Thursday, January 8, 2009

Big News on Charters

So the debate over charter schools just got a little more complicated.

For years it's been pretty common knowledge that charters tended to outperform their traditional counterparts. This was often (rightly) explained away by saying that we were not comparing apples to apples in the studies. That's because charter schools conduct a lottery of parents who apply while traditional public schools take everyone who shows up. It's an important distinction because it means that the charter school population is drawn from those who are informed, interested, and motivated enough to sign up for the lottery in the first place. While there's no competitive application process, there is a certain amount of self-selection that goes into the process. Furthermore, a study comparing kids who applied for the DC voucher system showed no statistically significant difference in achievement between those who were accepted by the lottery and those who were not accepted and continued to attend public schools. In short, there was a lack of compelling evidence that charters were really operating better schools rather than just catering to more motivated students.

And then came the recent study from the Boston Foundation (Boston Globe write-up here and full report here). The study found that charter schools in Massachusetts performed not only the traditional public schools, but also outperformed the state's pilot schools, which are essentially state run charter schools. I'm not good enough at reading studies to say for myself how valid the findings are, but if it's good enough for Eduwonkette, it's good enough for me.

This is big because the pilot schools operate under the same general admissions process as the charter schools. So that self-selection element gets cancelled out when we compare charters to pilots. What the study seems to be indicating is that there is something about being a charter school that makes them better than even a public pilot school operating under many of the same general guidelines.

What is unfortunately not clear from the study is what makes that difference. I've always been doubtful about the miracle cure offered by charters and that doubt hasn't been totally diminished now. I still believe that what makes a difference at the end of the day is not who a teacher or principal ends up reporting to at the end of the day, but is rather what those teachers and principals do to educate children during the day. As such, I really believe that any success a charter school has should be able to be duplicated in a traditional public school. This study just makes me a little less sure of that.

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