Charters are experiments

Ryan Sager’s open letter to New York Times’ ombudsmen Daniel Okrent lays out the case against the Times’ coverage of charter schools and notes that the newspaper could redeem itself by covering Caroline Hoxby’s charter school study.

Hoxby found a small advantage for charter students compared to students in nearby schools, but a larger advantage in well-established charters and in some states. The Boston Globe reports:

The report’s authors write that although it’s too early to draw sweeping conclusions, “the initial indications are that the average student attending a charter school has higher achievement than he or she otherwise would.”

. . . In Washington, D.C., where 11.3 percent of students attend charter schools — the largest percentage of any region– 35 percent more charter school students scored proficient in reading.

Jonathan Schorr, who works for the KIPP Foundation starting charter schools, explains in the Washington Post that charters are experiments. And they’re not all alike.

First, charters are not in themselves a reform strategy; they are a blank slate. They are simply an opportunity to try something new, and they run the gamut from alternative schools for inner-city dropouts and incarcerated teens to International Baccalaureate academies in posh suburbs. A welter of studies has laid claims to both the superiority of charters and their inferiority, but we don’t learn much from that. To discuss their effectiveness as a group means about as much as trying to evaluate whether restaurants, as a group, are good. Some are wonderful, some dreadful, some have shut down and some probably ought to.

And that brings up the second, more important point: accountability. Charters exist on a bargain of freedom in exchange for results. It’s up to the bodies that grant the charters — typically local school boards, states and universities — to decide whether the schools are keeping their promises, and if they aren’t, to shut them down.

Often, mediocre charters aren’t shut down, Schorr writes, unless there’s “financial funny business.” After all, it’s hard to close a school that’s no worse than the district’s other schools, especially if parents like the school.

At best, innovative charter schools show it’s possible to educate students who’ve been written off in the past.

And then listen for the echo effect, as dozens more schools (including many in traditional districts) model themselves on the lessons of these highly effective charters.

Schorr is the author of Hard Lessons: The Promise of an Inner-City Charter School, which looks at the first year of an Oakland charter school. Essentially, he had the same book idea that I had, only first.

Just on a petty personal note: I had three publishing houses very interested in my charter school book before the Times’ front-page hit on charters came out on Aug. 17. Two decided that charter schools must be no good; the third retreated back into limbo.

Via Eduwonk.

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  1. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Sue the Times?

  2. Richard Brandshaft says:

    We’ve had the same reasoning for a number of studies:

    –It’s uncertain what you should measure.
    –It’s uncertain whether you are measuring what you think you are accurately
    –The measurements are effected by numerous variable that can’t be controlled for.
    –When you’re done with all the above, aggregate the data in inappropriate ways.

    Having done all of the above, divide the students into two groups — say, public schools and charter schools. The answer is that the groups differ by a few percent. Either way, depending on who does the study.

    Then claim he results mean something. If they come out your way, it proves your point. If they come out the other way, it’s a hoax.

    A few percent of all the school children in the country is a lot of lives changed — worth while if the results are real. I don’t put that much faith in small differences derived from uncertain measurements.


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