Evaluating charter schools

Charter schools are just as good–and just as bad–as conventional public schools, and that’s a problem for NCLB.

Charter schools are just as good–and just as bad–as conventional public schools, and that’s a problem for NCLB.

JENNIFER RADCLIFFE, LA DAILY NEWS – Fueling the politically charged debate over the merits of charter schools, a study released Wednesday finds the innovative campuses perform no better than traditional public schools, and they may actually have a negative impact. The report by the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C., and generally regarded as progressive, collated data from 19 studies in 11 states, including California, about charter schools — tuition-free public campuses that operate under fewer federal and state regulations.

“Overall, we conclude that charter school students certainly did no better, and in many cases did worse,” said Martin Carnoy, a Stanford University professor of education and economics who helped compile the research results.

And while charter advocates might attribute lower test scores at some charter schools to a higher proportion of students living in poverty, EPI researchers said their study showed that charter schools attract slightly more affluent students than traditional campuses do. . .

The research piggybacks on an American Federation of Teachers’ analysis from last summer that showed charter students were one-half grade level behind on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Charter school advocates, however, disputed the new study, saying it didn’t take demographic differences into account and was too narrowly focused on test results from a fraction of students.

In their artillery is a Harvard University study, released last fall, which showed that charter students are 3.8 percent more likely to score as proficient readers on state standardized tests and 1.2 percent more likely to be proficient in math.

The EIP report is available online.

I don’t have an axe to grind one way or the other, but it’s increasingly apparent that being a charter school per se is not only no guarantee of success, but is at best a neutral indicator. There are good and bad charter schools just as there are good and bad conventional public schools, and it seems that we have yet to find anything like a reliable formula for success.

That’s a problem for No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which prescribes conversion to a charter school as one of the possible remedies for a failing public school. I’m ambivalent about NCLB as well; one of its critical failings is that its remedies are expensive and disruptive, but lack good evidence for success.

NCLB seems to be saying, “We all know how to create a good school, where all the children test above average, and if you don’t shape up on your own, we’ll force you to.” But of course we don’t know how to do that, at least not on a large and repeatable scale.

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