Joe Nathan Column: Encouraging but limited view of charter public school progress

Joe Nathan column – Families and educators may be interested in a new national report about charter and district public schools. Whether families have one or several of the more than 39,000 Minnesota students attending a charter, or youngsters attending a district, private or parochial school, the report contains encouraging information. However, the study also has important limitations.

Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

Any study summarizing public schools needs to recognize the vast array of charter and district schools offered. For example, Minnesota has district and charter public schools that are arts-focused; Montessori; American Sign Language, Chinese, French, German, Hmong, Russian and Spanish immersion; classical; International Baccalaureate; project-based; online; and “second chance.”

This is the second major national report done by the Center for Research on Educational Options (CREDO) at Stanford University. The first was in 2009. This year’s report covers public schools in Minnesota, the District of Columbia, 26 states and New York City, which researchers “treated separately as the city differs dramatically from the rest of the state.” CREDO says that 95 percent of the nation’s charter public school students live in these states and districts.

The report focuses exclusively on gains in statewide reading and math scores – important but not the only important ways to judge students and schools. CREDO found:

–Overall, gains since 2009 in reading and math.

–Larger increases in scores for African American, Hispanic, English language learners and students from low-income families.

–Gains partly because some low-performing schools were closed and new schools opened, plus improvements in some existing schools.

CREDO’s researchers recommended closing more low-performing schools and studying “what plans, what models, what personnel attributes and what internal systems provide the appropriate signals that lead to high-performing schools.”

So CREDO shows that some charters are helping close achievement gaps. That’s encouraging.

What are the report’s limitations?

First, responding to a question I asked, Devora Davos, a CREDO research manager, acknowledged that the study was “able to include only a very few high school students in Minnesota and only for reading, because it is tested in grade 10.” This information should have been in the report.

Second, what’s important about schools? Most people think about several factors, such as program, attendance, safety and, in secondary schools, graduation rates. Bob Wedl, former Minnesota Commissioner of Education, and I agree that it’s also valuable to know what percentages of a school’s students earn college credits and attend some form of one-, two- or four-year post-secondary program. CREDO’s report covers none of those issues.

The report also continues an unfortunate tendency of some researchers, advocates and critics of district and charter public school: CREDO tries to compare dramatically different schools. The earlier list of varieties helps illustrate the array of approaches Minnesota charters and district schools are using.

Can we compare gas mileage of leased and rented cars? No, it’s meaningless because cars in both categories vary widely. The same applies to district and charters. We should be learning from district and charters whose students make significant progress – and not just on tests.

Tom Watkins, former Michigan State Superintendent of Public Instruction wrote, “Too much of the education debate is traditional school v charter school. … Political rhetoric has never educated a single child. … We need to get to the point that the only adjective that matters before the word SCHOOL—is QUALITY.” (Editor’s note: Watkins’ emphasis.)

Tony Simmons, co-director of High School for Recording Arts, an award-winning Minnesota charter, criticized “this false debate of charters vs. district schools. Each should be used to inform the other regarding best practices and move more towards cooperation and collaboration. … The question any family or student should have in choosing a school is whether a given school, charter or district is a good choice for their needs and expectations. “

 

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org.

 
  • Wayne Jennings

    Good points, Joe. There have been several thousand reports on charter schools; some find they are better; others find they are worse than district schools. It’s hardly worth reading such reports because as Nathan notes the huge differences in schools makes comparisons based on test scores unreliable. Some charter schools are in their first years, some receive 25% less revenue, some have mostly new teachers, some serve at-risk or troubled youth, and a dozen other factors. There are too many factors to make sweeping judgments. I sometimes wonder if researchers in these reports know anything about schooling and about substantive research beyond running statistics. I’ve met some that are policy wonks without education experience but are cocksure of their knowledge–after all they attended elementary, middle and high school. That should be sufficient, they figure.

    Yes, we’d like to know how well charter schools and district schools are doing and parochial schools and private schools. Obviously, broad conclusions based on meager measures such as test scores are not warranted without full context. At some point, unsophisticated research comparing schools will not be conducted because the findings and conclusions will be seen as worthless.

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