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Is Education on the Wrong Track?

A TNR Symposium.

From: Nelson Smith

To: Diane Ravitch

Subject: Public charter schools are community schools, providing a model of success that we know can work. They deserve more credit than Ravitch gives them.

I really like two things about your book: your willingness to revisit long-held assumptions--and to risk being labeled an “apostate” for it; and your call for a revitalized K-12 curriculum full of rich history and art and music. Brava on both counts.

But alas, I come not to praise. Others in this exchange have opined on teaching, testing, and accountability; I’m here to challenge you on public charter schools.

Your main contention is that charters “have never done better than regular public schools” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). As someone who used to head the research and improvement office at the U.S. Department of Education, you must know that NAEP is the wrong barometer for this kind of evaluation. And, as someone who rails against evaluating teachers on the basis of a single test, it’s ironic that you return repeatedly to this one measure.

NAEP is a snapshot. It doesn't follow students over time. That’s of small consequence when the assessment is used as intended, to paint a broad picture of national progress. But it’s not calibrated for a small group of schools--just 175 charters out of nearly 4,000 were sampled in 2007, spread across 40 states. Since charters typically enroll kids who are behind their peers academically (well-documented by RAND and other outfits), it’s almost inevitable that, in any given year, charters will do worse, on a comparison of national averages,than district schools.

National NAEP results are also swayed by the larger samples of charter schools in big states. As Andrew Rotherham notes, chartering is powerfully influenced by state policy and regulation--and some of those big states in the NAEP sample have terrible laws and negligent authorizers, which can skew national outcomes.

Looking at NAEP’s state-level results, however, you can hardly maintain that charters have “never done better.” In 2007 (the most recent year for reading results), in states where sufficient numbers of charter schools were surveyed, charters outperformed other public schools in eight of 13 states at the fourth-grade level, and in ten of twelve states at the eight-grade level. In the 2009 math results, charters outperformed other public schools in ten of 18 states in the eighth grade, and eight of 18 states in the fourth grade. Remember, also, that charters are usually clustered in cities--and for urban schools to compete even this well against statewide results is an accomplishment.

Your book cites the 2009 CREDO report and its adverse national findings about charters, but, given its limitations (including a charter sample dominated by first-year test-takers), a sharper lens is needed. In 2008, researchers Julian Betts and Emily Tang at the University of California at San Diego analyzed a set of charter studies using only the most sophisticated methodologies. They wrote: “Despite considerable variation among charter schools, the overall evidence suggests that charter schools more often outperform than underperform their traditional public school counterparts.” We would love to see serious new funding that could broaden such local and statewide apples-to-apples studies to the national level.

In your passion to rethink, you’ve apparently decided that the book on charters is already closed --although after 18 years, we’re just in the opening chapters. Let’s remember that the real question is not whether an average of charters works, or whether a group of charters happens to work, but whether the charter model itself can work—allowing variation at the outset, ensuring high accountability for outcomes, and cycling upward with the strongest performers in the lead. As with any innovation, there have been hits and misses. We’ve learned what kind of laws help produce strong charters, and seen the consequences when oversight is lax. Now we’re putting these lessons to work, fueled by new federal funding for expansion and replication of the most effective charter models, and by our own determination to replace the weak performers. (In fact, according to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, large authorizers who oversee most charters are already refusing renew to about 15 percent of charters annually, and revoking a smaller number in mid-course.)

Yet, instead of asking how to leverage promising models to meet the enormous parent demand for better public schools, you dismiss their success as a product of “generous philanthropists” and other supposed advantages. In fact, most charter philanthropy is simply plugging gaps caused by inequitable public funding. Donors help with startups (expensive and unfunded by most states) and capital programs (since charters get nothing for facilities in the majority of states). And some charters do have higher operating costs because, well, they operate for longer hours. KIPP teachers make 15-20 percent more than their district colleagues, but work a nine-hour day during the week, half days on many Saturdays, and three weeks in the summer. They also carry cell phones to help kids with homework in the evening. (And it’s not just KIPP: The federal Schools and Staffing Survey finds that, nationally, charter teachers put in about two weeks’ more time than their district peers in an average year.)

Finally, in defense of neighborhood schools, you write, “I love having choices about where I shop. But … going to school is not the same as shopping. Most parents want a stable school that is within a reasonable distance of their home, so that they can drop off their child in the morning and pick her up at the end of day or get to school quickly if she gets sick in the middle of the day. Schools operate differently from, say, shoe stores, which open and close in response to consumer demand. Schools are essential community institutions, like firehouses.”

You know, Diane, this is a false dichotomy. A lot of charters are neighborhood schools. They serve their communities in just the way you describe--even if the community is a little more spread out. They stay in close touch with parents, in person and by phone; local merchants appreciate their neat and orderly operations; they are polling places on Election Day; and their lights are often burning after dark, with late classes and parent conferences and choir performances.

If a mother is OK with a slightly longer commute at pick-up and drop-off time because it provides her child a better education in this kind of environment, why deny her that choice?

Nelson Smith is president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.


By Diane Ravitch: We need to improve our education system--not tinker with models that affect tiny numbers of kids and can’t be replicated.

By Kevin Carey: School reform has to happen now, not at some magic moment when the conditions are just right. Also, surely we can find common ground on charter schools.