Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Urban Charter Schools

Last March, an interesting study was released by a group called the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO).  It is based at Stanford University (not the Hoover Institution) and is funded by a Walton family endowment, which CREDO claims -- credibly, I think -- does not influence its research or conclusions.  

For years now, CREDO has compared the educational achievements of students in charter schools with those of students in traditional public schools.  In 2009, it famously found that charters did no better than average public schools.

Since then, charters have refined their methods, trying new approaches and adopting the ones that work.  In addition, the worst charters have been closed.   

This year's CREDO study evaluated city schools. For one group of students, it found that charters make a great big, positive difference.

The group:  inner-city minority children.

The charters in Newark, NJ stood out.  Over the years in Newark, significant funding increases and changes of leadership have not moved the needle on public school results.
These were the study findings:

     -- In math, 77 percent of charter students were doing better than their peers in traditional schools; 23 percent were doing equally well; none were doing worse.

     -- In reading, 69 percent were doing better; 31 percent were equalling public school achievement; none were doing worse. 

The report's overall conclusion:

"Across all urban regions, Black students in poverty receive the equivalent of 59 days of additional learning in math and 44 days of additional learning in reading compared to their peers in traditional public schools. Hispanic students in poverty experience the equivalent of 48 days of additional learning in math and 25 days of additional learning in reading in charter schools relative to their peers in traditional public schools." 

Another point: 

"These trends are strong enough that by the time a student spends four or more years enrolled in an urban charter school, we can expect their annual academic growth to be 108 days greater in math and 72 days greater in reading per year (emphasis mine) than their peers in traditional public schools."

The report added that, as charter leaders learn the needs of local children and their communities, they adjust their programs to address those needs specifically. 

I think the last point is key.  The new schools superintendent in Oakland, Calif. recently told his principals that they should think less about how they wanted to teach children and more about how the children in their schools learned.  Made sense to me.

But change is hard, and old bureaucracies do not turn on a dime.  When traditional schools are as broken as the ones in Newark, trying new things is an uphill slog and the easy way is to do more of the same.  This can be hard on students.  


Not all inner-city charters fared well in the study report.  It concluded that charters in Florida, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada were in many cases getting worse results than traditional public schools.  

One good thing about charters is that they are given only a limited number of years to prove their worth, and the failing ones are shut down. It appears that several states need to exercise that prerogative.

The Critiques

All the people who liked the 2009 study that showed charters weren't working now think the current study, which says charters have upped their game, are condemning the 2015 report.  
The National Education Association has decried the results. This was to be expected.  It seems to me that the union's pursuit of industrial-style labor practices in the profession of teaching has made it more difficult to improve instruction and advance the best interests of students.  (I speak of the NEA here, not individual teachers.)

Another criticism of the report is that it is an effort to turn wonderful public schools over to evil corporations.   Personally, if I were an inner-city parent given the opportunity to put my kid in a better school, I'd jump at the chance, whoever ran the place.   

Third is the usual complaint -- the existence of charter schools hurts public schools because all the motivated parents abandon the public schools, leaving behind only the most difficult students. 

This of course is bunk.  There 20,000 children on waiting lists for charter schools in New Jersey; in New York City, 50,000 children are waiting.  That's a lot of motivated parents who are frustrated because their children are stuck in schools that don't work.   Their students' lives matter.  

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