In Jay Mathews’ Washington Post column Harvard’s Marty West and the American Federation of Teachers Howard Nelson debate the recent AFT charter report.
It’s a worthwhile read if you’re interested in the issue but will likely do nothing to clear the air around the basic issues here. That’s in no small part because West can only wait three paragraphs to accuse the AFT of being hypocrites when it comes to using test score data to make inferences about school quality. He, and several coauthors, unfortunately employed the same argument in a Wall Street Journal column immediately after the AFT report was released and missed a golden opportunity to set the record straight.
It’s a line of argument that is counterproductive for two reasons. For starters, except apparently at the New York Times, there is little doubt among major education journalists about the AFT’s reliability as an objective source of information on these issues. Second, raising these issues obscures the real problems with how the AFT presented the NAEP data (and of course how the NYT reported it) in a cloud of ideological back and forth. People assume that this is just another iteration of the left-right education debate. Unpacking the charter data for lay readers would be a lot more productive than pushing a point that has a lot more to do with the voucher debate than charters. To be fair, West makes a lot of good points about the AFT study, but probably after many readers have stopped reading.
Nelson offers thin gruel. He continues to accuse the Bush Administration of suppressing this and other information about charter schools (Yoohoo! The election is over…we lost. Enough is enough…). Careful readers will see that Nelson is skating on thin empirical ice and frequently seeks to change the topic.
The debate also gets into the recent Hoxby study and is well worth reading. Still, one wishes that the insightful Jay Mathews, who knows how to aggressively moderate a debate and get at the facts, had done more of that here.
West clearly wins on points but it could have been a knockout.