New Charter Flap!

Just in time for Thanksgiving! A new report (pdf) from the Department of Education released the other day is reigniting the debate about charter schools. Charter proponents say the report is, if not worthless, next to worthless. Opponents say it’s more evidence that these schools just plain suck and we should stick with the statist system that serves poor kids so well.

Both sides are wrong. Although the lede of today’s New York Times story is:

A new study commissioned by the Department of Education, which compares the achievement of students in charter schools with those attending traditional public schools in five states, has concluded that the charter schools were less likely to meet state performance standards.

In fact, it’s an evaluation of the federal Public Charter Schools Program (FCSP) with one chapter of six containing five state case studies on performance. The evaluation of the FCSP is useful with some interesting data (be sure to see the appendices) on what’s happening with that program.

The utility of the data on performance is limited because it’s now several years old and because in the case of two states, TX and NC, better quality studies that consider growth are available. It’s also a snapshot, though Eduwonk dissents from the CW that such snapshots can tell us nothing. They give a piece of information about one point in time that does have some utility.

So read the whole report, and the appendices on the performance section which are well put together, forthright, clear, and not as cut and dry as either side claims, but remember this caveat about the performance section of the study that comes from the authors themselves. They write (pp. 57):

These limited findings point to the importance of additional analyses of charter school performance because they do not illuminate the reasons that charter schools in the case study states were less likely to meet state performance standards. Additional studies could examine the extent to which charter schools that do not meet the state performance standards serve students with low prior achievement, for example, disabling conditions, or other characteristics that may hinder their achievement and the extent to which certain types of charter schools are more successful in meeting state performance standards.

These findings do not indicate that charter schools were less effective than traditional public schools but suggest that many charter schools will have difficulty meeting the standards established by states under NCLB. With the passage of NCLB, all schools must meet school-level standards or face interventions in the current accountability policy context. Future studies should examine the extent to which charter schools exhibit growth in student performance in addition to whether they meet absolute standards.

These data provide a single snapshot of school-level performance using state performance standards as a measure and controlling for some basic characteristics of students. The findings are important to (and should inform) the policy debate around the implementation of NCLB. However, many other variables affect student achievement. Therefore, future studies must examine charter school performance in more depth.

That’s pretty sound. The data tell us more than some critics are claiming but a lot less than what charter opponents are buzzing about, too. Also, incidentally, despite the above critique of the lede, today’s NYT story is a far cry from their August hatchet job and is pretty sound, too. Unfortunately, it’s likely to set off another counterproductive wave of back and forth rather than much reasoned discussion anyway.

C’est la vie…(the election is over, we can talk French again, right?)

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