Academic journal article Education Next

Looking in the Wrong Place: The Flaw in the New Federal Charter School Study

Academic journal article Education Next

Looking in the Wrong Place: The Flaw in the New Federal Charter School Study

Article excerpt

As the proverbial story goes, a drunk, when asked where he had lost his keys, pointed off in the darkness, far from the lamppost under which he was searching. "But the light's better here," he explained.

So it is with the new federal study of charter schools. That study plans to look at 50 middle schools (and, perhaps, some older students at elementary schools), despite the fact that, according to our estimates based on data from the Center for Education Reform, only about 20% of the country's 3,400 charter schools are middle schools or have a middle school plus high school design; the rest serve students beginning in kindergarten or 9th grade. Even worse, two studies presented in this issue of Education Next appear to confirm what intuition suggests: charter schools are most effective for students who enter at an early age.

It's cheaper to look at middle-school kids, says the federal contractor, Mathematica Policy Research (MPR). By focusing on middle school, one can simply use the statewide data on a child's performance on tests for students in grades 3 through 8, as mandated by No Child Left Behind. For a solid study of elementary schools, MPR would have to administer its own tests.

In other words, the middle schools are where the cheap light is. Never mind that most kids are elsewhere.

Of course, no single study will ever tell us about all charter schools, because charters are inherently diverse. It no longer seems odd to encounter under the same moniker military schools and peace schools, schools for dancers and schools for those who have broken the law, boarding schools and schools that exist only in cyberspace. Indeed, that was the original intention: to free schools from suffocating regulation and give parents choices.

So it is ironic that the media treat charters as identical as they zero in on one overriding question: do students attending them learn more than students attending traditional public schools?

The issue is becoming all-consuming. Beginning with the New York Time's front-page splash about an American Federation of Teachers (AFT) study in August of 2004 ("Nation's Charter Schools Lagging Behind, U. …

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