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Terry McLaughlin: Charter schools

In the aftermath of COVID-19, there may well be long-term changes to many of our institutions. We are learning to adapt to changing circumstances, and with the advent of technical advances such as conference calls, Zoom and Skype, we are re-envisioning how business, education and other industries can function.

In the realm of education, parents may be reconsidering the idea of homeschooling, private schools, or charter schools as alternatives to traditional public schools.

In 2016, not a single student in 13 of Baltimore’s public high schools scored proficient on the state’s mathematics exam. In six other high schools, only 1% tested proficient in math. In raw numbers, 3,804 Baltimore students took the state’s math test and only 14 students tested proficient. Citywide, only 15% of Baltimore students passed the state’s English test. How can we be failing our students in this way? The problem is not money: of the nation’s 100 largest school systems, Baltimore ranks third in per pupil spending.

Most teachers are incredible — I have family and friends who served as amazing, dedicated, and inspirational teachers in schools from coast to coast. But would the competitive nature of school choice encourage public schools as an institution to offer more rigorous academic programs in order to attract parents and their children to those schools?

Thomas Sowell’s book “Charter Schools and Their Enemies” provided a guide to my quest to learn more on this subject. This is an extremely well-documented foray into charter school outcomes and I recommend it to anyone interested in empirical evidence on the subject, as there is far too much data to share in this small space.

Charter schools are often criticized as not being “accountable” in the same way as traditional public schools. But accountable to whom and for what? Traditional public schools are accountable for following procedures — who can teach what and when, who can be assigned to lunchroom duty, and so on. The California Education Code has more than 2,500 pages of such procedures.

But this is not accountability for the quality of educational outcomes for students. Charter schools are accountable for the end results. “The difference is fundamental,” says Sowell. “It is the difference between putting the emphasis on input and procedures, rather than on outputs, in terms of educational results for students.”

Sowell selected traditional and public charter schools for his examination of these educational outcomes based upon three criteria:

(1) A similar ethnic composition of students. (2) Students taught in both the charter schools and the public schools were housed in the same building, thus reducing the effect of differences in buildings or neighborhoods, and increasing the likelihood that students would share similar socioeconomic backgrounds. (3) The charter and public schools have one or more classes at the same grade level within the same building.

Schools meeting all three requirements are not common, but 23,000 NYC students were found in 2017-2018 whose particular classes met all these requirements — they are the subjects of Sowell’s study.

The NY State Education Department conducts annual standardized tests in English Language Arts and mathematics to all traditional and public charter school students in grades 3 to 8. The aggregate test scores of classes in these schools are published, along with the ethnic breakdown of the students and the percentage who meet its definition of “economically disadvantaged.” Students enrolled in public charter schools in New York are selected by lottery — not by their abilities or ethnic or economic backgrounds.

The NY public charter school networks examined in this book are KIPP, Success Academy, Explore Schools, Uncommon Schools, and Achievement First. The Success Academy charter schools offered the most classrooms in New York City; 30 of the classrooms in 13 of their schools fit the requirements of this study, and in all 13 schools at least 92% of the students were Black or Hispanic. In the traditional schools used in this comparison, at least 89% of the students were either Black or Hispanic. The performance of the Success Academy students on tests of English and mathematics has been more striking and more uniform than most other charter school networks in NYC.

A majority of the students, ranging from 82% to 100%, in all 30 Success Academy Charter school classes scored at the proficient level or above on the English Language Arts test. Only three of the traditional public school classes in this comparison had a majority of their students in any grade level score at proficient or above.

71% to 99% of Success Academy students in all grade levels scored proficient or above on the state mathematics tests. Among the traditional public school students, just four grade levels out of 30 had a majority of students scoring at the proficient level, and none had a majority scoring above proficient.

In 2013, a higher percentage of Success Academy fifth graders in Harlem passed the NY State Mathematics examination than any other public school fifth graders in the entire state of New York. Not all charter schools can claim the resounding results of Success Academy, but the data provided in this in-depth study makes a compelling argument for further consideration of school choice. In New York City alone, there are more than 50,000 children on waiting lists to get into charter schools. The stakes could not be higher for poor or minority kids, for whom a good education is their best opportunity for a better life.

Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Grass Valley, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at terrymclaughlin2016@gmail.com


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