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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Despite success, charters ‘lose the narrative’

Abdoulaye Diouf leads French class at Martin Luther King, Jr. Education Center, a high-performing Detroit charter school.

Charter Schools Losing the Narrative But Winning the Data writes Jonathan Chait in New York magazine.

Public charter schools have shown striking success in educating disadvantaged urban students, writes Chait, citing a New York Times column by David Leonhardt. Evidence of charter success “comes from top academic researchers, studying a variety of places, including WashingtonBostonDenverNew OrleansNew YorkFlorida and Texas,” Leonhardt wrote.

The Times‘ data site, Upshot has reported charter success, writes Chait.

“A consistent pattern has emerged from this research,” wrote University of Michigan professor of education, public policy, and economics Sue Dynarski in 2015. “In urban areas, where students are overwhelmingly low-achieving, poor and nonwhite, charter schools tend to do better than other public schools in improving student achievement.”

Yet Times reporters are pushing a data-free narrative of charter failure, writes Chait. In Michigan Gambled on Charter Schools. Its Children Lost, the Times Magazine pushes the failure narrative.

The “dek,” or smaller headline below the main headline, unspools a lengthier and less bold thesis: “Free-market boosters, including Betsy DeVos, promised that a radical expansion of charter schools would fix the stark inequalities in the state’s education system. The results in the classrooms are far more complicated.” Note that the thesis has been ratcheted way back, from “children lost” to the plan failing to “fix” problems (and even here the result has been upgraded to “far more complicated”). And then, more than 5,000 words into the story, which depicts the charter experiment in Michigan as a catastrophe, we encounter this passage: “More than half of Detroit students already attend charter schools, and studies have found these schools, on average, to be either as poorly performing or only marginally better than the public schools long called a national disgrace.” Readers paying very close attention to the language will note that “as poorly performing or only marginally better” is another way of saying “as good as or better.” So a story about a cataclysmic failure is basically a story of small progress. Disappointingly small progress, to be sure. But not a change that made things worse for students.

The Times story calls Michigan charters “a cautionary tale of a movement gone astray,” notes Chait. In fact, it’s “an outlier of a movement that is performing extremely well.”

Detroit charter schools were created because so many public schools were failing students, write Bernita Bradley and Brian Love on Detroit School Talk.

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