The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"It's choice - not chance - that determines your destiny."...  ...John Dewey.

Commentary of the Day - September 1, 2004:  Charting the Charters.

With the recent blitz of political news it is not surprising that recent reports on the performance of charter schools have been relegated to the back pages of most newspapers.  However, a recent article by Diana Jean Schemo in The New York Times (August 17, 2004) suggests that the praise that charter schools have  received from various politicians and activists may be more hype than reality.

Schemo's article reported the results obtained by researchers from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) who examined the results from the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  Some may consider anything produced by the AFT as automatically suspect.  However, it should be pointed out that the AFT has been a supporter of charter schools, particularly in urban areas.  In addition, NAEP data generally is considered the "gold standard" when it comes to an objective evaluation of how the nation's schools are performing.

What the AFT researchers did was to compare the performance of children in charter schools with children in regular public schools that had similar student profiles.  Charter schools are public schools; however, each charter school generally is a self-governing entity that has been freed from the bulk of the administrative rules and regulations that regular public schools are required to meet.  There is some financial oversight of charters either by local school boards or state agencies.  The key difference between charters and regular public schools is that the details of the educational programs offered in charters are primarily the responsibility of the individual school staff members and parents.  Proponents of charter schools have argued that by removing the many layers of regulations imposed by the education bureaucracy charter schools  can devote more effort to the educational enterprises.  And, as a result students in charter schools should perform better.

While the NAEP data for 2003 included results from both regular public schools and from charter schools, until the AFT researchers examined the data no attempt had been made to organize the data in a way that would allow one to compare results for the two types of public schools.

The bottom line from the AFT study of the NAEP data was that students in charter schools, on average, perform slightly worse than students in comparable regular public schools.  Basically, fourth graders in charter schools are about a half year behind fourth graders in regular public schools in both math and reading.  The AFT researchers also made detailed comparisons between charter students and regular students that took into account income levels as well as race and ethnicity.  In essentially all categories for which comparisons could be made the students from charter schools scored either slightly lower or the same as students in regular public schools.

These results certainly are disappointing to those who on political or philosophical grounds have touted "school choice" as a panacea that would cure the ills of urban schools.  One of the underlying premises of the "No Child Left Behind Act" that has been championed by the education policy makers in the Bush administration was that students in failing urban public schools would benefit by having the ability to switch to other options such as charters.  However, from the NAEP data, it appears that the charter option may offer false hope to many parents.

At the same time, more moderate supporters of charters have pointed out that charters provide an alternative for students who don't perform well in a regular school setting.  And, while the overall test results for charters may be no better than for regular public schools, individual students may be doing better in charters than they would have done in regular schools.  This is a good point.  In addition, the 2003 NAEP data represent the first really objective comparison.  More data is needed before trends really can be discerned.

The Irascible Professor thinks that charters do have a place in the public school spectrum.  They offer an alternative to traditional "one-size-fits-all" classrooms that may be helpful for some children.  At the same time parents have to be cautious about deciding to transfer their children from regular public schools to charters.  First and foremost, each parent who is thinking about moving a child to a charter school should spend some time learning about that school.  Parents should not hesitate to ask questions about the school's educational philosophy, about the test scores for its students, about the governing structure for the school, and about the fiscal integrity of the school.  If answers are not forthcoming, then that particular charter school most likely is not the right choice.  In addition, parents need to understand that the best charter schools like the best regular public schools encourage a high level of parental involvement.  Indeed, some of the better charter schools require parental involvement.  Finally, parents need to have realistic expectations.  A charter school may not be able to perform miracles for a student who has fallen far behind in the regular school setting.  But, with some help the child may eventually catch up.

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© 2004 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.