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These hybrid schools are blowing up the public education model

Comparing charter and public school students

The panel on the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO’s National Charter School Study (Here’s a news story about the study) here at the conference is packed. People are actually spilling out of the room.

If it seems befuddling to you that a lecture on an education study would draw such a crowd, consider that the Stanford University-based CREDO study is the most comprehensive national study on charter schools to date. And charter schools are nothing if not politically contentious.

Both sides of the charter school divide, from the zealots to the critics, find something in this study to prove their points. The advocates point to its evidence that a percentage of charters succeed where public schools fail.  Opponents cite the total picture, which argues that  more charter schools showed fewer gains than their public school counterparts.

Advocates point out that charter elementary and middle schools performed better than public schools overall. (High schools performed worse). They also note that there is variation between states and suggest that states with more favorable charter school laws had better performing schools than those without them. And importantly, most charter advocates are at least acknowledging that the study means charter school authorizers must hold low quality charters accountable. “Quality” has been a big buzzword around the conference today.

“Variation seems to be the bottom line of this study,” said Margaret Raymond, the lead author. Indeed in some localities and states, charter schools are outperforming public schools, while in others, they are not.

Is pitting charter schools against public schools even a fair comparison?  Raymond addressed this issue. Some charter opponents contend that only more driven families enroll their students in charter schools, which skews the results of any study that compares the two types of schools. As Raymond said, it means that “something about people who choose charter schools is fundamentally different.”

She then asked the audience to raise their hands if they believed that charter school families are significantly different than public school families. Only a few members did.

“How many believe that they are just families?” she asked again. About the same number raised their hands.

Raymond said that her group does not think the types of families who enroll their students in charters make it impossible to compare, because she does not believe parents who enroll their students in those schools are only doing so for academic reasons. Nor, she said, are parents who keep their kids in public schools passive. “Parents who keep their kids in traditional public schools may in fact be making an affirmative decision,” she said. “We don’t think parents choose charter schools exclusively on academic rigor.”

During the question and answer session, a charter school CEO named David P. Hardy of the the Boys’ Latin School of Philadelphia asked Raymond why she used the term “skimming” earlier in the panel when referring to future issues that Raymond’s group plans to study. “Skimming” refers to the contention that charters somehow make an effort to enroll better students.

“Are you using our language, or are you using the language of our enemies?” Hardy asked Raymond. He wanted her to clarify what she meant by the term. “Is there such thing as skimming? Do you know some charter schools that do that?”

Raymond answered that they have measured skimming and found that it does not exist but are going to look into it more in the second installment of their study.

I caught up with Hardy after the panel.

Filed Under: National Charter Schools Conference CoverageWashington, D.C.


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