The Economist on charter schools

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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