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“Do Charter Schools Really Work?”

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Over at the Dixie Pig blog, Del. Scott Surovell asks, “Do charter schools really work?”  If you listen to politicians like Gov. Bob McDonnell, former President George W. Bush, former President Bill Clinton, and current President Barack Obama, the answer is “yes.”  The answer is also “yes” if you listen to the Washington Post editorial board, which argued last fall that opponents of charter schools “can’t claim any longer that these non-traditional public schools don’t succeed.”  So, the debate is settled?  The rush should be on to crank up charter schools all over America?

Hold on there, not so fast, whippersnappers!  As today’s New York Times writes:

But for all their support and cultural cachet, the majority of the 5,000 or so charter schools nationwide appear to be no better, and in many cases worse, than local public schools when measured by achievement on standardized tests, according to experts citing years of research. Last year one of the most comprehensive studies, by researchers from Stanford University, found that fewer than one-fifth of charter schools nationally offered a better education than comparable local schools, almost half offered an equivalent education and more than a third, 37 percent, were “significantly worse.”

Although “charter schools have become a rallying cry for education reformers,” the report, by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, warned, “this study reveals in unmistakable terms that, in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well” as students in traditional schools.

Just to reiterate: 37% of students do worse and fewer than 20% of students do better in charter schools. If true, and there’s no particular reason to believe this study is flawed, that would certainly make me less enthused about this idea.

But wait, it gets worse. As Del. Surovell points out, charter schools also “do not do anything to reduce school expenditures,” they promote the “idea that a child’s future is the function of a lottery,” and they “dilute interest in and support for local schools in our public school system.” Again, none of this sounds in any way appealing. So why the big push for charter schools by politicians on both left and right? Thoughts?

  • I’m rather neutral on charter schools.  Mostly because as a parent of a child who has gone through a school system recently, I can see the appeal.  No matter how hard schools try (and I believe that many of them try very hard) they are rather closed systems of operation.  This creates a “one size fits all” mentality (which is NOT the same as saying that an individual classroom teacher does this, which hasn’t been my experience at all) which is fine if your child “fits” and a huge headache if she doesn’t.

    A child who is sensitive and creative is not likely to need the same type of education as a student who is analytical and hands on.  The most well known debate is the read debate — whole language works for many students, but phonics is the solution for others.  Another example is math (hotly debated among parents here in Fairfax County.)  Right now we use a more “user friendly” math that would have been wonderful for a student like me (who HATED math) but drives my own son crazy.  Schools, as systems, with budgets and trained faculty, and a myriad of other reasons, have to make these types of choices every day.  It isn’t a matter of making a “good” choice over a “bad” choice, but the fact that the choice must be made for the school to function at all.

    Charter schools can help alleviate some of this systemization, however, they must realize that as they become more established, they risk falling into the problem that they tried to alleviate, without the same ballasts that can keep a typical public school together, even though hard times.  The very ephemeral quality that is so appealing in a charter school (if it doesn’t work out, you can go somewhere else) makes it hard to get institutionalized and structured long-term support.  Thus, you get a lot of charter schools that explode on the scene that can’t make the grade (pun intended) a few years later.

    When Charter schools work well, they can be a great complement to any well-run school system.  That is the best of both worlds.  When they are being used to replace a poorly run school system, you often get the worst of both worlds.  Given that most school systems fall somewhere in between those extremes, a given charter school in a system may be an asset of liability, depending mostly on the people involved.  Which isn’t a very strong basis upon which to build long-term.

  • Teddy Goodson

    charter schools are pushed (and pushed with self-righteous vigor) by the entire conservative crew is not to improve the education of their little darlings. It is to prevent “government indoctrination” of the minds of those little darlings. Investment advisory newsletters and conservative rags of every description rail against government (i.e., public) schools as factories to indoctrinate the youth in favor of statism.

    Remember, the conservatives of today are so anti-government they see public schools as a threat to all of their most sacred world views—– the Texas School Board’s re-write of American history is another prong of their frantic effort to control the minds of their young, and is an example of what happens when they turn their attention from starting charter schools with taxpayer money to “reforming” existing schools when the conservatives rule the state so thoroughly that public schools become their instrument, not that nebulous bunch called “the government.”

    There is no substitute for determined ignorance.

  • Elaine in Roanoke

    An entire career spent as a public school teacher of English (I took the course work to become an administrator, but I couldn’t leave the classroom, my first love.) taught me a bit about what constitutes a “successful” school:

    1. A faculty that is knowledgeable in the subjects they teach, with a love for the variety of children who will fill the desks in their classrooms. Some will be good students, some not, but all have something to offer.

    2. An administrative staff who understands that their first job is to facilitate the work done by the teaching faculty.

    3. Parents who support the school and who keep a close watch on the education of their children. After all, the children they send to us are their bequest to the next generation. They entrust the school with their hope for the future.

    4. Students who realize that learning is also their responsibility. I never could “force” a student to learn. I was a teacher, not a magician. Learning is not a passive reception of something; it requires commitment.

    5. That spark of fun that can set a classroom on metaphorical “fire” with the joy of learning something new.

    (By the way, in 32 years of teaching, I never met a student who absolutely did not want to learn. The hard part is to unlock that curiosity in each of us. Perhaps some charter school can do that, but so can the public school down the street or the parochial school somewhere else.)

  • jack

    My eldest daughter got a much better education at a school that was not doing well on standardized tests.  She was taught Greek and Roman history, but the tests were on US history.  Getting hammered as a “failing school,” the administration changed curricula, and the test scores improved while the quality of the education declined.

    We also have significant verbal components to the math tests, so Chinese students who are three grade levels above average computationally, fail the tests because of word problems.

    In my experience, teaching to the test does not improve the children’s education.  If charter schools are refusing to teach to the tests, they will not compare well.

  • Hugo Estrada

    Charter schools are risky. The same flexibility that can make them great can make them very bad. Or just go out of existence, as it happened to a college student that I met while working at a library. In her experience, the idealistic teachers with no experience couldn’t take the stress of teaching in Washington DC. And even when one is dealing with a self-selected group of people, the parent of children who are  willing to take a risk for their children’s education, you still have to deal with a number of socio-economical problems that people who didn’t grow poor or as a minority have no idea that existed or how to deal with them.