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White House-Backed Charter Schools Lag Behind Public Schools

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A new study buried by the Bush administration finds that children attending charter schools score lower on standardized tests than students at regular public schools. We host a debate on charter schools and the No Child Left Behind Act. [includes rush transcript]

A new federal study has concluded that children attending charter schools score lower on standardized tests than students at regular public schools. This according to an article in The New York Times earlier this week.

According to the Times, the Bush administration buried the federal study and the Education Department released it without any public announcement. The results offer the first nationally representative comparison of children attending both types of schools.

The result is a major setback for the Bush administration, casting doubt on a central provision of the No Child Left Behind Act that encourages states to hand over failing schools to commercial companies and nonprofit community groups that want to run them as charter schools.

Charters are self-governing public schools, often run by private companies, which operate outside the authority of local school boards.

Charters are expected to grow exponentially under the No Child Left Behind Act as thousands of public schools are identified for possible closing because of poor test scores.

  • Bob Peterson, editor of Rethinking Schools magazine. He is a fifth grade public school teacher in Milwaukee where he has taught for 24 years.
  • Justin Torres, research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington DC.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re joined by Bob Peterson, the editor of Rethinking Schools magazine. He’s a fifth grade public school teacher in Milwaukee where he has taught for 24 years, and also by Justin Torres, the research director for the Thomas P. Fordham foundation in Washington, D.C. I want to welcome you both to Democracy Now!, and I’d like to start with Bob Peterson. Your reaction to the report this week in The New York Times?

BOB PETERSON: Yes. Thank you very much. I think first of all, I just have to say that test scores are regularly misused in labeling public schools. I wouldn’t overstate the significance of this set of data, but what the data really shows is that many students, especially urban students of color, have serious learning issues. While charters may have a limited place in school reform efforts, the real question is how to protect and improve the public education system for all kids and not create escape bells for a lucky few. People have promoted charters as a panacea for solving problems in the public schools, but unfortunately with the pushing of them through the No Child Left Behind Act, as you mentioned, I really view it as a step towards privatization that will take resources and funds away from the schools that need the most. So I think the study is a real warning, a real call for policymakers and educational activists to say, “wait a minute, these charter schools are not all that they’re alleged to be.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: Justin Torres, research director for the Thomas P. Fordham foundation which has been supporting the development and increasing of charter schools, your reaction to The New York Times report.

JUSTIN TORRES: Thanks for having me. I think there is a great deal of context that is left out of that New York Times article, which was based on an American Federation of Teachers’ analysis of some of the N.A.P. data. One of the points that really goes unstated is that the A.F.T. was not comparing apples to apples. It is not fair, really, to compare charter students to the general run of public school students. These are students who…

JUAN GONZALEZ: When you mention the A.F.T., that’s the American Federation of Teachers, which helped to do some of the initial research for The New York Times article.

JUSTIN TORRES: Yes, it did. It provided the analysis of the N.A.P. data. The charter school students in almost every case are students who are starting behind the 8-ball, educationally and academically. They are in charter schools in every case because their parents have chosen to have them there. You know, a student who is being well served by the regular district public school does not choose to attend a charter school. I don’t think that this study was really comparing apples to apples. When you begin to factor in some of the distinctions in income, in race, and special education status and whatnot, the difference between charter school students and public school students actually begins to become statistically insignificant. I think that’s an important piece of context missing here.

BOB PETERSON: That’s actually not the case. If you look at the data accumulated by the A.F.T., although originally collected by the N.A.P., they compare central city locations, they compare free and reduced lunch eligibility (that is income), and they found significant changes, the one place they didn’t was on the issue of minority students, you’re right. But I don’t think that. I have seen certain opinion pieces recently in the press, putting this claim out there that, you know, as if the charter school students are being compared with a white suburban, you know, students from a middle class background. That’s just not the case. And this is only one of several studies that show at best, that charter school students achievement is maybe the same as public school students, it’s not worse. I mean, you have people as recently as yesterday in the New York Post, with Chester Fin saying there’s no statistically significant difference between performance of kids in charter schools and traditional public schools. Keep in mind that the people who promoted charter schools originally claimed that this was going to be a huge innovation; that kids were going to make great strides and improve over the public schools. If the best defense of school reform can be, “well, its not statistically different than the current system that you are trying to reform,” to me, that shows that it’s really not that significant of school reform. And don’t get me wrong, I think some charter schools are fine. One of my colleagues, who is on the editorial board of Rethinking Schools is starting a charter school in Milwaukee. The problem that I have is when people make this claim that charter schools are going to be the silver bullet of school reform when we know that it’s much more complex issues of school funding, of quality curriculum, of quality teachers, so on and so forth. Unfortunately, the N.C.L.B. provisions about charter schools and private management of public schools don’t take into account these deep issues that we as a society must confront if we are going to solve the school problems.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Justin Torres, one of the issues raised clearly in relationship to the charter schools is the issue of accountability. That public schools obviously, school boards, that school boards have to be responsive to voters or to the people who appointed them in terms of the performance of schools, but with charter schools you have a different situation. For instance, The L.A. Times reported just this week that one of the largest operators of charter schools in California shut its doors just last week, leaving 10,000 students scrambling to be able to find classrooms to go into just a couple of weeks before the new school year. This issue of accountability of charter schools, obviously, will grow as the number of these charter schools increases.

JUSTIN TORRES: Well, of course it will. And you know, on the point of accountability, I’d just like to make one point, which is that charter schools are accountable to charter school sponsors, to local districts, if they act as the sponsor to the state, if they act as the sponsor, they are accountable for all of the requirements under No Child Left Behind in terms of testing and A.Y.P., and I think it’s important to keep in mind that the fact that a charter school is closed, while not thrilling to me as a charter school supporter is a sign of the accountability that’s built into the system. The charter school movement is willing to make the tough decision that some schools have to close because they’re not meeting expectations. We have never seen that similar willingness in the traditional district public school system. One of the things that charter schools are willing to do…

JUAN GONZALEZ: Just to interrupt you for a second.

JUSTIN TORRES: …are to bury the dead.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Just to interrupt you for a second on that. In California, when these schools close, somebody has to educate these 10,000 kids that suddenly have no school to go to. Obviously in a public school situation, you’d never have a situation where the public school would just shut its doors and tell kids, go find another school to go to.

BOB PETERSON: We had the case here with the voucher schools in Milwaukee, which is the extreme case of charter schools, with some schools shutting their doors in the middle of the school year.

JUSTIN TORRES: There’s no doubt that in various areas of the charter school movement, among various charter schools there have been problems. I don’t think that any reasonable observer of the charter school movement or any reasonable advocate of charter schools would deny that. There’s absolutely no doubt. What I’m suggesting, though, is that when you have an accountability system, and you demand that schools be accountable, when schools are held accountable to then suggest that the entire system is a failure because it worked the way it should have is really unfair and I think demonstrative of an agenda and not a real desire to provide accountability into the charter school system. On another point that I’d just like to make concerning some of the comments earlier, I really do think it’s important to keep in mind that the real comparison that needs to be made between charter school students and traditional district students is not in terms of, you know, a statistical snapshot of where they are now. We need to find a way to show the value added gains that charter schools have provided over the past, you know, three, five, ten years, something like that. That was not part of the N.A.P. data that just came out just a couple of days ago. That’s really sort of the whole point is are charter schools getting students up to speed faster than they had been getting up to speed in the schools that they left?

BOB PETERSON: There’s no evidence of that…

JUAN GONZALEZ: Bob Peterson, I’d like to ask you about that. On the one hand, this was a snapshot of one set of test scores, and the supporters of charter schools are saying, well, we don’t know where these students were when they started in the charter schools therefore there’s no way to judge whether there’s been significant improvement or not, and also the issue of well, is one standardized test the measure of the quality of education that students are getting?

BOB PETERSON: This was a snapshot, and what’s interesting is various snapshots done by UCLA, Western Michigan University, of various groups research institutions, have found similar data that show that there has not been a significant difference between regular traditional educated students and the charter school students. I’m the first, though, to agree that we need a much more in-depth evaluation program and assessment program of charter schools, of voucher schools, of public schools, that don’t rely on snapshot data. I’m a little concerned with people who promote the value-added approach. This is the idea of testing kids all the time to see how they grow incrementally. Because what I have seen as a teacher in my 24 years of teaching with inner city kids, is that to the degree that districts want to do that, the curriculum becomes very oriented towards teaching to the test. Towards very narrow conception of education where students regurgitate facts, know very basic skills but are not challenged to think critically about what’s going on in the world, aren’t asked to really examine issues of social issues or even examine feelings and how they compare literature with what’s going on. And it’s a straitjacketing of the curriculum. I think frankly, if charter schools are tested like that, or if public schools are tested like that, it’s going to have a negative impact on the quality of education. We might get a lot more data, so policy wonks can, you know, debate this back and forth, but I know as a teacher, what’s really needed are well funded public schools, whether they be public charter schools or regular public schools. High quality teachers, good multicultural anti-racist curriculum, and quality early childhood programs, all of these things. None of which the charter school panacea silver bullet agenda speaks to. So, it’s not that I’m, as I said, opposed to charter schools per se, and it’s not that I put all of my eggs in a testing basket, but let’s talk about what is really needed to help these kids in urban and rural settings.

JUAN GONZALEZ: If I can, just bring in Justin Torres for one final comment. We have about 30 seconds. Mr. Torres, the issue of the standardized testing. Some of the very people who are proposing the expansion of charter schools point to public schools and their failures on standardized tests, but now they’re raising questions that these standardized, these single standardized tests should not be used solely to judge the performance of charter schools. What’s your response to the issue of standardized testing as a means of seeing how well the schools are doing?

JUSTIN TORRES: Well, I mean, I think that’s exactly right. You need to test over time, you need to test for value- added gains to see whether students are learning. I think this notion of the narrowing of the curriculum and teaching to the test is one of the great canards of our time, to be perfectly honest. In no other sector, do we determine an assessment of the product is essentially insignificant. More to the point, the average African-American 12th grade male reads at an eighth grade level in this country. This is a scandal. Its a disaster. The time has come for some new approaches. New approaches. We have had 30 years of progressive child centered education and it’s failed.

BOB PETERSON: You’re not going to prove that situation by testing them more.

JUAN GONZALEZ: On that note, we have to end this debate, but certainly, the debate will not end here. A new school year is opening soon, and the controversy will continue. I want to thank both of you for being with us, Bob Peterson, editor of Rethinking Schools magazine, and Justin Torres, research director for the Thomas P. Fordham foundation in Washington, D.C.

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