Tuesday, August 31, 2004

When the American Federation of Teachers unveiled its analysis of new federal education data on charter schools, it looked at first like a big score for charter school opponents against the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind education reforms. But, alas, nothing in education reform is quite so simple.

Here’s the story: Billed as the first national comparison of test scores among children in the two types of public schools, the study found charter school students “often doing worse on math and reading tests than their counterpart students in regular public schools,” as the New York Times said.

That sounded like bad news for “No Child Left Behind,” which encourages states to hand over failing schools to nonprofit community groups or for-profit companies that want to run them as charter schools. The American Federation of Teachers, a major critic of charters, mined the data out of the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), available online, and provided it to the Times.

Nor did it help that the Education Department released the data online without its own public announcement. Instead, the Times trumpeted the story on Page One, headlined with the AFT’s spin: “Charter schools trail in results, U.S. data reveal.”

But, as happens with many big journalistic revelations, the further you read, the less the story backs up its headline.

You don’t need to read very far into the AFT report, for example, before you discover the test score gap between charter and public schools disappears when race is taken into account. Compare white students with white students and blacks with blacks and Hispanics with Hispanics and the gap between the charters and traditional public schools goes away.

That’s important because charter schools enroll a higher proportion of minority students. More than half of charter-school pupils were black, Hispanic or American Indian in the 1999-2000 academic year; compared to one-third for all public schools, the National Center for Educational Statistics reports.

Charters also enroll a higher proportion of students who were not doing well for one reason or other in public schools, which makes the stories of successful charters all the more amazing.

For example, students at the 5-year-old Amistad Academy, a New Haven, Conn., charter on which I reported for a recent PBS documentary, “Closing the Achievement Gap,” tend to enter at least two years below grade level in math and reading. But, after two years, most are achieving above their grade level.

After its first three years, the state assessment test scores of the almost totally black and Hispanic school, which serves grades 5 through 8, were not only matching but surpassing those of their predominately white suburban counterparts.

How do they do it? A big part of it is attitude. Students wear khaki pants and green polo shirts as a sort of uniform and regularly recite the school’s “REACH” values: “Respect, Enthusiasm, Achievement, Citizenship, Hard Work.” In a school that respects them, they learn to respect education.

After three years, something unexpected happened, according to Doug McCurry, director of Achievement First, which New York City has contracted to replicate Amistad’s achievements in five schools. “The first class of fourth-year students began to mentor and coach the first-year students,” he said. “They came up with their own ideas and school traditions. Suddenly they were beginning to teach us some things about teaching and learning.”

Amistad is not alone. A closer look at the NAEP data reveals fourth-grade students in Arizona, California and Colorado charter schools actually outperform their traditional public school counterparts in reading, the pro-charters Washington-based Center for Education Reform found. Eighth-grade charter students in the District of Columbia and California outscored all other public schools in their jurisdictions in reading.

Eighth-graders in Colorado and Delaware charter schools outperformed eighth graders at all other public schools nationally in both reading and math.

Reform takes time. Charter schools usually contract for five years. That’s more than enough time for some, not enough time for others. Either way, we should not make too many judgments based on one study that only looked at fourth graders and only tested 1 percent of the nation’s 600,000 charter school students.

Sure, some charter schools have failed. Some charter school operators have even been arrested. Maybe some others should be. But that only shows the need for close oversight and accountability. Shutting down charter schools that don’t work is as important as maintaining those that do.

At the same time, how accountable are traditional public schools? At least when a charter school fails to perform, it can be shut down. Traditional public schools, by contrast, too often continue to nonperform year after year.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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