Answers to Charter School Criticism
A couple of weeks ago, David Brooks wrote about charter schools run by the Harlem Children’s Zone. The comments on his column now number in the hundreds, and several of them are suspicious of the research Brooks cites. Similar arguments can be found in the comments to a recent post of mine, “How to Compete With Charters.”
Here are a few of the criticisms of charters that come up time and again, each followed by my answers:
Charter school students’ gains are a result of their intrinsic motivation, not superior schools.
I don’t want to dismiss hard work on the part of students; obviously, learning can’t be forced on anyone and the children should rightly take credit for their own accomplishments. However, we observe that some schools allow children to succeed through hard work and others do not.
This is from an article about KIPP:
Typically students are two or three grade levels behind when they enroll at KIPP as fifth graders. A KIPP study shows that the average fifth-grade student beginning in KIPP scores in the 40th percentile in math and the 32nd percentile in reading based on norm-referenced exams, which compare a student’s performance to their peers nationally. After four years in KIPP, the youngsters tend to score in the 82nd percentile in math and 60th percentile in reading.
If KIPP’s success could be attributed solely to motivation, why were those extremely motivated students so far behind to begin with? The motivation was probably there in fourth grade as well as in fifth grade, right? So the traditional public schools could have taken that motivation and run with it, before these students ever set foot in KIPP. And not every city has KIPP schools, so we should see large groups of traditional district students making sudden, large gains during middle school in the cities where KIPP can’t siphon off the motivated children. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen.
You don’t have to take my word for it — researchers like Roland Fryer and Caroline Hoxby take the motivation problem into account. When they look at student achievement, they compare students who attend charters with other students who entered charter lotteries, but who randomly were assigned to traditional public schools. Their studies find that students who attend charters do better than students who were equally motivated to apply to charters. The only difference between the two groups is that some had the luck of the draw.
It is possible that attending a school your family chose increases your motivation over time. Maybe at the beginning of the study, the charter school kids are no more motivated than their counterparts who lost the lottery. But after a few years in a charter school, they feel a sense of ownership about their schools. They could always choose to go back to their assigned district, so there’s no attitude of “I have to be here, but I don’t have to like it.” Instead, students may think, “My family made this choice, and now it’s up to me to follow through and do my part.” If it turned out that charter school students actually have extra motivation stemming from this reason, that’s an argument in favor of more charters and choice.
Charter schools can be super-selective and set strict rules, while traditional public schools have a disadvantage in that they must accept all comers.
Charter schools are public schools, and they don’t do anything that public schools can’t do. Remember the Clyde C. Miller Career Academy? I wrote a post about how wonderful this “charter” school is, only to find out it’s a district school. If the Career Academy can make students write essays and do interviews before they’re admitted, other district schools could do that too.
Traditional districts like SLPS have the talented people they need to succeed, but political forces just don’t allow them to realize their potential.
I agree completely. As competition with the charters heats up, we’re going to see more district schools like the Career Academy that are just as good as charters. SLPS has the necessary raw materials; choice is the catalyst. The district should view charter schools as its partners in battling political inertia — they’re not enemies.