In the Sept. 13 edition of The Maine Campus, Lucas Rumler wrote an op-ed in which he likened charter schools to a flu medicine that “is twice as likely to make your condition worse than better” (“Charter school and politics don’t mix,” Sept. 13).
He cited a national study by the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). All of the statistics cited by Mr. Rumler are found in the introduction of the executive summary, but upon delving deeper into the report, you’ll find a different and altogether more comprehensive picture.
I would first like to note this statement from the introduction of the study: “The effectiveness of charter schools was found to vary widely by state. The variation was over and above existing differences among states in their academic results.”
Charter schools are a national idea, but their formation and governance are guided by state laws. In locations like Louisiana, Denver, Chicago and Missouri, charter schools produced significantly higher learning gains than traditional schools.
The section “Charter School Effect by School Characteristics” gives us another important detail. While students in elementary-level charter schools see no appreciable effects, and students in secondary and multi-level charter schools see negative results, students attending middle-level charters actually outperform their public school counterparts.
These two pieces of data highlight an important notion that we too often ignore when considering statistics: Data aggregation is designed to smooth out irregularities and provide a big picture, but often in public policy debate, this means ignoring variation and accepting the average as the whole.
It is entirely possible that by high school, students have become used to traditional schools and find it difficult to adjust to the atmosphere of a charter school. It is possible that pursuing a particular set of guidelines for charter schools will reliably produce better results on standardized tests than traditional public schools.
These ideas are given some weight by another CREDO study following the same model as the national report. In January, CREDO released a new report that focused on the charter schools of New York City.
These results are striking in their deviation from the national report: 51 percent of charter schools outperform their public school counterparts in math, and 29 percent in reading, while only 16 and 12 percent, respectively, underperformed relative to the public schools.
Furthermore, the results showed some populations were better served than others by the charter schools: Black and Hispanic students improved notably in math but not reading; students below the poverty line improved in reading but not math; English Language Learners and grade-repeating students performed worse than public-school counterparts; and students in almost every area of initial performance showed increased gains or diminished losses in charter schools.
For the last five years, I have had the privilege of working at Augusta Adult Education. Adult Ed serves as something of a limited charter school—we are publicly funded, we accept any student who wishes to take classes with us, and we tend to use teaching methods that differ from traditional schools (many of our students work, for example, so we have 15-week semesters with 3-hour classes once a week).
While I don’t have statistics in front of me that compare Adult Education students’ performance to traditional, I do have the words of Adult Ed graduates who say they couldn’t succeed in traditional schools. Some had learning disabilities that went unnoticed or ignored, while others were deemed to have behavioral problems and never again afforded the slack given to their peers.
Their reasons vary, but the point remains that traditional schools don’t work for everyone and neither will charter schools. Rumler is using the fact that charter schools as currently constituted are fairly average in their performance to mask the fact that our current schools don’t serve everyone. He also, ironically, uses a piece that decries politics to implicitly endorse Libby Mitchell for governor by denouncing the other two major candidates.
No one is suggesting charter schools replace traditional schools but, to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, democracy is improved by experimentation at the local level. Please, Rumler, don’t stand in the way of change.