Blue Shirt Tuesday

Sunday, June 18, 2006

EDSE 500 Required Blog # 1

Focus Paper Response: Charter Schools

EC chose to write his paper on charter schools and voucher programs, with specific reference to the impact that competition from such schools has on local traditional public schools. He explains an economic view of education that imagines that the key to progress is competition, and the more choices students have, the better schools will have to be. There is data supporting this view: Public schools improve by an average of 1 % more when there is a charter school nearby than they do otherwise. Public schools in districts where students are eligible for vouchers saw their test scores improve by about 3% more than districts without vouchers.

School choice, it then seems, acts on two levels. For those who attend the charter schools or choose to receive vouchers, their educational experience is improved (otherwise they would stay at the public school). The schools that lose students, however, also improve, because they are forced to compete for their students. Traditional educators who see these alternatives as a way of weakening the public school system are apparently misguided.

It's not my place to say whether his data is comprehensive, but there appears to be some evidence that these alternatives can be beneficial to all involved. The legal and ethical issues that arise when voucher money is going to religious education are troubling (perhaps so problematic as to make programs unwise despite any academic gains from vouchers), but it is largely unrelated to the premise behind cometition-driven education.

I became interested in charter schools when an Achievement First academy mailed a poster and DVD to my campus mailbox, hoping I'd apply for a job. Their only schools were in Brooklyn and New Haven (certainly in need of a little educatin') so I didn't apply, but the data they cited on their poster was pretty amazing. These charter schools took incoming fifth graders who were performing well below their peers state-wide (about 50% were passing the state testss), and within 2 years the school had one of the top average scores of all the schools in the state. There were other charter schools that followed this model and had equally impressive results, in particular the KIPP academies. The trick, it seemed, was combining three things: high expectations of students (strict rules, lots of homework), high accountability of teachers (students are tested before and after each unit; every six weeks they take standardized tests), and a long school day (2 periods of math, etc). And it seems to work.

Something like 80 % of the charter schools in Ohio last year had their charters revoked for poor performance, so charters alone aren't the solution. But these charter schools show that huge improvements in short periods of time are possible. I don't know whether the model could be extended to a traditional public school, but I hope so. The outgoing principal at the school where I'll be teaching in the fall has helped raise the graduation rate from 50% to 86% in the past 4 years, which gives me hope that real change is possible in traditional public schools. It seems, though, like part of the reason the charter schools can do so well is that they are free to require longer hours, to threaten expulsion, and hire and fire teachers regardless of certification or seniority or union obligations. Perhaps public schools have too many restrictions to achieve rapid improvement. I guess we'll just have to see.

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