- The Washington Times - Monday, September 16, 2002

It's hard to change longstanding habits, even if it means improving oneself. So, if it's hard to change the way we handle ourselves, imagine trying to change the public-school system. That's what is currently happening through the movement known as charter schools. A charter is a contract between an organized group and a state-authorized body that allows that group to set up and operate a new public school, a school with significant autonomy from traditional education regulations. In return, the school must agree to comply with specific performance requirements.
This isn't a novel idea in and of itself; institutions are built on such principles all the time. Even my children know that they will earn certain freedoms for certain accomplishments. But for public education, the idea of meshing freedom and performance together is a change that has caught even learned people off-guard. Rather than look at the real opportunities for success that charters offer, they have been cut up into 1,000 different slices and put into petri dishes for examination, one piece at a time. The examiners are looking at individual pieces, not the whole organism, which allows them to reach the wrong conclusion.
Take the recent study by the Brookings Institution. After reviewing 376 charter schools in 10 states and comparing the scores of those schools for each of three years, the conclusion was that charter schools perform worse than traditional public schools. That, of course, made national headlines, fueling a political war by unions and school boards that want schools run by their rules. But the bad news isn't true, and the headlines were wrong.
The reality is that a majority of charter students were not succeeding in their previous school and were likely attending one of those 8,600 failing schools around the country that were recently announced by the U.S. Department of Education. But rather than look at the students attending charter schools and weighing their progress from year to year, the researchers in this study lumped together groups of students, then schools, then averaged achievement across the board.
The Brookings study did not isolate the test results of different grades, nor did it account for the difference in rigor in each of the state tests that were employed.
To its credit, Brookings warned readers that its research is inconclusive: "With the data at hand, it is impossible to tell whether charter schools' test scores reflect the quality of education at the (charter) schools." Brookings offered that, like dozens of studies before this one, it is possible that students in charters enter significantly behind their peers in traditional public schools.
In fact, recent data from states reviewed by Brookings reveal that this is indeed the case. In Arizona, 60,000 students were tracked over three years and children attending charters were found to perform at higher rates than their public-school peers after two years. Research at California State University found that charters are home to children with significantly greater disadvantages, but that their progress exceeds that of other public-school students.
Data from Massachusetts, Michigan and Texas validates that while many charters are low performers, the children attending them are coming from public schools where education was lacking. Looking at individual student progress in schools and then comparing progress called value-added in today's education jargon is how to begin to gauge charter achievement. By that measure, charters are succeeding. In fact, hundreds of charters are surpassing all measures of academic achievement.
The Center for Education Reform's research has found that not only are charters serving children well, but they are providing smaller, healthier learning communities amidst an education system that has grown too large and impersonal to yield success for even a bare majority of those it purports to serve.
Charters have galvanized respected civic and educational institutions. Charter schools have been started by Boys and Girls Clubs, by Urban Leagues and in partnership with libraries and museums. The Architects' helped create a high school in troubled Philadelphia that is offering a first-rate education. Universities have become homes to charter schools from California to New Jersey.
Far from being a fringe movement, charter schools are revolutionizing public education. They are not only providing a choice to parents, but are also having a positive impact on the system at large. In 10 years, the movement has grown to nearly 3,000 charters, serving upwards of 650,000 children in 37 states and the District.
The petri-dish approach to education research may never go away. But we can hope that the public's common sense will prevail each time another limited observation emerges.

Jeanne Allen is president of the Center for Education Reform.

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