Charter Schools Proving Their Mettle

By Peirce, Neal | Nation's Cities Weekly, May 17, 2010 | Go to article overview

Charter Schools Proving Their Mettle


Peirce, Neal, Nation's Cities Weekly


Are charter schools still the best hope for students from America's low-income urban families?

Some charters do fail--victims of poor management or an inability to raise students' achievement scores.

But two powerful experiments--one in Boston, the other in the San Francisco Bay Area--suggest the power of well-run charters to break through barriers and dramatically increase the potential for inner-city children to succeed.

Critics have said test scores in charter schools aren't materially better than in regular public schools. Even when charter school scores are better, the critics dismiss the findings by suggesting the charters have an advantage because they're skimming off students from committed families already more engaged in their children's education.

But a rigorous Harvard-MIT study of Boston-area students, sponsored by the Boston Foundation, has shown otherwise. Massachusetts uses lotteries to decide which children get admitted to charter schools--and which don't. So the researchers were able to compare the subsequent academic performance of the lottery "winners" and "losers."

And what they found was extraordinary. At both the middle- and high-school levels, students who'd won the charter lottery subsequently scored impressive gains, both in math and English skills, compared with students who'd lost and remained the regular public schools.

"We were thrilled with the charter school results," says Mary Jo Meisner of the Boston Foundation. "There's been a feeling there's nothing you can do for poor, urban kids unless you cure poverty" and "fix" the entire environment that holds them back. The test results, she adds, show that's "just not true."

A more recent foundation-sponsored analysis, Meisner says, explains a crucial difference: time in school. Compared to the regular Boston schools' short days, the charters typically offer longer hours. Combining that with more personal attention to each child's needs produces real results.

Plus, charter students scored far better than those in Boston's "pilot" schools. The pilots are a cross between charters and regular public schools that the Boston Teachers Union had originally agreed to, but subsequently resisted (presumably out of fear of loss of control over hours and working conditions). The union's intransigence angered Mayor Thomas Menino, who'd initially seen the pilots as a way to raise standards without a bare-knuckles fight with the union.

Based on its charter school findings, Boston Foundation President Paul Grogan and his colleagues led a major campaign to double the number of charter school seats available in Massachusetts. Enlisting corporate and civic allies, it formed a broad "Race to the Top Coalition" to take advantage of the school funding competition being conducted by the Obama Administration.

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