Today the charter school quality debate hit the front page of the New York Times, and I can't imagine charter enthusiasts will be happy. The piece's author, Trip Gabriel, looks at many of the same studies and comes to the many of the same conclusions I have over the past two years in my work for The American Prospect: While some of the best schools in the country at educating poor minority kids are charter schools, on average, charter schools are no better at raising children's academic performance than are typical traditional public schools, which are still the home of 97 percent of public school kids in America, and likely to remain the home to the vast, vast majority of American schoolchildren well into the foreseeable future.
(Since New York City is so often used to counter claims of nationwide charter mediocrity, I'll add a caveat here: Little about the generally high-quality New York charter sector is typical–it's a highly regulated marketplace that educates less than 5 percent of NY school kids, compared to 57 percent charter penetration in New Orleans, 36 percent charter penetration in Washington, D.C., and so on. I explain more here.)
That said, I want to make a few points in defense of charter schools and the deep-pocketed, politically influential movement that fosters their development. The Times article leaves the impression that charter advocates have only recently realized how difficult it is to educate poor children. Gabriel writes:
…with the Obama administration offering the most favorable climate yet for charter schools, the challenge of reproducing high-flying schools is giving even some advocates pause. Academically ambitious leaders of the school choice movement have come to a hard recognition: raising student achievement for poor urban children — what the most fervent call a new civil rights campaign — is enormously difficult and often expensive.
I'm not sure it's fair to paint the entire charter movement in this naive pose. When you read books like Jay Matthews' Work Hard, Be Nice, a biography of the KIPP network of charter schools, or speak to passionate free-market education reformers like Amy Wilkins of Education Trust, it's hard not to be struck by how often they mention that teaching poor kids is very hard work. In part, this explains their antipathy toward the teachers' unions–they don't believe unions are willing to push teachers to work long enough hours, give enough extra attention to struggling kids, or sacrifice enough of their own comfort and stability in order to do what they see as the nearly messianic work of getting poor children of color to college. I've called this stance the "miracle ideology," because some of these education reformers, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, really do seem to believe that great teachers must perform daily miracles of self-sacrifice.
Secondly, Gabriel is pretty critical of a Cleveland charter school he visits, the Arts and Social Science Academy, for producing poor state test results. Yet the atmosphere in the school is clearly warm, safe, and supportive. Though we shouldn't mistake those attributes for academic success, they might be a significant improvement over other schools these children could be attending. Indeed, while there is little evidence to suggest parents are particularly good judges of which schools help their kids succeed academically, parents are good judges of which schools are nurturing toward children–and that's one reason why parents enter lotteries for charters and private school vouchers and keep their kids in those schools, even when the kids repeatedly fail state exams.
These are relatively small critiques, though; in general Gabriel's piece is one of the best-researched works of education journalism I've read in awhile–since Elizabeth Green's Times magazine cover story on good teaching. You should read both.