Software Nerd

Thursday, August 31, 2006

School Choice

A lot of newspapers and radio-shows picked up the Aug 2006 study from the National Center for Education Statistics. A majority ran with a headline like: "Charter Schools do worse than Traditional Public schools". This was a case of sloppy journalists reporting on a sloppy "study".

If Charter schools were commonplace and evenly-spread across the US, a survey of the results from such schools could be compared against (similarly widespread and evenly available) traditional public schools. However, this is not the case. Charter schools have come into being primarily in areas where public schools have failed. Therefore, if a person doing such a study today were to take 150 Charter schools and compare them against over 6,000 traditional public schools from all over the country, they might find that Charter schools are just about average or even slightly below average. Yet, this is just what the study did, and just what their headline numbers report. This result is not surprising.

Take an example in my metro. The worst-performing public schools are in the inner city. Some of the suburbs have low-performing schools, but nowhere near as bad as the inner city. Other suburbs have schools that are near the nation's top scorers among public schools. The Charter schools in this metro tend to be in the inner city and some of the close-to-city suburbs. I would not expect the kids who leave inner-city public schools to attend inner-city charter schools to perform as well as the kids in the better suburbs. If they did, I'd be glad, but I know that the demographics of the population (basically parent's attitudes) are a huge factor in education. If one is trying to isolate a single factor -- the type of school -- one could compare each charter-school to the nearby public schools that would be realistic educational alternatives for those kids, not to an average of schools from all over the country.

The study also pretends to adjust for family-income differences, but does not do so. Instead, the researchers used an absurd measure of "% of students who get free-lunch" as a proxy, one that they themselves admit is weak. I don't think these researchers had a political bias; it is just that they take the typical rationalistic attitude of preferring deceptive precision over less-precisely known facts. (Perhaps they're products of public schools too!!)

Next, it seems obvious that if one were to trying to determine whether charter schools were serving kids better, one would want to distinguish between kids who just switched from a public school to a charter school and kids who have been in the charter school for (say) two or more years. The study makes no such attempt.

A good site on Charter Schools, "The Center for Education Reform", documents various measures that show that Charter schools are doing well. Perhaps they have their own axe to grind. However, a good researcher would have looked at the available facts and research, built on that and addressed that; the current study has simply ignored it.

Here are some of the statistics from the site mentioned above:
  • In the 2004-05 (the NCES study used 2003 data) school year, fourth grade charter school students in New York were 7.1 percent more proficient on the state’s English test and 7.7 percent more proficient on the math test than conventional public school students.
  • In 2005, a higher percentage of charter school students in Massachusetts, compared with students in conventional public schools, scored proficient or advanced in the state’s assessment test – 9.2 percent, 8.7 percent, and 8.3 percent higher in English, math, and science, respectively..
  • In a comparison of African-American students, those attending charter schools outperformed the students in conventional public schools in Michigan’s 2004 assessment test – 46 percent of eighth grade African-American charter students passed the math assessment compared with 21 percent among African-American eighth graders statewide..
  • In 2005, charter schools in California showed stronger year-to-year improvement than conventional public schools, especially in Los Angeles. Statewide, charter schools scored an average gain of 28 points in the state assessment compared with a 20-point gain posted by conventional public schools..
  • The percentage of charter school students in Florida who tested proficient in the state’s reading assessment has grown faster than the gains posted by conventional public school students – charter school students rose from 55 percent to 58 percent, compared with an increase of 54 percent to 56 percent among conventional public school students.

However, there's something more important than all this: 1 million kids now attend charter schools. It is a choice that their parents made. If this study is used as a device to convince other parents not to opt for Charter schools, I think that's wrong, but I can live with that; smart parents know what they're doing. However, the real problem is that this survey might be used to convince law-makers to prevent parents from having a choice. That would be a blow to the already pathetically slow school-reforms in the U.S..


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