School Choice & Charters Opinion

Obama and Duncan Are Wrong About Charters

By Diane Ravitch — November 16, 2009 4 min read
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Dear Deborah,

The legislators who passed the Elementary and Secondary Act in 1965 repeatedly assured their colleagues and the American public that the federal government would never interfere with state and local control of schools. The purpose of the law was clear: To provide additional funding to the nation’s neediest students.

Of course, that vow did not preclude federal intervention to abolish racial segregation, because segregation was one of the sources of inequity and there was a Supreme Court decision requiring an end to state-sponsored segregation.

Now, we see that the original promise has not only been forgotten, but broken. Today we see the Obama administration using federal dollars to bribe states to pursue remedies that are highly contested and whose results are uncertain. They do this in the name of “reform,” but today anyone with a plan—good or bad—calls himself or herself—a “reformer.” Calling something a “reform” does not mean that it will improve education.

Here is some news. I went to the NAEP Web site and used a function called NAEP Data Explorer (//nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/naepdata/). This made it possible to compare charter schools and regular public schools on the NAEP 2009 math assessments, which were released a few weeks ago. No one else has done this, so our blog will be the first place in which these results appear.

As you know, charter schools have been assessed by NAEP since 2003. They have never outperformed regular public schools, and their defenders say it is because they enroll more disadvantaged students. Fair enough. Click to enlarge

But over time, we have heard, charter schools will close the achievement gap. This is not happening, at least not yet. In fourth grade, students in charter schools were six points behind their peers in regular public schools in 2003; now the gap is eight points. In eighth grade, the gap favoring public schools was 10 points in 2005; now it is seven points.

Click to enlarge

In cities, the gap favoring public schools in 4th grade was six points in 2003; now it is nine points. Also in cities, the gap favoring public schools in 8th grade was three points; now it is eight points.

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Overall, public schools continue to outperform charter schools. The public schools’ performance is significantly better overall and in cities, and among students who are not eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (the federal measure of poverty in school data). Among other groups—those eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, whites, blacks, and Hispanics—the test scores of public schools and charter schools are not significantly different.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to charter schools on principle. My beef with charter schools is that most skim the most motivated students out of the poorest communities, and many have disproportionately small numbers of children who need special education or who are English-language learners. The typical charter, operating in this way, increases the burden on the regular public schools, while privileging the lucky few. Continuing on this path will further disable public education in the cities and hand over the most successful students to private entrepreneurs.

My own view, which you will see in my new book, is that charters should educate the children who are most at risk, rather than drawing away the most motivated. That would make them collaborators, rather than competitors, with the regular public schools.

Partisans of the current approach to charters point to the recent study by Stanford professor Caroline Hoxby as proof of the superiority of the charter sector. Hoxby claimed that the charters in New York City were so remarkable that students who completed grades K-8 in a charter would almost close the gap between Harlem and Scarsdale (the most disadvantaged and the most advantaged communities). Editorials in many newspapers hailed this study as the last word proving the superiority of the competitive market model.

What the editorialists did not realize was that the study had not been peer reviewed. The first peer review was released last week, by Stanford professor Sean Reardon. He found statistical flaws in the Hoxby study, but, to my eyes, of greater importance was his point that the Hoxby study rests on extrapolations of data. In other words, the study does not represent the real accomplishments of real students, but rather statistical projections. There may or may not actually be a cohort of actual students who attended a New York City charter school from grades K-8 and in fact almost closed the gap. Unless someone is able to call a meeting and produce the 12, 25, 200, or 2,000 students in this miraculous cohort, we should suspend judgment on the miraculous findings. (As you know, I have never believed in miracles, especially in education.)

No doubt we will hear more about this in the future, as Hoxby (a brilliant economist) responds, and other peers weigh in with additional reviews of her study.

The Obama administration is using its unprecedented billions to advance a strategy of deregulation and deprofessionalization. This strategy will push American schools into untested waters, with thousands of untried leaders, and with results that are far from certain. This is not a reform strategy, but a risky strategy. My own view is that the federal government should not mandate or bribe states and districts to take actions unless there is a clear Constitutional imperative or an undisputed research basis. Neither exists in this case.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.