. . . Tuesday August 17, 2004

Chartering the Wrong Course?

A comparison of the test score results between charter schools and regular public schools has raised some red flags for charter school supporters. While the numbers are worth reviewing and the fact that students at regular public schools have been scoring higher is a cause for some concern, the numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. And the results aren’t really all that surprising when you think about it.

First, one needs to remember that charter schools, at this point in their evolution, are experiments. They are worthwhile experiments, but no one is suggesting that someone has come up with a school redesign that makes things better for all students in all areas. It makes perfect sense that some of the schools and models would be off the mark and ultimately fail. The grand idea behind charter schools should be that we are trying to figure out which models work where, and then move to replicate those models in communities with similar make-ups.

Second, people need to be reminded that charter schools are often a last resorts for the students who attend them. Years ago, I taught at a very interesting charter high school in Boston. Let me tell you about the key metric I’d use to assess the effectiveness of the program:

How many of the kids who started the year in school ended the year still in school and still functioning at a reasonable level?

Of course, all of the teachers worked for much loftier goals and many of the students achieved beyond their own expectations. But for many of these kids, this high school was the last chance they were willing to give to school and beyond (and the last chance schools were willing to give them). There’s no way one could meaningfully assess the success of the program based on test scores. Without this particular school, a majority of the students would’ve never been in the room where a test was being administered in the first place.

None of this is to suggest we should be soft on charter schools. We shouldn’t. We should make demands, but not only demands that are measured by test scores. And we should be vigilant about quickly scrapping ideas that don’t work and replicating those that do. That is precisely the nimbleness missing from so-called regular public schools. Finally, parents need to make sure that the program fits their kid. And if, during a visit to a charter school, it seems like the teachers and administrators would be easier on your kid than their regular school counterparts, then walk away. I have yet to meet a student who would benefit from being challenged less.

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In other education news, a Florida Court has ruled against the use of publicly funded vouchers to finance an education at a religious institution.


Concentration is important!