Charter Schools: Waste, Wonder or Solution?
Controversy is swirling in education circles after results of national test scores show charter schools, considered an alternative to public schools in the No Child Left Behind act, may not be what they are cracked up to be.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress results for 2003 show that fourth graders in charter schools performed about a half year behind their peers in traditional public schools in reading and math even when comparing students eligible for free lunch or comparing students in central cities.
NAEP, otherwise dubbed the nation's report card, is a math and reading test given to fourth and eighth graders nationwide. For the first time, the 2003 results include charter school fourth graders after a May 2002 resolution by the National Assessment Governing Board.
When NAEP results were released last November, charter versus traditional public school results were not publicized, according to Celia Lose, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers.
But AFT's researchers, led by Howard Nelson, dug up the results starting with a Google search of "NAEP data tool" and fed them to The New York Times, which released a front-page story in August. "Charter schools, in every comparison [including race], were at a lower level," Nelson says, despite the very low numbers of the sample size that would create an insignificant statistical comparison among black and/or Hispanic students.
But the story created an uproar among educators, including the Charter School Leadership Council, Edison Charter Schools and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a charter supporter and an organization that asked for the comparison between charter and public schools in NAEP.
With the presidential election next month, it is worth noting that President Bush supports charter schools, as does Sen. John Kerry, although Kerry opposes vouchers.
While AFT is "not anti-charter school," Lose says, the results reveal that "charter school students do worse than or as well as similar students in traditional public schools."
So despite some popular thought, charter schools are "not the magic pill for what ails traditional public schools," Lose says.
Beyond the Statistics
Charter school proponents disagree with results presented in the Times, saying the information didn't account for race and didn't show how charter students usually start off below grade level and have to play catch up.
U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige issued a statement, saying in part that the article failed to distinguish between students falling behind and those "climbing out of the hole." "The thousands of names on waiting lists to attend charter schools attest to the need for these vital educational options," he added.
"This is sloppy, sloppy, sloppy statistical work," says Andy Smarick, director of Charter School Leadership Council. "They didn't control for race" considering that black students tend to perform lower on standardized tests while comprising a larger percentage of charter school populations than they do in traditional public schools.
"Charter school students are in general more likely to be poor, more likely to be minority, more likely to have entered a charter school one or more grades behind others in terms of student achievement," adds Justin Torres, research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
And despite claims that charter schools are not accountable, charter schools that fail do shut down after two to five years depending on state law, charter supporters say.
The Education Leaders Council released a statement stating there is no statistical difference in test results after accounting for race. "While these particular figures are false, we adamantly agree that in cases where a child attends a school that fails him, we must remove him from that situation," states CEO Lisa Graham Keegan. "Given the AFT reaction to what is a false conclusion, we can only assume that where such a finding of failure is true, they will agree with us that the child needs a better choice."
Edison Schools, which runs Edison Charter Schools, operates 60 charter schools nationwide. Edison plans to expand significantly this school year. While the company struggled two years ago with falling stock prices, it's now a private company showing consistent student achievement gains, says spokesman Adam Tucker.
Tucker says all the outburst of emotion the Times story evoked reveals that "there is a very, very strong serious committed belief that charter schools are an essential option to school reform."
The story failed to explain the gains that charter students are making. "You have to understand how schools are improving," Tucker says. "One snapshot does a disservice to progress."
While education still has a long way to go to serve students, Tucker says from Edison's perspective, students two years ago that had proficiency levels in the single digits in math and reading are now in the 20-30 percent proficiency range. And that's progress, he says.
According to the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, from 2000 to 2002, charter schools run by education management organizations, or EMOs, such as Edison, made greater gains in student achievement than other charter schools. The study examined test score data over three years at 90 EMO-managed charter schools in 10 states, most of which were in Michigan. Most of them started out as extremely low-performing, with higher poverty rates and a much higher proportion of black students than other charters and public schools.
"This suggests that bringing in management expertise and running a charter school can have a beneficial effect on test scores," states Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center. "It looks like management expertise matters."
Tucker adds that private management is a "great option." "Typically, charters run by independent boards have a real commitment to improve educational options. We have curriculum and training programs and back office support, data analysis and leadership training for principals."
Meanwhile, Alfie Kohn, education speaker and author of the recent book, What Does it Mean to be Well-Educated: And More Essays on Standards, Grading, and Other Follies, opposes for-profit charter schools that aim to "make a quick buck" and use scripted instruction and harsh discipline.
"I have deep reservations about charter schools based on the way that enemies of democratic public schooling are trying to use them as a wedge to bring the process of privatization," Kohn says. "I wish I could point to this study with grim satisfaction with how it reveals the inferiority of charter schools, but all it shows is poorer preparation in inadequate measures."
Angela Pascopella is features editor.