A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Charter schools, test scores, and assumptions

I pulled myself out of the stupor I was in as I collapsed on the couch this afternoon just long enough to hear a news report about how some new study "showed" that students at charter schools scored worse on tests than students at regular public schools. I'm sorry that I'm so vague about the particulars, but the last few days have been a BEAR.

Now, I am rather neutral on the whole charter chool issue in general-- although the ones that have opened around here have been cited for sloppy record-keeping and shady financial deals, not to mention unqualified teachers. But that may not be the case everywhere. I can easily imagine that they COULD be done well-- unfortunately, I just haven't seen it.

So once again, this got me thinking about studies and statistics. First, do people not really understand that most "studies" in this country are hardly performed by disinterested third parties? Rather, many studies are created by interest groups as propaganda, and the statisticians compiling them are far less interested in ascertaining the "truth" than in gaining ammunition to support their particular point of view-- or at least the point of view of the people holding their leash providing the money to fund the "research." I mean, it's like those ads from the cigarette companies in the 1950s claiming that "4 out of 5" doctors doctors recommended Tarleton cigarettes because they "soothed the nerves."

Second, there are several variables for which it seems this study did not control. Consider: in many places, students whose parents place them in charter schools are fleeing chaotic former schools. A successful student is probably not going to prompt a parent to uproot their child. But a struggling student would be most likely to provoke a parent into taking a chance on an alternative school setting. Hence. how do we know that the students at charter schools didn't enter these school already behind in skills and test scores?

It's like comparing public school students to students at chi-chi private schools. Private schools can and do limit which students they accept, whereas public schools must take all comers. But control for income and other factors, and a different story emerges.

The study gets reported because it's news. People accept the story because it's on TV. But that doesn't prove the claims to be true.


At 8/23/06, 9:46 AM, Blogger Janet said...

Charter schools have their benefits, but they have their drawbacks, too. A lot of charter schools in my state are being built in areas that struggle academically. Even in the best situations, where poorer schools are given state aid, many children still barely pass.

I'm not sure about the charter situation, but I think they have less money to work this population and if that's right, that does make a difference.

At 8/23/06, 3:45 PM, Anonymous Jonathan said...

This study is not by a disinterested 3rd party, it comes out of the US Department of Education, which today is a supporter of charter schools. They delayed the release of the report to coincide with the release of a major survey on the Public's Attitudes Towards Public Schools, in an attempt to bury it.

The AFT had a nice piece here.

At 8/23/06, 6:35 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Thanks jonathan-- that's my point.

Of course, they didn't like the results they got, but I think that that's because they did their usual bang-up job of not crafting the right questions. What would be interesting would be if they would compare the change, if anything, in the same students' scores before charter schooling and after charter schooling. That would be a more accurate assessment of what they're trying to measure. Comparing different students' scores is far less meaningful.

At 8/27/06, 8:16 AM, Blogger Mike in Texas said...

Comparing different students' scores IS meaningless, but that is exactly what the DOE does to the public schools. What's good for the goose is good for the gander


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