More Than You Ever Wanted To Know About The Incredible Never Ending Charter Flap…And, I’ve Got A MATCH For You!

Two new charter school studies hit the mean streets yesterday. Harvard’s Caroline Hoxby is re-releasing her national study (pdf) that compared charters to similar schools (with a little more analysis). Meanwhile, the Department of Education’s research operation is releasing their analysis of the NAEP data that garnered so much attention earlier this year.

Senator Bob Dole famously characterized his colleague Phil Gramm as being like a cockroach that just keeps squirming no matter how hard one steps on it. The same can be said of the ongoing charter flap, the latest iteration of which offers little that’s new, and which goes on and on despite the fact that even if everyone agreed that one study was superior to another, the answer would still be inconclusive anyway (for a sensible discussion on all this see this short essay by Ron Zimmer and Brian Gill).

Here, in no particular order, are a few things to consider:

*The punchline from the report, differences less pronounced than most of the press coverage indicates:

“…when comparing the performance of charter and other public school students, it is important to compare students who share a common characteristic. For example, in mathematics, fourth-grade charter school students as a whole did not perform as well as their public school counterparts. However, the mathematics performance of White, Black, and Hispanic fourth-graders in charter schools was not measurably different from the performance of fourth-graders with similar racial/ethnic backgrounds in other public schools.

In reading, there was no measurable difference in performance between charter school students in the fourth grade and their public school counterparts as a whole. This was true, even though, on average, charter schools have higher proportions of students from groups that typically perform lower on NAEP than other public schools have. In reading, as in mathematics, the performance of fourth-grade students with similar racial/ethnic backgrounds in charter schools and other public schools was not measurably different.

There are also instances where the performance of students with shared characteristics differed. For example, among students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, fourth-graders in charter schools did not score as high in reading or mathematics, on average, as fourth-graders in other public schools.”

The best story Eduwonk’s seen is from the LA Times’ Duke Hefland and Nick Anderson and see also this UPI article. This Las Vegas Review editorial cuts to the chase in terms of the preemptive war being launched against charters (see final line). The NYT story is basically an exercise in track covering but includes an interesting nugget on the racial issue. Apparently to point out that race exerts leverage on school performance and is thus an important variable to consider is not to accept the findings of substantial social science research but instead to promote the “soft bigotry of low-expectations”?

The report includes a lot of other information and was able to tease out some other interesting nuggets. Worth reading.

*The release event was apparently (and not surprisingly, considering the line-up) a circus. Here are two takes from Eduwonk correspondents:

“The NAGB almost seemed to wish they hadn’t done the study. It says SO little about actual performance differences, but it gives the press a million different sound bites about the “significantly worse” performance of charters (even though certain reporters had an embarrassingly poor understanding of the meaning of statistical significance). The final word was from [NAGB head] Winnick and he said something along the lines of “Now you see why we struggled with doing this study at all.” It was really that glib.”


“Good objective presentations by Winnick and Peggy Carr from NCES. But then [Deputy Sec. of Ed] Gene Hickok got up and did a shamelessly partisan and vitriolic spin job on the findings that made the Gore presentation of the NAEP reading scores in 2002 look very innocuous. Hickok should have made his comments in the second hour along with Jeanne [Allen of CER] and Bella [Rosenberg of AFT] … As a result it was neither a good day for NAGB’s credibility nor a positive development for constructive discussion of the evidence about charters. I and several other charter proponents in the room were pissed.”

Center for Education Reform writes up their take. Not unbiased observers, to be sure, but also worth reading. When people like NCLR’s Tony Colon become this radicalized, that should be a wake-up call…

*Michael Dobbs at the Post has written on this for two days in a row. One can quibble with the story. (The chart accompanying today’s story seemed either random or calculated to portray charters in a negative light, charter schools didn’t start in Massachusetts but Minnesota per yesterday’s, etc…)

But what Eduwonk’s finds really striking is that Dobbs either has a big-time buried lede or is furthering a smear campaign. He reported yesterday that Harvard Economist Caroline Hoxby had used “misleading” and “faulty” data. (A similar mistake by the AFT was referred to as, well, a mistake.) Today’s article mentions en passant that Hoxby had to correct her data. Apparently there was a mix up with proficiency standards for Washington, D.C. (federal AYP v. another standard) that produced faulty results but has been fixed in the version linked above.

But it’s no secret among the cognoscenti that an anti-Hoxby whispering campaign is in full-swing, insinuating, among other things, that she won’t share her data (It’s on her website.), is using misleading methods (Her method, matching schools by geography and racial composition, is far from ideal but defensible, considering the data limitations in many states.), and is a hypocrite (This one has some validity, she signed that silly ad in The New York Times protesting the paper’s coverage of the original AFT charter school report and dismissing “snapshot studies,” while her most recent study is essentially a “snapshot” study). Of course, on the latter, if inconsistency were oil, most combatants in this debate would wear 10-gallon hats and wipe their noses with $50 bills.

Regardless, newspapers aren’t supposed to be conduits for whispering campaigns. If The Post has evidence that Hoxby engaged in academic misconduct, that’s a big education story. “Tenured and well-known Harvard economist caught in misconduct” would be quite a headline. But, double-standards for errors and darkly insinuating some sort of serious malfeasance strikes Eduwonk as tacky and irresponsible. Either pull the trigger and deliver the goods, or knock it off.

*Proponents of the reorganization of research responsibilities at the Department of Education should be at least moderately pleased. The reforms that Congress passed in 2002 were supposed to ensure a firewall between politics and research. This report is one indication that it’s working. The first the Department’s political appointees heard of this analysis was when they read about it in The New York Times several months ago. Credit Russ Whitehurst, too. He’s worked hard to de-politicize that post and the operation over there and is blameless in this recent back and forth.

*Worth repeating caveat: There are too many low-performing charter schools right now (and too many low-performing urban schools in general). All this back-and-forth should not distract from that reality. The charter “movement” needs to do a better job policing itself on quality. However, there are clear inferences one can draw from state policies now about what sorts of laws are more likely to help on the quality issue and what kinds are likely to hinder. These PPI state case studies offer more information on that, and forthcoming studies on OH and TX will have additional reccomendations.

*In terms of the politics of all this, an editorial yesterday and column today in the NY Post – of all places – should be a sobering reminder for Democrats about the political risk here. Leave aside the merits of expanding educational opportunity–can Democrats really afford to alienate people like this considering the precariousness of the party’s fortunes?

On the larger politics, considering the political character of the country (not just now, but historically) progressives need to ensure that stakeholders feel genuine buy-in to public sector projects. Otherwise it’s too easy for them to whither on the vine, particularly when demographic shifts cause resource constraints. Charters are a promising strategy to increase customization and buy-in to public education. The current strategy of alienating minorities who are understandably frustrated with the outcomes of public schools for their kids (50 percent graduation rates, for example) is politically stupid and in the long run a major threat to support for public education.

Finally, for a ground-level look at all this, enjoy this end-of-year e-mail from the founder of the MATCH Public Charter High School in Boston. Not every charter school will be as good as MATCH, but it and schools like it show what’s possible in a more open sector in education. Pay particular attention to the MATCH Corps, a very cool idea in the ‘nothing is as annoying as a good example’ department.

Q. MATCH moved a mile from Fenway Park in 2002. In 2003, the Sox went to the ALCS. In 2004, they won the World Series. Does MATCH claim full credit or partial credit?

A. Full credit.

Q. What do you think about Pedro Martinez leaving?

A. Pedro earns more in one inning than most teachers earn in one year. I think he could have “roughed it” on the $40 million over three years that the Sox were offering.

Q. How is MATCH doing this year?

A. By any measure, we are having our best year ever, in terms of raw academics, school culture, and fundraising.

Q. Tell me about the academics…

A. There are now 29 open-admissions high schools in Boston; MATCH is again #1 on MCAS proficiency of those schools. Teaching quality is terrific. Best of all, this is our first year of teaching Advanced Placement classes – all seniors must choose among AP biology, calculus, or literature, in addition to the classes they take at Boston University.

Q. How did that AP thing happen?

A. MATCH was chosen as one of two high schools in the nation by the US Department of Education for a program called the Advanced Placement Initiative. Our premise is that in a college-prep school, everyone should have to take and succeed in AP Classes – after all, the whole idea of AP is that they are college class equivalents. If you can’t pass an AP class in high school, you may well flunk out in college, since a little-known fact is that most minority students who start college don’t graduate from college. So we’re the only public high school where AP is required for all students.

Q. Well, that sounds good, even if I don’t recall ever taking AP classes, and don’t know a lick of calc. And, fine, you’re obsessed with college readiness. But isn’t there more to high school than that?

A. There is. This year, with academic rigor finally where we want it, we’ve been able to tackle other areas – like new clubs for karate, drama, bass guitar, hip hop dance. Even better, our 2004 graduates are now in college, and they come back to tell the other kids that the MATCH journey is worthwhile. One (at Boston College) even works part-time as one of our weekend tutors!

Q. What’s up with the people you hired who live on your third floor? Is that like MTV’s Real World?

A. The MATCH Corps is a group of 45 elite recent college grads. They’re essentially a group of super-charged full-time tutors, graduates from the likes of Princeton, Harvard, Notre Dame, et al, working 50 to 60 hours per week for one year with our kids. In exchange, they get an annual stipend of $7200 plus housing. In a way, it’s an “in the trenches” alternative to a graduate program in education. (If the MATCH Corps *were* in fact a Graduate School of Education, then based on the college GPAs and GRE/SAT scores of these 45 teaching fellows, this program 45 people would be tied with Stanford for #1 in the nation – and significantly higher than the other 884 Graduate Schools of Education in the USA….including Harvard!)If you know any recent college grads or college seniors who’d like to apply for August 2005 – July 2006, send them to Last year 450 applied for the 45 spots.

Q. How’s the cash holding up? Do you still need my help for your Annual Fund?

A. Charter school funding remains a political football. This year they cut our per-student funding but created a small facilities allowance. In any case, we can’t survive on just the public funding. Regular Boston high schools usually run until 1.40pm. MATCH is humming each day from 8.30am – 5pm and often until 7pm…with enormous amounts of 1-on-1 attention such that all our kids are in a position to succeed in college.

Q. What’s your goal?

A. As of December 2004, we’ve raised a bit over $100,000 towards our June 2005 $250,000 Annual Fund goal. Every bit helps.

Q. Is this tax-deductible?

A. Yes. And if you happen to have stock which appreciated this year, you can gift the stock and avoid the capital gains tax. [Editor’s note: This is true of almost all charter schools if you’d like to support one.]

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