In his new book, Losing Our Way, journalist Bob Herbert traces in broad strokes several trends that he believes define our society. He examines the decay of our infrastructure; the collapse in employment—especially for young adults; the wars we fight—who does the fighting and how we care for the injured; and our evolving approach to educating our more than 50 million children and adolescents. You can read excerpts from Herbert’s book here and here and listen to Bill Moyers interview Herbert about his book.
Tracing the development of public policy in education, Herbert declares that charter schools have not fulfilled the promises of their proponents: “Charter schools were supposed to prove beyond a doubt that poverty didn’t matter, that all you had to do was free up schools from the rigidities of the traditional public system and the kids would flourish…. President Obama praised charter schools as ‘incubators of innovation’ and made their expansion a central component of his Race to the Top initiative. States that did not make it easier to increase their stock of charter schools could not share in the Race to the Top billions. Corporate leaders, hedge fund managers, and foundations with fabulous sums of money at their disposal lined up in support of charter schools, and politicians were quick to follow. They argued that charters would not only boost test scores and close achievement gaps but also make headway on the vexing problem of racial isolation in schools. None of it was true. Charters never came close to living up to the hype. After several years of experimentation and the expenditure of billions of dollars, charter schools and their teachers proved, on the whole, to be no more effective than traditional schools.” (Losing Our Way, p. 210)
Earlier this week, thanks to a major report from the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School, there is new evidence to confirm Herbert’s judgment. Charter Schools in Chicago: No Model for Education Reform begins with a summary of primary conclusions: “Charter schools have become the cornerstone of school reform in Chicago and nationally. Arne Duncan, who led Chicago schools and was a strong proponent of charters, became secretary of Education. As Secretary Duncan has championed policies to dramatically expand the use of charters throughout the United States, Chicago… remains one of the nation’s lowest performing school districts. Sadly the charter schools, which on average score lower than the Chicago public schools, have not improved the Chicago school system…. Further, charters, which are even more likely to be single race schools than the already hyper-segregated Chicago school system, have not increased interracial contact…. Finally, the fact that Chicago charters use expulsion far more often than pubic schools deserves further study. In the end it is unlikely that the Chicago charter school experience provides a model for improving urban education in other big city school districts.”
Here are specific findings. After controlling for “the mix of students and challenges faced by individual schools,” the researchers conclude that “Chicago’s charter schools actually under-perform their traditional counterparts” as measured by passing rates on tests of reading and math, by growth rates among students as measured by tests, and by high school graduation rates. This is despite what the researchers call “selection bias” in charter schools. “The way that parents and students select charters virtually guarantees that, as a group, charter students have greater parental concern for and participation in their education than do students in traditional, assigned schools. By definition, charter parents cared enough to go to the trouble of enrolling their kids in a school other than one assigned to them by the school district. While many parents of kids in traditional schools care and participate just as much, you can’t say that they have all demonstrated the same level of concern. What this means is that we should expect student achievement to be greater, all else being equal, in charter schools, even if charters do no better at educating kids.” (emphasis in the original)
Despite that enrollment in Chicago’s charter schools has grown rapidly, from 5,400 in 2000 to 48,700 in 2013, traditional neighborhood schools continued to serve 76 percent of Chicago’s students in 2013, with charter schools serving 12 percent. The remaining students are enrolled in selective, gifted,and magnet programs operated by the school district. The Minnesota researchers express concern that “the overwhelming majority of charters essentially serve a single racial or ethnic group…” “Only 7 percent of charters (all of which were predominantly non-white) were not single race schools.”
Of special concern is the apparent use of expulsion in charter schools. “The average expulsion rate is more than 10 times greater in charters than in traditionals.”
The researchers worry that, “Chicago’s charter system continues to grow rapidly despite the fact little evidence supports the claim that students perform better in charter schools than in traditional counterparts.” The researchers recommend a three-year moratorium on the establishment of new charter schools while an impact study is conducted to evaluate “how charter school policy has affected the district as a whole.”