Data Opinion

The Data Game

By Diane Ravitch — June 18, 2009 2 min read
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Dear Deborah,

Ah, data. A new study from the Center on Education Policy finds that state tests scores have been rising steadily since the passage of NCLB. But the report is based only on state tests, which are notoriously unreliable and even invalid because of the test-prepping that every district is doing. We should have learned by now that when state scores soar, but NAEP scores don’t, trust NAEP. It is the audit test. No one can practice for NAEP.

I am sure that you, like me, have been inundated with reports about how charter schools will save American education, especially because of their ability to impose military-style discipline and to accept “no excuses” (e.g., poverty, poor health, other disadvantages). How many times have we heard that the “no excuses” schools have proved that they can close the achievement gap because they are so much better than regular public schools?

Last week, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes released a major national study of charter schools that examined the performance of more than half the nation’s charter schools. It found that only 17 percent of charters recorded improvement that was better than the local public schools. Another 37 percent showed gains that were significantly below those of their local public schools. In the remaining 46 percent, student performance was indistinguishable from that of local schools. Overall, the performance of 83 percent of charters was either the same or worse than the local public schools.

The lead researcher, economist Margaret Raymond, said that “If this study shows anything, it shows that we’ve got a two-to-one margin of bad charters to good charters. That’s a red flag.” The study was funded by foundations known for their support for charters, among them the Walton Family Foundation. I give Raymond a blue ribbon for intellectual honesty; it is not often that we see a report or study that conflicts with the political agenda of its funders.

Charter boosters Andrew Rotherham of Education Sector and Richard Whitmire, former editor of USA Today, wrote in response to Raymond’s report that it is time to close down low-performing charters. They noted that there are about 4,600 charters operating currently, but only 300 of them are part of a high-performing charter network. Undoubtedly there are some others, beyond the 300, that are successful, but by Raymond’s analysis, more than a third of current charters are worse than their neighboring public school and most are no better.

Yet because of the constant hype in the media by charter promoters, most of us have been sold a bill of goods. That includes President Obama. He has called for states to lift their caps on charters so that we can have thousands more of them. This would allow poor kids to escape their “bad” public school to attend an even worse charter school.

If the charter sector doesn’t clean up its act, and if the federal government doesn’t take a strong stand on behalf of quality, we will be inundated with even worse schools than we have now. The only difference is that they will be managed by private entrepreneurs collecting public dollars.


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