Jewish World Review August 31, 2004 /15 Elul 5764
Study schools that are successful too
When the American Federation of Teachers unveiled its analysis of new federal 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 the world of education reform is quite that 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 are "often doing worse on math and reading tests than their counterpart students in regular public schools," as The New York Times put it.
That sounded like bad news for the No Child Left Behind law, which encourages states to hand over failing schools to non-profit community groups or to for-profit companies that want to run the failing schools as charter schools. The AFT, a major critic of charters, mined the data out of the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress study and provided it to the Times.
And it wasn't helpful that the U.S. Department of Education released the data online without a public announcement of its own. Instead, the Times trumpeted the story on Page 1, headlined with the AFT's spin. "Charter schools trail in results, U.S. data reveal."
But, as it 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 that the gap in test scores between charter and public schools disappears when you take race into account. Compare white students with white students and blacks with blacks and Hispanics with Hispanics and the gap in scores 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 with one-third for all public schools, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.
Charters also enroll a higher proportion of students who were not doing well for one reason or another 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 school 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 at Amistad, most of these students are achieving above their grade level. After its first three years, state assessment test scores of the almost totally black and Hispanic school, which serves 5th through 8th grades, were not only matching but surpassing those of their predominantly white suburban counterparts.
How do they do it?
A big part of it is attitude. Amistad 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 4th-year students began to mentor and coach the 1st-year students," he said. "They came up with their own ideas and school traditions. Suddenly we were beginning to teach us some things about teaching and learning."
Amistad is not alone. A closer look at the NAEP study reveals that 4th-grade students in Arizona, California and Colorado charter schools actually outperform their traditional public school counterparts in their states in reading, the pro-charters Washington-based Center for Education Reform found. Eighth-grade charter students in the District of Columbia outscored all other public schools in the district in reading. California's 8th-grade charter school students also outscored their public school counterparts in their state in reading.
Eighth-graders in Colorado and Delaware charter schools outperformed 8th graders at all public schools nationally in 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 to succeed. Either way, we should not make too many judgments based on one study that only looked at 4th graders and only tested 1 percent of the nation's 600,000 charter school students.
Sure, some charter schools have failed. That only shows the need for close oversight and accountability. Shutting down charter schools that don't work is as important as maintaining the ones that do.
How accountable, by comparison, are traditional public schools? At least when a charter school fails to perform, it can be shut down. Public schools that fail to perform too often continue to non-perform year after year.
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