Hoover Daily Report

Judging Charter Schools

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Are charter schools succeeding or failing? The answer depends on which study—and which newspaper—you read. If you rely on the New York Times—almost never a good thing to do on this topic—you might conclude that U.S. charter schools are a disaster area. If you read the Denver Post, you'll see that Colorado charter schools are outperforming that state's district-operated public schools. USA Today reports "mixed results," and the Washington Post focuses on the difficulty of making reliable comparisons.

What to believe? I have been watching, studying, and reading about charter schools since the birth of this idea fourteen years ago. Here are my five (current) conclusions:

  1. There is no dispute about the charter school movement's growth to 3,300 schools enrolling close to a million children.

  2. There is little disagreement about charters' popularity with parents anxious to get their kids out of failing, heedless, and frequently dangerous district schools but too poor to afford private schools. Many charters have waiting lists; but for arbitrary caps and fiscal constraints imposed by their political foes, there'd be many more of them attended by many more youngsters.

  3. The old allegation that charters would "cream" the ablest kids from the most fortunate homes turns out to be dead wrong. They enroll, on average, more poor and minority youngsters than nearby district schools, and many of their pupils arrive with dreadful academic records or having already dropped out. It turns out that's why they enroll: their parents are desperate.

  4. Putting the word "charter" over a schoolhouse door assures neither success nor failure. These schools are astoundingly diverse. Some are the highest-performing schools in town. Others are total messes. At the end of the day, what makes the good ones succeed is akin to what makes good public (and private) schools succeed: effective leadership, a clear and focused mission, a dedicated team of competent adults, high expectations for all students combined with plenty of individual attention, and so on. What the charter designation does is create the opportunity to build such schools with less bureaucratic (and teacher union) hassle.

  5. What we most want to know about charter schools isn't how they are currently performing against fixed standards but how much their students learn while enrolled in them. Some people call this the "academic value added" by the school itself. Yet despite the myriad of dueling studies, there's virtually no data yet that speak to the value-added question, nor can it be answered by the comparisons that newspaper articles focus on.

It is not just that better research is needed. The reason not to be swayed by the current crop of studies is that, while some are done by honest scholars, many are the work of interest groups with political agendas—and all of their results are being used for political ends. It is way too early to pronounce the charter movement a success or failure. But surely it's an experiment worth continuing—and studying.