How The Debate Over Charter Schools Makes Us Dumber

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Almost nothing gets education arguments roiling from reasonable to rancorous like charter schools. Through one lens, charters are “aggressive and entrepreneurial…[and] loosely regulated” institutions that are ultimately a “colossal mistake” undermining traditional public education. Through another, they’re transformational places “generating extraordinary academic success with the most disadvantaged children,” in sharp contrast to moribund traditional public schools. Easy as it is to fall into one or the other of these positions, each contributes to paralyze discussions of charters’ flaws and merits.

It would be nice if we could answer the question empirically. That’s a perfectly intuitive starting point: how do charters perform vis-à-vis traditional public schools? Unfortunately, national data on charter school performance is mixed at best.

Here’s how I summarized the most recent Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) data in a New America blog post last fall::

[The study’s] school-level achievement numbers are particularly amenable to ideological massaging. On one hand, they clearly show that a majority of charter schools perform the same or worse than traditional public schools in math (40 percent the same + 31 percent worse) and reading (56 percent the same + 19 percent worse)…It’s settled: charter schools are a disaster!
But wait! The data also clearly show that a majority of charter schools perform the same or better than traditional public schools in math (40 percent same + 29 percent better) and reading (56 percent same + 25 percent better)…It’s settled: charter schools are a triumph!

So 71 percent of charters are as bad or worse than traditional schools in math. And 69 percent of charters are as good or better. Nothing conclusive to see here.

Absent strong evidence that charters are generally better — or generally worse — than their traditional counterparts when it comes to academic outcomes, we settle for intransigent arguments. That is, we argue over ethics: over whether charter schools are “good” or “bad.” But as there’s considerable disagreement about schools’ ethical place in a democratic society and a capitalist market, these debates are rarely productive. Are charters fundamentally “un-democratic?” Are they meeting a “market niche?” Should they be more or less “entrepreneurial?” Debates over charter schools’ ethical worth generally sort folks into warring camps defined by their allegiance to incompatible principles of schooling. No surprise, then, that charter adherents and charter critics almost never convince one another on these grounds.

Truth be told, ethical arguments between supposedly “pro-” and “anti-” groups fall prey to the same pitfall as the empirical arguments: they obscure the essential heterogeneity of charter schools. Charters are diverse to such an extent that they almost cease to be a definable subset. For instance: charters are union-busting drains on public education — except when they’re founded and run by teachers unions. Charters are test-centric “drill and kill” factories full of aggressive, teacher-driven, “no excuses” pedagogy — except when they’re devoted to the Montessori method or discovery-based learning. Charters pretend that teacher quality is the primary variable affecting students’ academic trajectory — except when the charter is part of a community-wide organization fighting child poverty. Charters are proof that traditional public education is stultified by too much government regulation — except when they become entry points for bad actors to access and divert taxpayer education dollars to other purposes. Charters are proof that parent choice and market demand are enough to shutter bad schools without top-down accountability — except when ineffective, inefficient charters limp along despite strong evidence of persistent failure.

In other words, charters differ by more than just their effectiveness at improving student academic outcomes. Much of this variety stems from the considerable diversity in laws governing the charter sector. Charters look — and perform — very differently in various states and districts.

Here’s an example of how much more useful the data are when we break them out by state instead of taking national averages. Research suggests that jurisdictions where charters are relatively easy to close (e.g. New York City and Massachusetts) get much better results than places where closures are difficult (e.g. Arizona, Texas). According to last year’s CREDO data, charter students in Massachusetts made math gains equivalent to 65 additional days of learning in comparison with their traditional public school peers. In Texas, charter students’ math gains worked out to 22 fewer days of learning than their traditional public school peers. Of course, this alone doesn’t quite demonstrate that strong accountability measures caused better outcomes for students in Massachusetts, but it’s a far more productive starting point for debate than the mixed national data I mentioned above.

The upshot: it’s unproductive to treat charters as the source of public education’s problems or as the answer to its prayers. Instead of asking “Are Charter Schools Making a Difference?” we should be asking what charters’ heterogeneity tells us about improving schools’ effectiveness. If charters in some states work much better than others, we should be looking to scale the policies that support this success.

And there’s no reason to limit this reflection to the sector itself. Ask teachers and administrators in traditional public schools what they think about a new district oversight program and you’ll hear plenty of hunger for more professional freedom. Ask them about charters, and you’ll often hear that traditional public schools are often hamstrung by needless conformity, that so much of its problems would be solved if we got out of the way and “let teachers teach.”

Since there’s scant evidence for pure charter triumphalism or denialism, we might as well try reframing the argument. Admittedly, a shift in the contours of charter school debates is no more a panacea than the schools themselves. But productive conversations beat unproductive ones any day of the week.

Conor P. Williams, PhD is a Senior Researcher in New America’s Early Education Initiative. Follow him on Twitter: @conorpwilliams.

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