For years many people routinely castigated public schools based on incomplete or misleading data. Some of these are now charter school supporters. So, if turnabout is fair play then there is nothing unfair about today’s big New York Times story about public charter schools.
The American Federation of Teachers fed the NYT the new National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data that included a sample of charter schools. The thrust of the article: Charter schools don’t do as well as other schools, even other urban schools.
Of course, it’s not that simple. For starters most of the charters are new and so this data is better considered as baseline data rather than some sort of final evaluation. In addition, charters tend to serve the most at-risk and struggling students. These can be difficult variables to operationalize, complicating comparisons with other schools even while holding some demographic factors constant.
Most importantly, though, when one controls the grade 4 data for race it turns out there is no statistically significant difference between charter schools and other public schools. But, you’ll search in vain in the Times story for that context. In fact, to the contrary, a chart accompanying the story fails to offer readers any significance tests for the numbers they’re looking at, inaccurately indicating that there are significant differences by race.
Is this important? Yes, since charters in this sample disproportionately serve minority students by an almost 2-1 margin compared to traditional public schools. By the way, don’t take Eduwonk’s word for this, it’s in the AFT report (pdf) which was released today in conjunction with the Times article. See page 10-11.
Is every charter school great? Of course not. Are there too many low-performing ones? Yes. However, the solution to that problem is not to do away with charters but rather to ensure that public policies rigorously weed-out the low-performers while not hamstringing the many high performing public charter schools changing the lives of youngsters every day. For that to happen though requires a détente on all sides of this debate and Eduwonk doesn’t see that happening anytime soon since most charter critics don’t want good charter schools, they want no charter schools and some in the charter movement don’t seem to have much use for the “public” aspects of public schooling.
Incidentally, per the Times story, how long can the AFT continue to trade on the notion that all this is more in sorrow than anger? They just don’t like charter schools, they’re not reluctantly concluding that they don’t work, they’re fervently hoping and working to ensure that’s the case.
Update: CER notes that the race issue notwithstanding, charters did not uniformly under-perform other public schools. Funny, that didn’t make the cut in the Times story either. Dan Okrent, call your office. But, CER also notes that the NAEP tested less than one percent of charter school students, implicitly saying it should be taken with, at least, a grain of salt. Funny, they don’t say that when criticizing achievement in traditional public schools based on other NAEP samples…