OP-ED: New York Post, August 19, 2004
By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
This week's firestorm over the performance of charter schools can be traced to a mischief-bearing grenade hand-delivered by the charter-hating American Federation of Teachers to The New York Times.
The data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), regarding the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores of 4th graders attending a sample of charter schools in 2003, have been sitting around for nine months as NCES analysts have been (slowly) working on their own report. But in the meantime, AFT analysts released their own analysis to The Times. The story that resulted—“Nation's Charter Schools Lagging Behind, U.S. Test Scores Reveal”—is wrong on just about every point that matters. Let me note five points in particular from the AFT's findings.
First: The Times claims that the NAEP-based comparison “shows charter school students often doing worse than comparable students in regular public schools.” Yet on key comparisons, especially by students' race, there is no statistically significant difference between the performance of kids in charter schools and traditional public schools. This is especially salient considering how heavily charter schools are patronized by black and Hispanic families. Their kids aren't doing worse in charter schools.
Second: one-time “snapshot” data of a single cohort of kids, which is all that NAEP can supply the first time around, tell you nothing about the academic achievement of children before they entered their charter schools—and just about everyone knows that a big fraction of the youngsters enrolling in charters were already behind the education eight-ball as a result of dismal performance in previous schools. Parents whose kids are thriving in traditional public schools are not apt to move them. Those transferring their daughters and sons into charters are often desperate.
Third: when judging a school, one ought not settle for absolute test scores alone. What one most wants to know about a school is how rapidly its pupils are making progress from wherever they started, i.e., how much academic value is the school itself adding. You can't determine that from NAEP data.
Fourth: charter schools are astoundingly varied. We've known for ages that hanging a "charter" sign over the door doesn't assure a good school, or predict a bad school, nor can one readily generalize about them. In fact, the variability among charter schools surpasses that of regular public and private schools. That's one reason they're hard to study—because having a “charter” may be less important than the school's core mission, which might be dropout recovery, or the arts, or bilingualism, or giving new options to disabled children.
Some of the best schools I've been in are charter schools, some of which are blowing the lid off test scores in such vexed communities as Boston, New York, and Chicago. And some of the worst schools I've been in are charter schools. Yet people are choosing them.
Fifth: or they're not choosing them. Unlike traditional public schools, the charter movement buries its dead. Perhaps the cheapest shot in The Times article is the suggestion that the closing of some eighty charter schools represents some sort of institutional failure or accountability malfunction. Nothing could be further from the truth. The disappearance of unsuccessful charter schools is one of the great strengths of the whole concept. Would that it happened more often!
Truth is always an endangered species right around election time. And this report did give the AFT and The Times the opportunity to mutter dark insinuations about how the federal government has “repeatedly delayed” the release of the charter-school results. This despite the manifest fact that the data have been accessible on a public Web site for most of a year. The Times’ op-ed page followed up a day later with a chin-pulling editorial about a “devastating setback” to the Bush administration's plan to turn failing public schools into charters. The Times also echoed the “long-awaited data” canard.
The hints about a cover-up are absurd, as is the suggestion that the White House enthusiastically supports charter schools. In fact, President Bush has said little about charter schools for months, but guess who is urging the country to create many more of them? Yes, indeed, the Democratic Party and Sen. John Kerry, the AFT's candidate, a man who in 1998 urged that every public school become a charter school.
Bottom line: The war over charter schools is being waged on many fronts, so beware teachers unions bearing “gifts,” especially in an election year.
Chester E. Finn Jr. is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. He served as U. S. Assistant Secretary of Education for Research and Improvement, and counselor to the secretary, from 1985 to 1988.
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