The data shows fourth graders attending charter schools performing about half a year behind students in other public schools in both reading and math. Put another way, only 25 percent of the fourth graders attending charters were proficient in reading and math, against 30 percent who were proficient in reading, and 32 percent in math, at traditional public schools.
Because charter schools are concentrated in cities, often in poor neighborhoods, the researchers also compared urban charters to traditional schools in cities. They looked at low-income children in both settings, and broke down the results by race and ethnicity as well. In virtually all instances, the charter students did worse than their counterparts in regular public schools.
The story, fed by a tip from the American Federation of Teachers, distorts the data, writes Eduwonk.
Most importantly, though, when one controls the data for race it turns out there is no statistically significant difference between charter schools and other public schools. You’ll search in vain in the Times story for that information though. In fact, to the contrary, a chart accompanying the story fails to offer readers any significance tests for the numbers they’re looking at, inaccurately indicating that there are significant differences by race.
Is this important? Yes, since charters in this sample disproportionately serve minority students by an almost 2-1 margin compared to traditional public schools.
Eduwonk also doubts that the AFT is acting “more in sorrow than anger” when it promotes anti-charter news.
They just don’t like charter schools, they’re not reluctantly concluding that they don’t work, they’re fervently hoping and working to ensure that’s the case.
The Times story did raise the critical question: Do charters “cream” the children of motivated parents or attract students who were having trouble in traditional schools? There’s some evidence that charter students start out behind comparable students but make faster progress.
One previous study, however, suggests that tracking students over time might present findings more favorable to the charter movement. Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, who conducted a two-year study of 569 charter schools in 10 states found that while charter school students typically score lower on state tests, over time they progress at faster rates than students in traditional public schools.
Unfortunately, the federal data won’t track charter students over time to see how they improve.
Most charters are new schools still getting up to speed. Charter teachers often are young and inexperienced, though idealistic. I’ve seen a lot more troubled than cream-of-the-crop students in charters. But the bottom line is that the charter concept doesn’t guarantee that every new school will work; it promises that ineffective schools will improve quickly or shut down.
Update: Education Secretary Rod Paige complains that the Times story ignored the differences between charter and non-charter students.