Monday, August 8, 2011

New Orleans: Are Charter Schools the Answer?

An article appeared in The Economist praising the role charter schools have played in improving the performance of the students of New Orleans in the post-Katrina environment.

“At the end of the last school year, more than two-thirds of public-school students in New Orleans were enrolled in charter schools of one form or another. The shift has led to some gains. The RSD [Recovery School District] schools (most of which are charters) posted a 20% gain in state achievement tests between 2007 and 2010. And although 26% of New Orleans’s public schools were deemed academically unacceptable by the state department of education in 2010, that was a sharp fall from 42% the year before.”

This data is also presented indicating that New Orleans is far ahead of other localities in moving to charters.

The article asked why, if they work so well in New Orleans, other cities and states aren’t turning towards greater reliance on charters? The authors ask a good question. They imply that the answer lies in bureaucratic issues. That is a painfully simplistic attempt at analysis. The situation in New Orleans is complex and the subject of charter schools does not lend itself to broad conclusions. This article from The Daily Beast/Newsweek, also positive in tone, provides a more in-depth look at what is going on in New Orleans.

The Economist makes the mistake of referencing charter schools as if they represented some unique entity with a defined set of characteristics. That is not the case. There are many different implementations of the charter approach, ranging from purely profit-driven to starry-eyed experimental approaches. The data on their performance is much less promising than what one would expect from the New Orleans experience, ranging from awful to excellent.

The most comprehensive study of charter performance that I am aware of is the one published by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University in 2009. This report looked at the performance of numerous charter schools in 16 different States. It attempted to match each school with a traditional public school with the same characteristics—not a trivial task. This is their most important conclusion:

“The group portrait shows wide variation in performance. The study reveals that a decent fraction of charter schools, 17 percent, provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools. These findings underlie the parallel finding of significant state by state differences in charter school performance and in the national aggregate performance of charter schools. The policy challenge is how to deal constructively with varying levels of performance today and into the future.”

Given these results, one can understand why the issue of charter schools becomes complex and controversial. Many educators have used these data to argue that charter schools are no better than traditional public schools.

Before one draws conclusions it is worth remembering the initial motivation for charters. They were originally intended to supplement public school systems by experimenting with new teaching approaches. The best methods could be determined by trial and error and introduced into the public schools for the benefit of all. This is still the best vantage point from which to judge the performance of charters. In this context, charters can be viewed as a success because a number of such schools have demonstrated that there are approaches that work better. The next step should be to select the best teaching methods and begin to broadly implement them. Unfortunately, the successful charters seem also to be the ones most demanding of students, teachers, and parents, thus generating resistance from a variety of directions.

What are the lessons that can be drawn from the New Orleans experience? Clearly, a disastrous school situation has been improved. The near total dissolution of the pre-existing educational system and the need to generate an entirely new structure was probably facilitated by charter schools that were experienced in moving into a location and quickly setting up independent administrations. The dependence on charters may have allowed the city to improve quicker, but it has not demonstrated yet that charters are ultimately the best solution.

Given the data indicating that charter schools differ greatly in performance, it is not clear that a system consisting of schools known to range in quality is a stable construct. Why maintain approaches that do not work as well as other approaches? Given the CREDO data, there will be a few excellent examples from the charter experience. People will wish to focus on those approaches. If one follows that path and standardizes those methods, haven’t charter schools merely served their purpose in creating a better public school system?

There is another reason for not replacing traditional public schools with an array of charter options. It is a social one. One of the ways of building a cohesive society is by shared experiences and shared sacrifices. The local public schools have traditionally been an area in which the society as a whole can participate and share experiences, both as students and parents. Charter schools could damage that tradition. In an environment where politics and religion seem to be tearing us apart, we cannot afford to lose one of the points of convergence in our society.

One of the most dangerous trends in the US today is the growth of home schooling. Home schooling was intended as a convenience for children and families dealing with exceptional circumstances. It has evolved and grown into something insidious. Many parents take up home schooling with the intention of ensuring that their children do not have to interact with others possessing different beliefs and backgrounds. It is hard to envisage a more divisive trend in a society.

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