The Charter School Advantage

December 31, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

In his Wall Street Journal op-ed that I criticized last week (here), Jason Riley begins with the story of a father who was desperate to get his kid into a charter school.

I thought he was going to tell me that the charter school had smaller classes or better graduation rates. Instead, he wanted to talk about something most parents take for granted when they send Johnny and Susie off to school each morning: physical safety.

He didn’t take it for granted. He told me the atmosphere at the old school had been chaotic, that bullying was rampant, and that his son, a sixth-grader at the time, had become terrified of the place. One day the boy was attacked by other students in the school lavatory, and the father got a call to pick him up from the hospital. It was the final straw. “I didn’t know anything about charters,” said the father. “I was just looking for an escape.” After the new school assured him his child would not have to worry each day about being assaulted by his classmates, he was sold.

Riley uses this anecdotal evidence to support the decision by Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy de Vos to rescind Obama administration efforts to reduce the disparity between discipline imposed on Black schoolkids and White schoolkids.

But this anecdote also speaks to another controversial issue in education — whether charter schools, compared with traditional public schools, do a better job of educating kids.  On that question, the scorecard is mixed. In most studies that compare charters with similarly situated publics, there’s little difference in students’ test scores. For the rest, in some places, the publics come out better. And in some cities — New York, for example —  some charters consistently outperform public schools.

Charter school boosters claim that charter students do better because their schools are unencumbered by the teachers’ unions and educational bureaucracies that hobble public schools. But critics point out that charter schools have one way of improving their test averages that is not available to the public schools, and it has nothing to do with unions or regulations: charter schools can get rid of bad students. If you can force out the low scorers, the school average will be higher not because the school does a better job of teaching but just because of the way an average is calculated.

That’s true. But the expulsion option has an impact far beyond the math. Difficult and disruptive kids don’t just bring down the class average because of their individual low scores. They affect the general atmosphere of the class and the school. As Riley’s anecdote illustrates, troublemakers make it harder for other kids to learn and harder for teachers to teach.

I wrote about this back in 2012 (here), but I was reminded of it a few weeks ago in a conversation with an expert on educational testing and measurement who also had once taught in a middle school. We were talking about rating teachers on the basis of student test scores. Disruptive kids in the classroom, he said, can undermine the efforts of a teacher. Even the good teacher who gets one kid like that is not going to score well on these measures. With more than one, the problem grows almost exponentially.

That atmosphere in the public school in Riley’s WSJ op-ed was chaotic not because of the UFT and not because of the Board of Ed. The “bureaucratic” regulation responsible for it was the law that requires public schools to find a place for all kids, even the very difficult ones.

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