by Max Brantley
The Billionaire Boys Club has sold the credulous on the notion that if you hang a charter school label on a school it follows that it MUST be better than a conventional public school. The problem is that, in study after study, the facts don't bear it out.
After a disastrous report on the failure of charter schools nationwide to exceed the general performance of conventional schools, the billionaires (Gates and Walton foundations were among the underwriters) commissioned another study, by Mathematica Policy Research. It was focused on the best of the charter school management organizations, such as KIPP, that operate multiple charter schools nationwide. In other words, the cream of the charter crop was culled for studying, much as the cream of the charter crop creams the best students. This is the best spin Mathematica could come up with for the billionaires when the study was done.
The report highlights a range of organizational models and educational strategies that produce achievement effects that are more often positive than negative, but that vary substantially among CMOs.
In other words — meh.
Schools Matter, a skeptic of the Billionaire Boys Club, has done a sharp analysis of the study— clearly another bummer for charterites. (Though the national press is ignoring this latest study more than it ignored the earlier CREDO study.
Schools Matter has a point of view, yes, but if you read the analysis you'll find its critical points are illustrated by text from the Mathematica report, paid for by the billionaires, remember. Among the highlights:
* Only 17 percent of charter schools showed statistically better test scores than comparable public schools.
* More years in a charter school do not produce statistically significant student performance. (Charterites argue that first-year student comparisons are unfair to charter schools.)
* Charter school students — even in those schools that target poor and minority students — typically arrive with higher prior achievement level. Please note quotes from the billionaires' own report:
Thus, while CMOs attract a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic students, these students tend to have higher test scores on average when they enter the CMO than their black and Hispanic peers in the host districts
The selection process of students is driven in part by who learns about and chooses to apply to CMO schools. It is possible that the parents or students who end up enrolling in some CMO schools are more motivated or have other assets. In addition, CMOs can encourage certain families to apply or enroll in their school; even those with random lotteries can target their recruitment efforts and ask students to sign agreements to attend regularly and do their homework.
Where have I heard before that evaluation of the inherent advantage enjoyed by charter schools — committed parents?
* The study could find no solid statistical support for the belief that Teach for America and similar young, energetic, but inexperienced teachers produce better results than veteran teachers. Quote:
Math impacts are higher among CMOs that rely more heavily on TFA and the Teaching Fellows programs as sources of new teachers. Specifically there is a statistically significant association between math impacts and the percentage of new teachers from these two sources, both of which tend to recruit and provide some training to recent graduates of highly selective colleges. One should be cautious about placing substantial weight on this finding because this is one of the many secondary hypotheses tested and the positive association could be due to random chance.
* There's more debunking of beloved "reformer" myths (merit pay and frequent testing, for example). Again from the billionaires own report:
We found no significant relationship between impacts and three other factors that we posited might contribute to student achievement. Specifically, impacts are not correlated with (1) the extent to which CMOs define a consistent educational approach through the selection of curricula and instructional materials, (2) performance-based teacher compensation, or (3) frequent formative student assessments.
The Walton-subsidized mouthpieces in Fayetteville and elsewhere will shortly be respinning all this if they aren't already. Luke? Jay?