Charter School Research

Important new paper from the National Charter School Research Project. Lays out some conceptual issues for charter school research (applicable to school choice research more generally) and is a useful metric to apply various studies against. The project, directed by Robin Lake (at left), hosted a valuable, very well-attended (for a private meeting), and ecumenical meeting last Wednesday at Brookings to discuss and release the paper (Ed Week’s Usually Reliable Robelen reports here). For my money there are a couple of issues:

First, while studies vary in their quality and generalizablility, that worries me less than how they are used. I still think it’s good that charter schools be included in the NAEP, for instance, even though that data is then inappropriately used in some cases. I actually subscribe to the “land of the blind, one eyed person”(that’s the PC version) school of thought and even crude descriptive data is better than nothing if interpreted with appropriate caveats (and even more rigorous studies need to be interpreted with the appropriate caveats and in context). But, charter politics being what it is data are often misused to score political points.

Second, charters and chartering varies so much nationally and increasingly even within states, that studies are going to have to become more granular. As a matter of public policy generalized studies about charters have some utility though less as the data becomes more aggregated. But, in terms of learning from/about specific schools or school types they are of limited use. If NCLB causes a lot of charter conversions this issue will become even more pronounce as there will be more schools called charters that have little in common except that they were lousy schools before they became charters.

Third, I’m not sure how much all this matters, unfortunately. There are folks who hate charters, and will continue to, regardless of the data. At its core this is a debate about power; who should have it and be able to wield it in American education. Conversely, some charter supporters just don’t like the folks who have the power today, teachers’ unions and school districts and so forth, and they’re going to support as much choice as possible regardless of the data. In other words, a lot of this is politics.

But, more choice and pluralism in public education is here to stay. So, in the end, research like this is important to inform the policy process so when the pressure does build-up one way or the other and policymakers turn their attention to this issue there is some empirical work for them to draw on. That’s why the NCSRP is an important undertaking and a project well worth following. Disc: I’m on the advisory board.

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