Thursday, July 1, 2010

Charters: Will the Free Market Improve Education? By Claus von Zastrow - Public School Insights

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Another study of charter schools has dealt a big blow to the most die-hard supporters of the free market in schooling. It seems a charter school's popularity is no guarantee of its success. The invisible hand will not deliver better results.

The Department of Education just released the new study (PDF), which focuses on charters at the middle school level. The study examines schools that had more applicants than they could accommodate and compares students who were randomly selected to attend those schools with those who were not. It concludes that, on average, the schools "are neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving student achievement, behavior and school progress."

Charters, it seems, helped some students but hurt others. Like other studies before it, this report supports a far more cautious charter strategy than we're hearing from politicians and pundits these days. Here are some of the big lessons I drew from the study:

Even the Most Popular Charters Did Not Outshine Traditional Public Schools
First, let's not forget that this study did not review a representative sample of charter schools. It examined the small share of charters that had many more applicants than they could take. These are the charter schools parents are most likely to choose, so we would expect them to be the high fliers.

And that's a pretty select group. Of the almost 500 charters that had been been around long enough to meet the study's criteria, only 36 made the final cut. Some declined to participate, but the vast majority were not sufficiently oversubscribed to take part in the study. Would the less popular charter schools--or those that would rather not be studied--perform worse than the 36 chosen ones? It's hard to say, but my instinct tells me they're not likely to perform better.

If popular schools that have to resort to lotteries are in some cases doing worse than traditional public schools, what does that tell us about the power of school choice to improve students' performance? We all know how hard it is to close even the least successful schools.

The Free Market Did Not Guarantee Success
The one area where charters really outshone traditional public schools was parent and student satisfaction. But this finding reveals that people can be very happy with lackluster results--an inconvenient truth for those who would say the free market will make schools better and better.

The finding that parents and students are happier with the most popular charters isn't all that shocking. The schools are oversubscribed, after all. Charters full of disgruntled parents are not likely to inspire new parents to enter their children in the lottery. What's more, if you tried but failed to get your child into a popular school, chances are you're none too enthusiastic about the school you tried to leave.

But the charter schools in the study do seem to earn the praise they get from parents. Parents whose children won the lottery were more likely to report that they receive calls from their schools. They were also more likely to say they attended school events. The fact that charters were smaller on average than the comparison schools may account for some of this finding. Still, it seems that traditional public schools could learn something from the most popular charters.

Yet the fact remains: Too often, satisfaction does not translate into strong academic results. That's a real problem for the free marketeers.

We Have to Learn from the Best Charter and Non-Charter Schools
There is some good news in the report for charter supporters, but nothing to warrant the no-holds-barred charter expansion plans cherished by the True Believers. Charter schools serving more low income or low achieving students had positive effects on those students' math scores. (Reading scores were a wash. Reading remains the toughest nut to crack.) So it would behoove us to study those schools more closely to see what they are doing right.

Overall, though, charters seemed to drag down the math and reading results of students who did not receive free or reduced-price lunch. That finding, too, deserves serious attention. Policy makers have to think hard about what kinds of charter school regulation are most likely to feed the flowers and kill the weeds.

Of course, we should also pay attention to what does and doesn't work in traditional public schools. Some do very well by their low income students, and others flop. In the end, I'm more interested in how well a school is doing than in how it is governed.

The Hype Surrounding Charters Endangers Good Policy
The huge and well-funded campaign for charter schools seems way out of proportion with the results charters have delivered so far. The nuance of the IES study is nowhere to be found in the grand pronouncements of politicians and pundits. Films like The Lottery and Waiting for Superman are fueling the notion that charters are always better than traditional public schools. The best charter schools have been poster boys for all charter schools, while the worst traditional public schools have come to represent all traditional public schools.

Could this massive sales job be making parents less discriminating? Could it widen the gulf between parent satisfaction and anemic results? Could it blind policy makers to the pitfalls of rapid charter expansion?

In the end, all the PR around charter schools may undercut the very free market forces some charter friends embrace. Markets depend on information we can trust. Hype just clouds our judgment.