Variance in School Quality

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The New York Times’s Trip Gabriel did an informative piece trying to pop a bit of the bubble of enthusiasm for charter schools, showing that while some much-discussed charter schools are excellent, most are bad-to-middling. The piece is definitely worth your time, though I thought it was unfair to charter proponents in much the way Dana Goldstein identifies, insofar as I don’t think anyone actually informed about education in the United States holds some of the views Gabriel is trying to knock down.

I think the important point to take away from the evidence on charter school performance is simply the point that school performance varies widely in the United States. This is not nearly as well-understood as it ought to be. Most people who know a little about social policy realize that demographic factors are major predictors of student achievement and that as Gabriel emphasizes, educating poor children is a difficult task. What some people don’t get, however, is that while demographics matters a great deal so does school quality. You can see this in traditional public schools where poor kids in New York and Boston do much better than poor kids in Washington, DC. And you also see it in charter schools, where a minority are excellent but most are not excellent.

And to state what should be obvious, the factors driving the excellence or lack thereof have more to do with what’s actually happening in the schools than with the magic of institutional design. Some conservatives have convinced themselves that public schools are so bad that loosening the institutional structure will miraculously better schools. It doesn’t. What loosening the institutional structure does do is let people try new things, some of which have worked out quite well and many of which have worked out quite poorly. From a policy point of view, what you want to do is start killing off some of the worst-performing charters while continuing to let some new ideas see the light of day and encouraging high-performing charters to expand. It’s not at all clear that the more successful models out there can be replicated on a sufficient scale, but the only way to find out is to let them expand. Meanwhile, most children are in “normal” public schools and will continue to be for the foreseeable future so it’s important to try to make them work better.