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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Storming Educational Barricades

On June 22, 2010, the well-respected educator and sought-out Washington DC dinner party guest, Diane Ravitch, wrote, "Even privately managed charter schools are affected negatively by high-stakes testing; to claim ever-rising test scores, they are prompted to avoid low-performing students, thus bypassing the very students that charters were originally intended to serve."

A comment to her blog asked, “Have you ever managed to come up with any evidence for this claim?”

The very next comment pounced, “You have the whole Internet at your disposal. Surely you know that DR doesn't have to provide footnotes on what is now common knowledge for most literate people?”

Is the notion that charter schools are avoiding low-performing students a common knowledge fact? A perusal of the “whole Internet” suggests that what is common knowledge is that charter schools have long been accused of creaming the crop and pushing out low achievers in order to artificially raise their academic achievement when compared to regular public schools. Whether the accusation has research merit is not so clear.

A Mathematica study commissioned by the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools examined twenty-two KIPP schools and found no basis for the accusation. I am well aware that the study will be heralded by charter school supporters and dismissed by charter school detractors. The grounds for dismissal will be the perceived conflict of interest in KIPP commissioning a flattering study of itself. Charter school detractors would love it if the study were damning and would be quick to generalize the results to all charter schools. As it stands, charter school supporters will be happy to likewise generalize the study's conclusions.

Which brings me to my point. As long as those of us seeking education reform continue to cherish one position or another, we will fail to come to the consensus society so desperately needs before the forward trail can be blazed. Large swaths of American society either do not care about education or feel they have too little power or influence to make any difference. It is a true pity so many of those who feel “unempowered” are in fact, teachers and parents. Anthony Cody is one teacher who has been trying hard to be heard.

Among those who deeply care, many of the most vociferous can absolutely be classified along political lines: the right who love charter schools and the left who hate them. The constant bickering between them neutralizes any positive effects. The KIPP study is a case in point. Supporters of charters rush to embrace and extend its conclusions while opponents focus on finding flaws. I say, go ahead and enumerate flaws. But do not stop there. Let us have better designed studies that take previous flaws into account. And let us not be so foolish or short-sighted to think that if we and our friends believe we have debunked a study that we can ignore it because its merits are inconvenient to our politics.

I completely understand the conflict of interest question. Many years ago a marine biologist friend of mine was hired by Suntory Whiskey to conduct research on the environmental impact of their distilleries upon the ocean where they dump the waste. My friend wrote a most uncomplimentary report. She was fired and the report never saw the light of day. Would KIPP have suppressed the study if it did not like the conclusions? I do not know. I remember when early studies of charter schools consistently found that the academic achievement of charter school students surpassed that of public school students. The most recent studies show regression to the mean. In the early, heady days of charters, some people made the question political and immediately erected defensive barricades. The favorite barricade has been the accusation that charters cream the crop.

In my work with both charter schools and regular public schools, I have observed that charter schools do not cream the crop or push out low achievers. In fact, parents of cream and parents of low achievers both flock to charter schools. Parents of high achievers believe that charter schools are better than regular public schools and therefore their high achieving child will be challenged and rise to even greater heights. The parents of low achievers flock to charter schools because they often believe their child is a bored underachiever who needs the extra competence and challenge they expect their child will find in the charter school to turn from being a low achiever to a high achiever. For their part, charter schools take students from both groups because, just like regular public schools, their state funding depends on enrollment numbers. Besides, self-study is not inherently bad. The school accreditation process depends on schools studying themselves and writing up what they find.

I am aware that both sides collect anecdotes as if the matter will be decided by a sort of vote, that is, the side with more anecdotes wins. Reasonable people would reject such a method of decision making as ridiculous, but in reality we act like tallying up anecdotes is exactly the way to make big decisions. The health care debate was replete with anecdotes. It did not work. The pro health care reform camp and the anti heath care reform camp simply ignored each others anecdotes.

Data supporting the so-called common knowledge that charters cream the crop is inconclusive. More importantly, we should be looking for data to inform our opinions, not to confirm ourselves in our prejudgments. We need to detach ourselves from partisan political positions on education and study the issue, if not dispassionately, at least with a conscious effort to identify our own cherished opinions and set them aside for the time being.

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