Charter School Dust-Up Returns…And, Your Chance To Win A CD!

New book from Economic Policy Institute about charter schools, in particular last year’s “dust-up” about the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) charter school report. Overall, a good indication of what’s genuinely new in here can be found in the title, “The Charter School Dust-Up”, which is unoriginal itself. Nonetheless, there are a few parts that reward close reading though those interested in the state of play on charter research can save a lot of time and just read this essay by Paul Hill and continue to look on a state-by-state basis for good and bad policy and achievement data. Few thoughts:

First, it is worth noting that EPI is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. The AFT head sits on EPIs board of directors and there is a financial relationship. Obviously, none of that is dispositive in terms of this or any other product, but it’s certainly relevant context about a book that purports to objectively analyze the dust-up about an AFT study. It’s a poor reflection on Teachers College Press, the co-publisher, that they didn’t insist on such a basic and relevant disclosure.

Second, two buried ledes. #1, in the end, the book is arguably more about the AFT’s position on No Child Left Behind than it is about charter schools. EPI seeks to forge a consensus that no schools should be judged by snap-shot testing. In fact, in doing so, they chastise the AFT and The Times for “over-interpreting” the NAEP data in their reporting.

Couple of problems with this consensus. For starters, NCLB allows states to average test scores over several years so the accountability mechanism is not really a “single test” as some critics contend. More importantly, in terms of research, yes, value-added studies are ideal and work like the recent Ladd report about North Carolina is a good benchmark to strive for. But if every state had data like North Carolina we wouldn’t be having this debate about charter school performance in the first place! Right now relatively few states have the data capacity to facilitate this sort of analysis. Likewise, states are similarly mostly ill-positioned to put in place value-added accountability systems in lieu of NCLB’s current provisions despite the flavor of the month character of the rampant enthusiasm for them. In most states it’s a solution that is still many years away and also introduces all sorts of other issues and biases. In the meantime, something has to be done in terms of school accountability. And, technical issues notwithstanding, make no mistake, the core politics of NCLB won’t abate with value-added. It’s a sure bet that right when the time comes when there will actually be consequences for some adult in a low-performing school somewhere, many of the same folks calling for value-added now will suddenly become very versed in and vocal about all the technical shortcomings of value-added methodology and some new, more fair, and better alternative will be heralded on the horizon. (This latter point is generalized and not directed at the national AFT which is in a different place than the NEA on the accountability question right now.)

The, albeit gentle, criticism of AFT and The Times is buried lede #2. Yes, even EPI and its hired guns couldn’t eat that uncooked. Yet they criticize Eduwonk (actually quoting from this blog, which is really quite flattering though overdone, it’s just a blog after all), for calling the AFT report a “hatchet job”. Apparently there is some subtle distinction between a hatchet job and a deliberate over-interpretation of data to score public relations points? The reader who can best explain the difference wins a free anti-NCLB folk song CD. Second prize is two CDs! Worth nothing that others who criticized the AFT report like U of Washington’s Celio (“one of the most unsophisticated, low-level analyses I’ve ever seen”) are not mentioned. Gotta be careful…too many examples of people calling it a hatchet job might give readers the impression that it was, well, a hatchet job. This is relevant mostly because it’s an indication of what most of the book is about: Score settling from last August and other disputes (the long-running debate on voucher studies gets dragged into this…).

For instance, the book also goes to great lengths to show that some charter school supporters are hypocrites because they’ve used NAEP data and other test scores one way at one time and another way at another. In many cases this is true but it’s not news. This blog pointed it out at the time, so did AEI’s Rick Hess, and CRPE’s Paul Hill among others. There’s hypocrisy on all sides of this debate. Recall that the day after the AFT-NYT incident Paul Peterson and several colleagues responded with an op-ed in the WSJ pointing out that the AFT was now talking from both sides of its mouth about NAEP test scores. Big fun for partisans, sure, but more heat than light in terms of the real questions at hand. Likewise (and in another questionable moment for TC Press), this new book repeatedly describes charter school supporters throughout as “charter school zealots”, but duly notes that the phrase zealot is not used pejoratively. Seriously. This is what it’s coming to. All this would actually be quite entertaining were the stakes not so high for the kids who don’t have the luxury of watching this debate unfold from a distance or savoring its abundant absurdities.

Finally, worth noting that the way the book was released was the policy equivalent of a drive-by. A private conference call with a handful of reporters and no advance copies circulated to people being criticized in the book. That’s no way to business and essentially no different than President Bush’s fraudulent “town meetings” on Social Security which have understandably enraged the Left and one can only assume EPI doesn’t support. For what it’s worth, PPI’s schools project has never released major work products calling people names anyway (that’s what the blog is for!). But when we do take on controversial or disputed issues, for instance teacher licensure, teacher pay, special education and so forth standard practice is to invite the critics to respond at the release event. For instance then AACTE president David Imig graciously agreed to debate Rick Hess when Tear Down This Wall was released. Teachers’ union leaders Adam Urbanski and Brad Jupp and researcher Jane Hannaway reviewed Bryan Hassel’s Better Pay for Better Teaching and Don McAdams came to offer a spirited defense of school boards at the release of Paul Hill’s School Boards: Focus on School Performance, Not Money and Patronage. None of this is necessary for the pedestrian stuff that’s the day-to-day business of the advocacy and think tank world, but work offered up as serious criticism should be able to withstand public scrutiny and be offered in that manner and spirit.

What’s actually unfortunate is that there are some interesting things in Dust Up worth reading for those willing to wade through the politics to get there. There is a section on demographics that while not as deterministic as the authors seemingly would like (in short there are problems with free and reduced price lunch data as a fine-grained proxy for poverty, and charters may underreport disproportionately, though the extent is not known and here skepticism gives way to point scoring*) does point to the need for better research about charter demographics. Similarly, there is discussion about Caroline Hoxby’s recent study including an attack on her matching methodology based on demographics. EPI is right that the matching method falls apart if there are systematic differences between charters and comparison schools though the data are not granular enough to close that case right now. So stay tuned for plenty more back and forth on all that though it seems a little ridiculous to devote so much attention to one study, of basically one grade, that pretty much everyone agrees is as limited as most other current studies.

Some original research on charter demographics would be really useful though costly and cumbersome. A few years ago Jack Jennings tried to convene a group to come up with some standards for research on vouchers that everyone could agree on. It was a noble effort but mostly doomed by the ideological fervor of the debate. An attempt to do the same with charter demographics might meet a similar fate but is perhaps worth pursuing and something charter supporters would do well to take on.

Tipping their hand, EPI asks whether we can afford the risks of charter schools because while some will be very good, some will also be very bad. This risk-reward question is interesting in an academic sense (and good public policies and oversight can mitigate it in practice) but tragically comic against the backdrop of a system that loses half of the minority students that enter it. Still, as they think about quality, charter supporters would do well to remember the naturally conservative (change-averse) character of American education, the risk-averse nature of politics, and the public’s tolerance for messy change.

Charter school supporters better realize that they’re in a big fight. EPI didn’t just wake up and decide to go seek truth in the groves, there is an agenda here. Frederick Douglas reminds us that power concedes nothing without a demand. It also rarely concedes gracefully. So, to win this fight over time charter supporters better be serious about playing smart politics, dealing with low-performing charters (and yes, equal seriousness is necessary with regard to low-performing traditional public schools but such relativism is a weak defense and a worse offense) so that in a few years the numbers look manifestly different when charters mature more and more data is available. There is a kill the baby in the cradle quality to the recent barrage against charters, it’s up to charter supporters as to whether it succeeds.

Finally, EPI makes a good point about the similar political challenges of closing public charter schools and other public schools. Charter proponents are at a crossroads in terms of dealing with such schools. Unfortunately, however, that they’ll have to do it fighting on two fronts where they’re screwed one way if a school closes and another way if it stays open. But, welcome to life in today’s weird edupolitics where self-described progressives seek to discredit change at every turn and self-described conservatives are irresponsibly drunk on it.

*In an admirable rhetorical flourish, EPI notes that they don’t think charters are systematically “denying” free lunches to students. Look for the next book to be about how charters are actually, on average, deliberately starving poor children…

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