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Study Finds Charter School Students Lag Behind Public School Counterparts

The American Federation of Teachers released an analysis this week of a Department of Education study, which found that fourth-grade students in public schools are more proficient in reading and math than their counterparts in privately run charter schools. Two experts give their perspective on the analysis.

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    In recent years, the Bush administration and many cities have embraced charter schools, the self-governing public schools created as an alternative for students in struggling school districts.

    Now, a national comparison of fourth-grade test scores shows charter students falling behind regular public school students.

    The Department of Education's national assessment of educational progress sampled the reading and math scores of 6,000 fourth graders at 167 charter schools and found only 25 percent of the charter school students were proficient in both reading and math compared to 30 percent of public school students who were proficient in reading and 32 percent in math.

    The study was completed last November, but not made public until the American Federation of Teachers released its own analysis to the New York Times this week.

    Joining me to discuss the results are Bella Rosenberg, special adviser to the president of the AFT, the nation's second largest teachers' union, and Nina Rees, deputy undersecretary for innovation and improvement for the Department of Education.

    Ms. Rees, could you give me your preliminary response to the numbers?


    Well, first and foremost this is a snapshot of where the charter school students are at right now.

    It is extremely difficult to then draw a correlation between these test scores and charter schools because on average most charter schools have only been around for on average three years.

    So you can say that the students attending these charter schools are not doing well academically but it is very difficult to then jump over and say the reason why they're not doing well academically is because they're attending charter schools.

    The other thing to really emphasize as well is the fact that states have different types of charter school laws, and each state has a different entity that administers the charter program.

    These authorizers, so to speak, have a different take on how much autonomy to give to the charter schools. So to some extent I think the kind of analysis you need to do in order to draw any kind of conclusion about the benefits of charter schools needs to be a different type of study, a longitudinal study using what we call randomized field tests, which is something that the Department of Education is about to undertake.

    This kind of study is going to take some time to produce results but is the kind of study that will give us more information than the snapshot that we just got out of it.


    It took sometime, however, for us to find out about the snapshot. Why was this information completed last year and we are just hearing about it now?


    Well, this information has been on the national assessment of educational progress Web site since 2003, which is where the AFC got its information. It's information that anyone can access.

    In fact, if you go to that Web site, punch in charter schools, you can easily access the information.

    On our end, though, we are doing our own analysis of the state and the analysis is going to come out some time before the end of the year and it's also going to look at a number of different variables that are not included on what's on the Web site.

    We thought that it was important to put the data in context for the reasons that I just mentioned to you.

    The first time that this data has been gathered, and it's the kind of information that if you just put up in front of the public the way it has been put out, it doesn't really give you as much information that we would like to get to the public.

    And as I said earlier, it kind of gives you a skewed vision of where charter schools are at a time where we actually need better information about these schools to educate what districts are doing.


    Let's give Miss Rosenberg a chance to respond. Is the AFT guilty of taking this information out of context?


    Absolutely not — NAEP has been going on for 35 years –


    NAEP being –


    The National Assessment of Educational Progress, and at least once a year they report on public and private school achievement and the federal official is now damning it as a snapshot. There is a double standard here.

    This was always considered the gold standard when it reports on regular public school students as well as private school students and suddenly when the results aren't good for charter school students, well, it's just a snapshot, and it really doesn't tell us anything.

    The other thing is that never in the 35-year history of NAEP has there ever been a special analysis done with which to package the results.

    And the governing body for NAEP has an expressed policy prohibiting that.

    And I think it was very well expressed by Checker Fin, who was an official in the Reagan administration, when he supported that policy by saying that it would be highly inappropriate to do that in a government report.

    It's tantamount to withholding basic unemployment statistics or GNP data because it's just too complex for the public to grasp.


    Okay. Let's talk for a moment about the findings whether we dispute when they should have come out or not.

    Do these findings tell us something that schools are failing or that students are failing? Or is that the way you could measure this?


    Well, as I said earlier, I think more than anything, it tells you the students who are attracted to charter schools happen to be more disadvantaged than students who are academically more challenged than the students attending public schools.

    And if you also look at the make-up of the students, these are also students who by and large are more at risk of dropping out of school.

    They come to these schools because they're not happy with the traditional public school system. So you are coming to the school already a few grade levels below.

    Other types of studies done of charter schools, and one study done last year by the Brookings Institution, for instance, shows that while you may start below grade level at a charter school, charter schools are more effective at raising your student achievement over time compared to the traditional public schools.


    Let's explain for a moment for people who don't get this what the difference between a charter school and a public school – it's a publicly funded school without the red tape.

    Is that something that AFT just thinks is a bad idea in general because part of the red tape is…


    No. We represent teachers and teachers no more like bureaucratic red tape than anyone else.

    But in the case of charter schools, I'm afraid that the baby has been thrown out with the bath water.

    Let me just say this was a very nice fantasy about all the charter schools educating very, very poor children and disadvantaged children and disaffected children.

    But the evidence doesn't support that point of view. And on every comparison that we did, we took that into account.

    Charter schools are predominantly located in central cities, so we compared central city regular schools to charter schools that are located there.

    Significantly different results; charter school is behind about a half year of schooling. We compared by free and reduced priced lunch eligibility of the students.

    The same findings, charter schools significantly behind. So we did every comparison. And plus I should point out that while in the sample 46 percent of the kids in regular public schools were poor, it was 54 percent for the charter schools.

    That's only 8 percentage points and all of our analyses accounted for those differences.

    So we did apples to apples and pears to pears.


    Pay no attention to our lighting problems here for a moment. Your response.


    I don't know – the person who first introduced the concept to the general public was Al Shanker, the founder of the American Federation of Teachers, and the president of the American Federation of Teachers and has had wide bipartisan support from everyone from President Bush, and back when President Clinton was in office.

    So it is something that is very popular and has enjoyed a lot of political support from all walks of the aisle.

    However, going back to the data that Bella mentioned, one of the things that the AFT also unveiled, is that if you do comparisons comparing students in charter schools by race, you don't see any differences that are statistically significant, so when you compare the African Americans in charter schools to those in public schools, you don't see any difference.


    So what accounts for the difference then?


    To look overall, again, I think you need to control for a number of different factors.

    And again, this is why we are doing the kind of analysis we are doing to see what is attributing to…


    But the issue…


    One second.


    I'm not arguing against the data that has been released. It tells you that some students are not doing well.

    What I am arguing against is the fact that it is because these children are attending charter schools that they're not doing well.

    Most of the students who are attending charter schools have not been attending charter schools all their lives. The eighth graders that were sent — chances are — were attending a public school before going to the charter school —


    The evidence also shows that when children transfer to charter schools, their achievement goes down and when they transfer back to regular public schools, their achievement goes up – we did every conceivable comparison to be fair.

    And what is so strike about this that when NAEP results come out for regular public schools, it is used as a blunt instrument and distorted to say that public schools are abject failures.

    And here we have some very disconcerting results for charter schools from the gold standard of educational assessment, NAEP, and we have a federal official repudiating NAEP, when it comes to charter schools and talking about, well, we need to do special analyses here.

    Public schools, regular public schools are complicated as well. Private schools are complicated as well.

    How come there are never any special analyses packages with the results?


    Last year the Manhattan Institute came out with a report that said exactly the opposite of the report in 2003 saying that students in charter schools did something slightly better.

    Is it possible that we just don't have enough information yet to make a definitive judgment?


    There's no question there has been dueling research going on for years. And some people have looked at one state or another; that's why this is such an important study. It is not the AFT study. This is NAEP results.

    That's all it is, and it is a nationally representative sample. It is the first time that we've had that and this is the measure that is used for regular public schools. It's used for private schools.

    And I think that the fair response is for charter school advocates to just get over this and say what public school people always do.

    This tells us we need to do better. And as Miss Rees pointed out, it was the AFT that started the charter school movement.

    We are not opposed to charter schools. They're publicly funded schools and they need to be held accountable, just like any other schools.


    How do you do that; how do you hold charter schools accountable? Is it test scores the best measure? What is?


    Well, they're already held to a higher standard of accountability than the traditional public school system is held to that, because they have to sign a contract with an authorizer that holds them accountable not only for raising student achievement but for a number of fiscal accountability measures.

    If the charter school is not abiding by those standards, the charter can be revoked.

    In fact, we've had over 300 charter schools that have been closed over the years because they have not met the terms of their charter.

    We need to do a better job of monitoring these schools. I think the authorizers need to do a far better job.

    But on top of that, we have no child left behind which is something that charter schools have to comply with and we are very eager to see how well they do according to the no child left behind….


    Let's talk about no child left behind because charter schools are supposed to be the repository for the students from the failed public schools if they don't meet the standards set by no child left behind.

    Are charter schools ready to take that extra load?


    In the states that we've looked at the failure rate of charter schools far exceed the failure rates of the regular public schools.

    And Miss Rees is right – that there have been about 300 charter schools that have been closed down. Not a single one because of academic performance.

    They're about financial irregularities. The fact is the states have done a very, very bad job of enforcing those contracts. That was the deal. You get freedom, autonomy in return for higher student achievement — higher student achievement.

    They're not even doing level student achievement. I think the states have to look at this again. I am not looking at for regulating schools to death by any means.

    But these are children and their education is being hijacked by a movement that has become increasingly political and has lost all sight of the education of children.


    Have the states dropped the ball?


    You know, I don't believe so. I think the states need to do a better job of monitoring how well the charter schools are doing but at the same time let me give you an example.

    We just published a booklet looking at eight charter schools that are closing the gap making adequate yearly progress, each using a different type of curriculum – again looking at schools across the country from different states rural and urban areas.

    It got hardly any public attention from the national media because I guess the good news about charter schools doesn't get as much attention as the negative news.

    But the bottom line is that there are a lot of lessons to be learned from the successful charter schools around the country. Hardly any of the school districts where these charter schools are housed are paying attention to these charter schools.

    However, you have a lot of other charter school authorizers and individuals interested in charter schools who are coming to visit these schools to see if there are any lessons to be learned —


    We have time for a brief response.


    Yes. I don't think this should be a war of anecdotes. There are wonderful charter schools. There are wonderful regular public schools.

    This is the gold standard of educational assessment and it has very disturbing results about charting schools. And I think we should pay heed to that instead of just defending them blindly.


    Bella Rosenberg and Nina Rees, thank you both very much.