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School Choice & Charters Opinion

When Roads Diverge: Tracking the Charter Movement

By John Merrow — November 30, 2009 7 min read
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When two roads diverge in a yellow wood, in poetry and in life, one must choose. After picking a path to follow, inevitably you ask the unanswerable question: What would have happened if you had chosen the other path?

Now we know what happens, at least in education, thanks to a remarkable study of charter schools in New York City. And that study, released in September, suggests that it’s time to widen one of the roads. (“N.Y.C. Study Finds Gains for Charters,” Sept. 30, 2009.)

Because New York City doesn’t have enough room in its charter schools, admission is by lottery. Over the past seven years, only about half the 80,000 students who have applied have been accepted. Most of the others ended up going to traditional public schools in their neighborhoods.

Not only were the applicants similar in observable characteristics of race, gender, poverty, disability, and English proficiency, but, because all had made the effort to enroll in a charter school, researchers could infer similarity in motivation and family interest in education. Such an opportunity is what the study’s lead author, Caroline M. Hoxby of Stanford University, calls ‘‘the gold standard’’ in research, the opportunity to compare apples to apples.

The announced results are dramatic. The lottery winners went to 48 public charter schools, and those who finished 8th grade performed nearly as well as students in affluent suburban districts, closing what the researchers call the “Harlem-Scarsdale achievement gap” by 86 percent in math and about two-thirds in English.

By the 3rd grade, each year in a charter added about 5 points to math and English language arts scores on state exams, compared with those who lost the lottery. Every year in a charter increased a high school student’s likelihood of earning a state Regents diploma by 7 percent.

The study’s results can be generalized, Hoxby maintains, because most charters are in cities, most urban districts use a lottery system, and New York’s students resemble urban students everywhere.

But, as with all education research, caveat emptor is a good rule to adhere to. For one thing, nowhere in the published study does Hoxby reveal how many children actually went through eight years in charter schools. She does acknowledge that she did a fair amount of extrapolating.

Just what does that mean? Think of an eight-mile road race in which only some runners ran the entire distance. Most, however, ran some portion of the distance—miles one through three, say, or miles five through seven. And then the race officials compiled the final standings by assuming that those partial race times would have been replicated over the full distance. If someone who ran only three or four miles of the course got a trophy, there’d be an uproar, of course, but statisticians like Hoxby are comfortable with drawing inferences about academic performance.

But did she extrapolate beyond what the data support? Some in the field are skeptical of the study’s conclusions. They note that the research hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed, and that the study’s scope, confined to New York City charters, limits its usefulness on a national scale. A few also point out that Hoxby’s studies of charters tend to be consistently positive.

But Hoxby stands behind her results and their meaning. She told me recently that the peer-review process is under way and should be finished soon. But what’s more relevant to her, she said, is whether someone can articulate an actual problem with the methodology.

Meanwhile, her research shows clear performance differences among charter schools in New York City. While Hoxby will not name the best and worst, she is willing to identify the characteristics of the best. The high-performing charters have a longer school day and year; more time devoted to studying English; pay for performance, and not simply based on seniority and credentials; a clear academic mission; and a moderate disciplinary policy of both small rewards and small punishments (meaning that behavior issues—good and bad—are attended to on the spot).

Not all the charters were successful, though. It’s important to note that 14 percent of students in the study attended charter schools that had an overall negative effect on math performance, compared with students who did not win the lottery.

So what does all this mean for choosing education’s road to the future? What will happen now? Hoxby sees these results as a clear call to create more charter opportunities, something President Barack Obama, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and many others have been urging. The federal government, in fact, is doing more than talking. It has made it clear that states with limits on charters may be less likely to do well in competition for the $4 billion in Race to the Top stimulus funds it’s preparing to distribute. Some states already have removed their charter caps in response.

The general public clearly wants more charter schools—64 percent in the 2009 Gallup poll on education. And a 2009 survey conducted by Education Next reports that more than a third of public school teachers support charters, a number that jumps to nearly half when respondents are told of President Obama’s support.

Yet, that support notwithstanding, charter schools are not home free. To understand why requires some history.

Although the notion of chartering schools had been around for a few years by 1988, it was in October of that year that the charter movement was born, at a small meeting by the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Itasca County, Minn. Among those in attendance were two New York educators, Albert Shanker and Seymour Fliegel; Ember Reichgott, a visionary Minnesota state senator; and the Minnesota educators Joe Nathan and Ted Kolderie. The concept of a charter—a renewable license to innovate, free of most school district rules—was built on a simple idea: Educators would be free to carry out their dream, but would be held responsible for results.

I ran that meeting, and remember well the overriding spirit of optimism: Chartering would be embraced by school districts, which would use them to “incubate” best practices.

That has rarely happened, unfortunately. Most districts have resisted the idea of weakening their central control. And because charter teachers would no longer have an obligation to belong to a union, Shanker came to see them as a threat to union power.

Still, the idea had legs, in part because people could read into the term “charter” what they wished. Some on the political right supported charter schools as a wedge to break up the public school monopoly, while others on the left thought charters would be the equivalent of their own private schools. Allowing profit-making firms to create charter schools, encouraged by state laws, produced more support.

The first charter school opened in Minnesota in 1992, with fewer than 100 students; today, 4,000 charter schools in 40 states and the District of Columbia enroll over 1.3 million students—and counting. Many of the charters have been granted by entities other than the local school district (the State University of New York grants charters in New York state, for example), effectively ending district monopolies.

Leading the way have been nontraditional educators like New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, Superintendent Paul Vallas of the Recovery School District in New Orleans, and Chancellor Michelle Rhee in Washington. In the latter city, over 35 percent of students are in charters, and well over half of Vallas’ schools are charters. These three leaders encourage charters not as “incubators,” but as challenges to the rest of their schools.

Still, as Joe Nathan, a founder of the movement, says, “Some terrific charters are doing great things for kids, but charlatans have entered the field and have ripped off kids and taxpayers.” He says charter school organizations must develop better ways of screening out crooks and incompetents before they get to start schools.

Ted Kolderie, another founder, believes unions are coming to terms with the idea. He cites a United Federation of Teachers initiative in New York City, teacher cooperative schools in Milwaukee, and the charter organization Green Dot in Los Angeles as evidence that “when teachers play significant professional roles, the massive contracts generated by a boss-worker model are no longer required.”

Just as the waters of Lake Itasca flow into the Mississippi and down to the Gulf of Mexico, expect the movement that began there to continue to grow. However, just as the Mississippi is a dangerous and at times unpredictable river, the charter movement should not expect smooth sailing.

Because the recent New York City study will—quite properly—produce more enthusiasm for charters, it’s important to remember that 14 percent negative effect on math cited above. A buyer-beware attitude is more important than ever. Never forget that the name “charter” on a schoolhouse door reveals no more about a school’s quality than the word “restaurant” tells you about the food. There’s no substitute for transparency, high standards, and direct observation of the sort reported in this remarkable study.

A version of this article appeared in the December 02, 2009 edition of Education Week as When Roads Diverge

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