President-elect Donald Trump has nominated a charter school advocate from Michigan, Betsy DeVos, to be his Secretary of Education. This raises the obvious question, do charter schools improve K-12 education? A recent study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) suggests that they do in general, although very unevenly.
As summarized and elaborated upon by the Economist, here are the results:
Charter schools work well for low-income children in cities. In 41 urban areas (see map), students learned 40 more days of math and 28 more days of reading every year on average. Black and Hispanic children performed especially well. Where they have worked well such as in Boston, New York City and Washington D.C., students make gains up to 100 days per year.
One lesson learned is that autonomy needs to be coupled with accountability. When charter schools expand with little oversight, as in Arizona, results can be worse than in regular schools.
A second lesson is that leadership matters. Business practices such as performance tracking and incentives achieve better test scores. A successful charter organization such as KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) opens new school only when it spots a leader capable of running it.
A third lesson is how to scale up the type of education provided by the best charters. These have five qualities: frequent feedback for teachers, tutoring, longer school days and terms, effective use of data to track student progress, and a relentless focus on academic achievement.
Conclusion. Charter schools are a valuable state and local educational option. Many charters are succeeding very well and the factors which lead to success are increasingly well understood. At the very least the competition created by charter schools leads to better performance by public schools. The answer to the question in the title is yes!
It is well understood that American educational standards are falling behind those of many other developed nations. I have recently discussed this issue from the point of view of giving more public support to community colleges, as recently proposed by President Obama. But the problem is much broader than this. American college students in general score very poorly in basic critical thinking and communication skills. As the above chart shows, even college seniors are only 60% proficient in these skills and college freshmen do much more poorly.
A new book, “The Smart Society: Strengthening America’s Greatest Resource, its People,” by the political scientist, Peter Salins, provides a good description of the basic problem. It starts long before college! America actually has two different K-12 academic achievement gaps. One, the “Megagap” is the huge test score disparity between middle class students and low-income students, who are largely minorities. This achievement gap is best addressed with expanded early childhood education, as we are beginning to do in Omaha NE where I live.
But as Mr. Salins points out there is also a Mainstream Achievement Gap between what most non-disadvantaged American youth are capable of learning and what is actually expected of them in the typical U.S. public school. It is this learning gap which is primarily responsible for America’s mediocre standing on international achievement tests. Mr. Salins argues that the Mainstream gap is closable because there is such an enormous variation in achievement scores among the 50 states, as shown in the above chart. In particular, in Massachusetts, a top state, the Education Reform Act of 1995 included the following reforms:
The requirement for all state school districts to adhere to rigorous curriculum specifications.
A new statewide diagnostic testing protocol.
More rigorous testing of new teacher candidates.
A statewide uniform high school graduation standard.
Reforms such as these are what make up the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Such high standards are working well in the top performing states. Other states need to seriously implement these same standards. America’s competitive edge depends on it!