cure for our nations' educational ills either don't know what they're talking about or pimping an agenda. Either way they should be treated with scorn.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 1:16 PM
  • I agree 100%. I think what makes me uneasy about charter schools is what you highlighted: the lack of research.

    Of course, such lack of research on recent innovation isn't exclusive to charter schools. The school district where I grew up was always "innovating" in one way or another, which seemed to make it impossible to do any kind of real measurement. It would switch standardized tests, add school uniforms, segregate classes by gender, set up new magnet programs, bus kids hither and yon, try out alternative scheduling, set up "academies" within schools, open nontraditional campuses, etc. There never seemed to be a moment where the district could take a benchmark.

    By Blogger Leslie M-B, at 3:51 PM  
  • Well, usually you really can't be sure of the effects of a policy until 3-5 years in (if ever). Constant turmoil is a definite problem.

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 4:37 PM  
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