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Fugitive from the Facts

Joel Klein sure gets his name in the papers a lot. Last week, Klein placed an op-ed piece in the Daily News that was an abridged version of a longer essay appearing in U.S. News and World Report. “Stop making excuses,” the Chancellor commanded. Teachers, principals, superintendents, and citizens who claim that poverty is an insurmountable impediment to student achievement need to get out of the way and let the real reformers take over. “The truth is,” Klein wrote, “that America will never fix poverty until it fixes its urban schools.”

Wow. Setting aside the obvious—i.e., the fact that fixing urban schools will probably have little impact on the 15% of rural children under the age of 18 living in poverty—this is a bold assertion that “great schools,” especially networks of charter schools, can succeed in closing the achievement gap and reducing social and economic inequality where nothing else has. It’s not spending and school resources that matter; it’s high-performing charter schools.

To support this contention, Chancellor Klein cites the recent study of charter and pilot schools in Boston. This study finds that students who won lotteries to enter charter schools in Boston outperformed their peers in traditional public schools, as did students in charter schools who were matched with similar students in traditional public schools. Promising evidence for charter schools, but weak support for the notion that attending charter schools can close the achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students and their more affluent peers, and weaker still for charter schools as the centerpiece of a public policy initiative to fix poverty.

Klein quotes study co-author Tom Kane of Harvard and the Gates Foundation as saying that charter school eighth-graders’ math scores were “very close” to the scores of eighth-graders in Brookline, a wealthy Boston suburb. (This claim did not appear in the report itself.) The subtext is that charter schools have elevated the performance of poor, predominantly Black and Hispanic children to parity with more affluent white children.

There’s just one problem: It isn’t true.

The figure below compares the 2008 performance of eighth-graders in Brookline with eighth-graders attending the nine Boston charter schools that Kane and his colleagues studied. Massachusetts reports a student’s performance on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) as advanced, proficient, needs improvement, or warning. Forty-four percent of the eighth-graders in Brookline performed at the advanced level in mathematics, compared to 18% of the eighth-graders in the nine Boston charter schools. At the other end of the distribution, 17% of the Boston eighth-grade charter students were classified as at the warning level in mathematics, compared to 7% of the Brookline eighth-graders.

The story is much the same in English Language Arts (ELA), although the Boston charters fare a bit better in the comparison. Twenty-four percent of the Brookline eighth-graders scored at the advanced level in ELA, whereas only 9% of the eighth-graders in the nine Boston charter schools did so. Overall, 90% of the Brookline eighth-graders are at the proficient or advanced levels, compared to 81% of the Boston charter eighth-graders.

Undoubtedly, there are good charter schools, and some bad ones as well. And it’s certainly possible that charter schools on average do as well or better than traditional public schools in educating children and youth, although I’m reluctant to generalize from the current research to charter schools in general, and I’m still looking for a persuasive explanation of why this would be so. But I don’t think that Joel Klein, or anyone else, should be allowed to get away with making claims that distort the promise of charter schools.

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