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Educational gains in charter schools are still gains

I was interested to note the similarities between the statement offered by the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) in Tuesday’s New Zealand Herald article “Charter Schools: Test Results rise in new study” and that of the American Federation of Teachers in a New York Times article of 24 June.  

It doesn’t take an amateur sleuth of Hardy Boy pedigree to suspect groupthink.  Both unions attempt to play down the results of a recent Stanford University study that shows improvements in average American charter school performance across 25 states, as well as New York City and the District of Columbia.  Both appeal to history and stress the expectations that accompanied the beginnings of the charter school movement.  Both then return to the present and make out we should dismiss any charter school success because this doesn’t entirely fulfil those initial expectations.  

Right.  So, let’s take an example to explore this argument further: say charter school operators originally hoped that, at their institutions, all African American students living in poverty could learn twice as much every year as regular public school students, regardless of demographic.  But it turns out that, by 2013, African American students from impoverished backgrounds and enrolled in charter schools “only” gained 29 days of learning in reading and 36 days in math per year over their public school counterparts from the same demographic.

Failure?  I wouldn’t think so.  Yet these gains were among the Stanford study’s findings, and they went unreported in the Herald article despite the fact that, if anything, they should provide some encouragement to proponents of partnership schools here.  After all, the oft-stated rationale of the latter is to proceed against the long tail of underachievement in New Zealand schools, especially among Maori and Pasifika students.

At least one could not accuse the NZEI of inconsistency within the framework of its chosen historical discourse.  It has adhered to the line that the charter school movement is a “failed experiment”.  If failure consists of the non-alignment of well-meaning but naïve expectations of charter school supporters in the 1980s with the modest overall gains of charter schools today, then the movement is indeed a failure.  But would this definition of failure be widely shared outside the union’s language game?  

It’s not failure in my book, in any case.  Surely most parents would hope for and expect the best education for their children, and if this weren’t possible, they’d settle for a better education.

None of this is to say that charter schools in the United States (US) are better in every case than regular public schools.  The study does show that, while 25 percent of charter schools produce significantly better results than public schools, 19 percent show significantly poorer results.  Even then, as John Banks’ spokeswoman is right to point out in the Herald article, there is little reason to conclude that charter school results will be the same in New Zealand as in the US.  Will they be better or worse here?  We don’t know, and we can’t know until we try them, but studies like this show that there’s potential in the model.

All this is to say that select interpretations of independent evidence can distort the reality. One final point, in this vein, to address the past and to correct the unions’ historical myopia: the hopeful expectations of charter school supporters in the 1980s included those of Mr Albert Shanker.  And who was Albert Shanker?  The President of the American Federation of Teachers from 1974 to 1997.  

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