Charter Schools

Racing to the Top … or to Nowhere? by WILLIAM J. MATHIS

In announcing the federal Race to the Top program, President Obama signaled his support for “evidence-based” reform in K-12 education, saying the competition for the money would not be based on “ideology or politics” but on “what works.”

Yet the grant criteria call for states to remove caps on charter schools. They also ask for funding and facilities support for charters. The problem is the evidence does not show charter schools work very well.

William MathisWilliam J. Mathis

Lighthouse Fallacy

Surrounded by elementary children in cheerful classrooms, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the president are seen touting the ABC Charter School for “beating the odds.” They point to graphs and charts showing test score gains by students, despite the school being located in an economically deprived and high-minority community. Thus, the implication goes, if ABC Charter School can beat the odds, then we need more charter schools.

As Douglas Harris, an economist at University of Wisconsin at Madison, has shown, these high-scoring “lighthouse” schools fail to maintain their premier standing. Over time, these statistical outliers move toward the middle. Only 1.1 percent of the high-fliers maintained their top ranks after three years.

Certainly there are good charter schools just as there are good public schools. But generalizing from exceptions and statistical noise is a weak policy foundation.

Research Evidence
While Duncan was prodding states to increase the number of charter schools, Stanford University released its findings on the charter movement in 16 states. The study’s blunt conclusion was that charter school students did not fare as well as students in traditional public schools. Thirty-seven percent of charter school students did worse and 46 percent did about the same. Only 17 percent of charter school students showed better performance.

Over the last decade, the body of sound research on charter schools has provided us with clear conclusions. On the whole, charter schools do no better than public schools.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences study in 2005 found no differences when researchers looked at the entire nation. Another federally funded analysis of NAEP data conducted by University of Illinois found 4th-grade math results lower for charter students than for public school students. Other grade and subject matter comparisons showed no differences.

A major review performed by University of Washington, a comprehensive critique by scholars at Western Michigan University, and another meta-evaluation led by a Stanford University professor all found either a lack of positive effects or mixed results. This pattern repeats itself, almost without exception, in study after study — sometimes a small benefit, sometimes a small detriment, but overall no differences.

Although the president equates charter schools with innovation, one of the reasons for the charters’ documented mediocre performance is that they do not innovate.

Few Closures
Nevertheless, the U.S. education secretary argues for more charter schools. This approach flies in the face of the evidence. Four of the five states (Arizona, Florida, Ohio and Texas) that most rapidly expanded charter schools had worse academic outcomes than those states’ public school students. The fifth state (California) shows no difference.

In reacting to this negative evidence from the study at Stanford, instead of noting the overall failings of charter schools, Duncan said poor charter schools should be put out of business. Unfortunately, the record is to the contrary.

Despite the rhetoric, the limited number of charter school closures tend to result from poor (or criminally liable) financial management. An even smaller total have been closed for poor academic performance.

Reforming Education
The most likely result of continued investment in charters is that the money and effort will be wasted. Few, if any, overall benefits will result.

If we want to attack low achievement, clear evidence points us to the most effective and efficient means: early childhood education; extended school days, weeks and years; social support programs; and health care. Regrettably, despite claims of massive new funds by the Obama administration (and the Bush administration previously), we still spend less on those who are economically deprived and children of color. In fact, the federal emphasis on Race to the Top comes at the price of reduced appropriations requests for our neediest.

Criticizing the underfunding of No Child Left Behind while asking for less Title I money is a stunning contradiction. Diverting funds to a solution with no genuine promise for better student learning shows a failure to comprehend what works. Meanwhile, the administration mindlessly meanders while the denial of students’ democratic entitlement continues.

William Mathis, a retired superintendent, is managing director of the Education and the Public Interest Center at University of Colorado, Boulder. E-mail: wmathis@sover.net