When charter schools were first getting started, the argument for them was largely theoretical. It went along the lines that competition would urge everyone to do better, therefore we should have competition in our school system. It's a fairly reasonable argument as theoretical arguments go, so states started implementing charter programs, even without evidence that they would be effective. One of the benefits of the last several years is that we're starting to see research from those charter schools that did get started. Frankly, I'm glad for it because major policy decisions on education should be based as much as possible on evidence rather than theory and ideology.
So far, the evidence has been a bit mixed. Not terribly surprising given that in all systems some schools are going to be good and some are going to be less so. In addition to questions about whether charter schools are automatically going to be more effective than traditional public schools, there's a big question about what happens to the kids who stay at the public schools when a charter opens nearby. Now, as an iPhone ad might say, there's a study for that.
Marcus Winters of the Manhattan Institute (which does tend to lean rightward) looked at the "left behind" kids and actually found that they did better when more kids left for charter schools. For those of you who prefer primary documents, check out the study here. This "small but not insignificant" effect is enough for the editorial writers at the Daily News to declare that the "groundbreaking report demolishes the last argument of the dead-enders who refuse to acknowledge the remarkable promise of city charter schools." I don't know if I'd go that far, but it certainly is something that needs to be reckoned with.
Winters says that the reason for the improvement is that there's competition between schools and now all of the schools need to raise their game in order to stay competitive. That very well could be the case, but I don't know that he proves it with his research. He has certainly demonstrated an effect, but I don't know that he's demonstrated its cause. For instance, Leonie Haimson might argue that more kids moving to charter schools lowers class sizes for those "left behind" which would improve their classrooms performance.
The other question that occurred to me is whether or not the generally rising test scores across the state were taken into consideration and controlled for. It seems like that could skew results in favor of showing progress at certain schools (like the report showing that grades tended to improve at schools with the teacher bonus program in place) when the progress was really universal. I'm not a sophisticated enough reader of research papers to say whether it's accounted for or not or even if it would be relevant to the model. It's just a thought.
The bottom line is that we're now seeing a lot of charter research being released, which is a great thing no matter which side of the charter divide you find yourself on. I still hope that in future research we look at the whys as much as the whats. If we want to expand successes, we need to know what's working and why so we don't copy the wrong things.
P.S. Nicholas Kristof had a pretty good column in the Times yesterday about how we should be putting some of the money we're spending in Afghanistan into schools rather than just soldiers. He points out that schools are a powerful way to help transform a society. He also points out that al Qaeda understands that and is opening madrassas for just that purpose. Kristof writes, "It breaks my heart that we don’t invest in schools as much as medieval, misogynist extremists." Ouch.