Now again comes yet another study agitating the old debate about whether students learn more in ‘charter schools’ or in ‘district schools’. The Stanford researchers suggest not; others say yes: CREDO didn’t look far enough down the students’ experience in the charter schools. Some studies say: No sure. Others conclude: It depends: Sometimes yes; sometimes no.
This kind of thing is not really helping us move ahead very much, is it? I ask this in all seriousness, partly because I am genuinely puzzled that so many researchers I like and respect engage in this comparison-among-jurisdictions, and partly because by feeding the ideological and political debate it obstructs clear thinking about strategy.
I have no qualifications to quarrel with the statistical analysis. I’m sure it is possible to relate student scores to particular schools; charter and district, public and private, and to draw conclusions about the category in which, overall, students ‘do better’. What puzzles me is that it must be equally possible to get data and to do similar analysis about student scores in, say, one-story buildings and two-story buildings, or east-facing schools and west-facing schools.
A report concluding that students learn more in one-story schools than in two-story schools probably would not be considered useful. But ‘charter’ and ‘district’ are just structures, aren’t they? Surely students learn not from the structure but from what the organizers put into it; from what they read, see, hear and do. So shouldn’t researchers and analysts be looking to see what the schools have students reading, seeing, hearing and doing; looking to see what the school is as a school, and relating student scores to that?
‘To charter’ is a verb; chartering is a platform on which teachers and others create schools. A chartered school is not a kind of school; at least not in terms of its approach to learning. The whole idea was to leave it open for their organizers to try new approaches; for the new sector to operate as a kind of R&D program for K-12. And it does. While many chartered schools are conventional in their approach, the sector contains more innovation than research has yet identified. Probably more innovative schools in the district sector, too. A few researchers, like Jeff Henig at Teachers College at Columbia University, are now looking inside the black box of ‘charter’ and ‘district’ to distinguish the differences. More should.
All this surfaces an uncomfortable truth: that education research does not know how to describe schools as schools. Amazingly, this is a field without a taxonomy. Imagine zoology or geology without a taxonomy! One could be created, using a framework developed by Mark Van Ryzin on a Spencer Foundation grant. Perhaps this is what it will take to get us beyond “This structure performs better than that structure”.