The Economist on charter schools

July 10th, 2012 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

The Economist:

“EVERYONE’S pencil should be on the apple in the tally-mark chart!” shouts a teacher to a class of pupils at Harvest Preparatory School in Minneapolis. Papers and feet are shuffled; a test is coming. Each class is examined every six or seven weeks. The teachers are monitored too. As a result, Harvest Prep outperformed every city school district in Minnesota in maths last year. It is also a “charter” school; and all the children are black.

Twenty years ago Minnesota became the first American state to pass charter-school laws. ( are publicly funded but independently managed.) The idea was born of frustration with traditional publicly funded schools and the persistent achievement gap between poor minority pupils and those from middle-income homes. Charters enroll more poor, black and Latino pupils, and more pupils who at first do less well at standardised tests, than their traditional counterparts.

So not like private schools or schools in high decile areas.

Parents like charter schools, and waiting-lists for them are growing faster than new places. Nina Rees, the new head of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, says more than 600,000 children are on waiting lists. Oversubscribed schools choose pupils by lottery, something poignantly illustrated in the documentary film “Waiting for Superman”.

Although charter schools have won support from across the political spectrum, they have always attracted controversy. Much of the unease has been stirred up by teachers’ unions; charter schools do not usually employ unionised teachers.

Sounds like NZ!

Second, charter school performance is not so “mixed” if you look at the data on a state-by-state basis, rather than across the country as a whole. States with reading and maths gains that were significantly higher for charter-school students than in traditional schools included Arkansas, Colorado (Denver), Illinois (Chicago), Louisiana and Missouri.

Credo thinks that the variation in quality can be traced to the governing legislation behind the schools. Margaret Raymond, director of Credo, points to Arizona’s terrible results in 2009, which were the result of lax screening of those who were allowed to set up charter schools, and no serious reviews thereafter. Ohio, where most charters are worse than the traditional schools, gained a reputation as the “Wild West” of charter schools because it exercised almost no oversight.

To me this suggests that the issue is not whether charter schools are good or bad, but how do you do charter schools in a way where they benefits students the most.

Ms Raymond says traditional public schools no longer have the excuse that they cannot be blamed for the poor performance of children because of their background; so competition from charters may improve standards in non-charters, too.

That would be great. A low decile rating is not a guarantee of poor performance.

The charter-school concept has also attracted new institutions into early education, says Tim Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute, which is part of the University of Chicago. The university operates four charters for (mostly) poor black children up to ninth grade (14-15), and college-acceptance rates for children going through them have been above 98% in each of the past three years. This compares with a city average of 35%.

Superb. Have universities operate schools!

Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney favour charter schools, but at a time of probable cuts in federal education spending their growth may slow. Despite huge demand, and even though the ingredients for success are clear after two decades of experiment, extending charters’ successes to the other 96% will take a long time.

As I said, the challenge isn’t doing charter schools – it is doing it right.

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22 Responses to “The Economist on charter schools”

  1. meanybeany (21 comments) says:

    Your last sentence is a self defeating argument. The challenge for ANY school is “doing it right”.

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  2. Elaycee (4,057 comments) says:

    “Much of the unease has been stirred up by teachers’ unions…. ”

    Well…. blow me over with a feather. Who’da thought the unions would be against performance assessment?

    It gets better: “States with reading and maths gains that were significantly higher for charter-school students than in traditional schools included Arkansas, Colorado (Denver), Illinois (Chicago), Louisiana and Missouri.”

    And yet the unions are still against them?

    So much for wanting what’s best for our kids.

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  3. peterwn (2,932 comments) says:

    Auckland University used to operate Auckland Grammar.

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  4. scrubone (2,971 comments) says:

    I know someone who has already started a small school in Manukau. He’s hoping to be a charter school in future.

    He’s taking kids that would otherwise go to the local school giving them the foundational skills such as reading in a small enviroment. These are kids that would never learn those skills if they were put into the chaos that is the local state school. These are kids that would never learn to read and end up roaming the streets by age 15, and into prisons shortly after that.

    Don’t ever let anyone tell you that these schools are not needed. They literally have the potential to save lives.

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  5. dime (8,742 comments) says:

    charter schools dont work! every study says so. you people dont know what youre talking about.

    teachers are amazing. they cant be ranked either

    john key must be making money out of this. hes evil.

    Dime – covering the lefty talking points for you all :)

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  6. david (2,482 comments) says:

    more red meat to the on-holiday teachers when they finally get out of bed. 4 …….. 3 …………… 2 ………. 1

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  7. grumpyoldhori (2,410 comments) says:

    Kids doing poorly in school because they come from shit homes, so shove em in a charter school and they will do better, WHY ? because each night the kids go back to the same shit homes.

    And some fuckwit believes he and only he knows how to teach the tanned .

    What a waste of fucking time.

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  8. cha (3,523 comments) says:

    I’m sure that the Nats will be mindful of the fraud, the failures, the opposition to religious schools and the charter schools tied to a Turkish Iman.

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  9. dime (8,742 comments) says:

    hey cha – reckon i should start a blog called “public school failures” and scour the planet for stories on public school failures?

    reckon id find any?

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  10. John Nevard (12 comments) says:

    Obviously the whining teachers unions are right when they say some of the success of charter schools is down to cherrypicking the capable students. But where any sensible person should disagree is over the question of why this is actually supposed to be a bad thing? Perhaps it might work no less well to have such students on an academic track, or what passes for academic these days, and others on a trades track (rather than a `drop out and get a minimum wage temp job` track, as is the default) in a single public school. But that would require actual scientific thinking, which the BA bandits in the teacher unions don`t do well.

    Very true that low decile doesn`t always mean poor results- we could import plenty of not-absolutely-terrible Asian and Caucasian immigrants, and their children would do just as well as their relatives back in the old country. For all the boasts of the teachers unions, our students in these groups do pretty much the same as those in the States, Australia, or Western Europe.

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  11. scrubone (2,971 comments) says:

    grumpyoldhori: you’re missing the point. It’s not where the kids live, it’s how many are in the class.

    It’s many times easier to maintaing a good learning enviroment with 6 kids than it is with 30.

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  12. philu (13,393 comments) says:

    (more on/counter-arguments to charter schools..)

    http://whoar.co.nz/?s=%22charter+schools%22

    phillip ure whoar.co.nz

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  13. Red Sam (120 comments) says:

    “Charter schools are publicly funded but independently managed”

    How are charter schools largely different to New Zealand’s self-managing schools set up by Lange under Tomorrow’s Schools? Aren’t our public schools already charter schools run by local Boards of Trustees?

    So much so, when the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum was published, schools were given license to re-write their own curriculum and school values to meet their community’s needs. The school where I work did this.

    New Zealand already has an incredibly devolved public education system, in my opinion one that has brought unnecessary inequality and inconsistencies between our public schools, including in teacher quality (at least New Zealand’s old teacher inspectorate was consistent and had teacher gradings) but how would a charter school be run different to a public school or from memory an Education Act section 156 (special character school) or section 157 (kura kupapa school)?

    Would charter schools employ teachers covered by the primary or secondary teachers’ Collective Agreement? If not, then I think I know why the National-ACT Government are keen on charter schools? Teacher and state school bashing and league tables based on flimsy assessment data very much sums up National’s education policy.

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  14. mpledger (428 comments) says:

    John Nevard (10) Says:
    Obviously the whining teachers unions are right when they say some of the success of charter schools is down to cherrypicking the capable students. But where any sensible person should disagree is over the question of why this is actually supposed to be a bad thing?

    ~~~~~~~~~

    Because the kids that aren’t cherry picked still have to go to school and it means they go to the local public school which gets full with the students the charter school doesn’t want or rejects – ESOL students, disability students and the kids who have been “counselled” out of charter schools. It means harder work for the public school. There are all sorts of onerous rules around charter schools (e.g. you can be expelled if you are late three times in a term) so that it’s easy to find ways of getting rid of kids if they are not performing.

    Gary Rubenstien looked at the test scores of charter school kids (using the New York teacher data) and found that charter school kids scored better than average the year before they entered a charter school and scored around the same after a year at a charter school. The high scores in the year prior are the effect of parental selection – the parents who care about their kids education, listen to the charter school advertising and get them in to charter school but they also put pressure on to do homework etc whether they are in a charter school or prior to getting into a charter school.

    In California they have a parent trigger law where a majority of parents can ask that their local public school be taken over by a private company if it is failing. The attempts so far have been mired in crap but one of the stumbling blocks is the lack of charter school interest. That’s put down to charter school not wanting to take on all the kids in the school, they want only the ones they can cherry pick and force onerous contracts on.

    Reseach shows that one of the best ways to improve the difference in educational performance between rich and poor is to have poor kids in middle class schools – it improves the performance of the poor kids (compared to schools which are majority poor) and make no difference to middle class kids (compared to school which are mostly/entirely middle class). The problem with achieving that is that it is politically unpalatable in the USA.

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  15. mpledger (428 comments) says:

    “Margaret Raymond, director of Credo, points to Arizona’s terrible results in 2009, which were the result of lax screening of those who were allowed to set up charter schools, and no serious reviews thereafter. ”

    Sounds like ACT’s/National’s proposal for charter schools – don’t have to follow the curriculum, don’t have to meet national or any standards, not reviewed by the ERO, teacher don’t have to be qualified or only have minimal qualifications …

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  16. dime (8,742 comments) says:

    Red Sam – Yes, national bad. Teachers good.

    Teachers always think of the kids first.

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  17. John Nevard (12 comments) says:

    mpledger: Um, who cares if the public schools end up with all the uneducatable students? That`s what they`re for. As for socioeconomic status arguments, these are a load of bunk- children of parents with high intelligence and conscientiousness are likely to be high in these traits, which lead to higher incomes as well as test scores. For children with parents lower on those spectrums who regress to the mean or above, then that`s who streams, grammer schools, charter schools, vouchers to private schools are for.

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  18. Mark (1,301 comments) says:

    David I would like you to explain what the difference between a Charter School and an integrated school is going to be. T

    Dime – If our teachers are so terrible please explain the PISA table results.

    In respect of your second statement, my experience of the teachers my kids have had during their schooling is there is a great deal of truth to it. But they are unionised so by definition must be poor teachers – yeah right

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  19. Paulus (2,289 comments) says:

    Charter schools do not work – ask any teacher.

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  20. simonway (356 comments) says:

    The University of Canberra merged with two high schools in the city here, UC High School, Kaleen, and UC Senior Secondary College, Lake Gininderra. The schools mostly retain autonomy afaik, but the students have access to the university library and other resources and are able to enroll in some uni courses.

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  21. mikenmild (8,721 comments) says:

    Does anyone know when the working group is due to report?

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  22. The Scorned (719 comments) says:

    State mind molestation centres had abused too many kids for too long…..let freedom and choice have a go…..

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