Revolutionaries tempered by reality

There's some consternation within the education establishment right now with what it sees as Arne Duncan's obsession with charter schools. There he is, warning states that they will lose out on "race to the top" funds if they don't eliminate their charter school caps. There he is, arm-twisting legislators in Tennessee to pass a stronger charter law. There he is, speaking at the National Charter Schools Conference about the key role that charters are expected to play in the stimulus-driven transformation of our system, including the reconstitution of failed district schools.

But to the perturbed establishment I say: Take the long view. The fact that the school reform world is so invested in the charter movement will help you over time, if only because said reformers are learning how hard it is to boost student achievement and how unjust first-generation accountability systems are for gauging school performance.

This isn't an entirely new development. Five years ago, when the New York Times published a front-page, AFT-seeded story about NAEP results that showed charters to be trailing their district-operated peers, charter advocates suddenly discovered "value-added assessment." It wasn't fair, they argued, to base judgments of school performance on such one-time "snapshots." Schools needed to be judged on the progress of their students over time. To which the establishment replied, "Hey, we've been saying that for years about No Child Left Behind. Welcome to the party."

And so it came as no big surprise when then Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings allowed a few, and eventually all, states to move to a value-added system of accountability under NCLB. With both establishment and insurgents agreeing on the inadequacy of one-point-in-time measures, moving beyond them became politically inevitable.

Fast forward five years, and consider how things have changed and how they have stayed the same. The insurgents have become the new establishment. Arne Duncan and most of his team are charter school enthusiasts, many of them having toiled in the fruitful vineyards of reform-minded outfits like the Gates Foundation and the NewSchools Venture Fund. They run the show now, at least in Washington. They have big bucks to throw around. And they are doing all they can to help their colleagues in the charter movement, particularly the corner of that movement that's about replicating schools with high test-scores and "bringing them to scale."

This week brought another critical charter study, one that's harder to debunk than the earlier Times NAEP analysis. (See more below.) In part, that's because it was done by CREDO, Macke Raymond's outfit at Stanford, and she's a known charter supporter. In part, it's because the study looks at progress over time, with a sophisticated (though by no means perfect) methodology. And its results are sobering: 37 percent of the charter schools in her sample trailed similar district schools in math gains over time. Only 17 percent of charters bested their district-run counterparts. (Yes, the news looks much better for charters if you ignore brand-new schools, or students who just switched schools. And yes, charters seemed to do especially well with poor kids.)

Still, many charter supporters will agree with Secretary Duncan that the CREDO study is a "wake-up call" and that "the charter movement is putting itself at risk by allowing too many second-rate and third-rate schools to exist." We will close down the bad schools and multiply the good schools, they shout. And we could. And should. And in some places, already do.

But will we shut down 37 percent of all of the charter schools in the country because they perform worse than their traditional counterparts on math state tests? Or 83 percent of all charters because they perform worse or no better than their district peers? Let's assume that the CREDO study was overly pessimistic. Will we kill twenty-five percent of charters? Fifty percent?

No. It's more likely that the charter movement will go in another direction, already foreshadowed by the reaction to the CREDO study. Advocates will argue, first, that charter schools are getting decent results with a lot less money than traditional public schools. Show us more money and we'll show you better results! Second, charters will point to broader measures of success than test scores alone. Look how engaged students are in these smaller settings, they will say. Consider the award-winning character-education program. See how effective we are in preparing students for college. Notice the family atmosphere. Consider our arts program, our focus on the "whole child," and on and on.

Such arguments aren't crazy. The "intangibles" of schools certainly matter as much to affluent families as test scores--maybe more. Why shouldn't they matter to poor families, and policymakers who share their concerns?

Which brings us to the paper on school accountability released today by the "Broader, Bolder Approach to Education" crowd. Are you ready for some unexpected news? It is eminently sensible.

That's a big surprise, for in the past this coalition has appeared eager to refight old battles about whether schools can be expected to help poor kids reach high standards. Now, however, it's arguing for a broader look at school success--what might be termed "test scores-plus." They would keep test-based accountability, tweaked in various ways (with progress-over-time measures, better assessments, a more robust NAEP, etc.) and supplement it with school inspectors. These inspectors would guard against lousy practices, such as "an undue emphasis on test preparation," and catch schools engaged in good ones, like "a collegial professional culture in which teachers and administrators use all available data in a collaborative fashion to continuously improve the work of the school."

It's not hard to image charter advocates supporting such a system and believing that it will show their schools to have more supportive learning environments than what is found in a typical public school. Studies like the one from CREDO might show lackluster test results, but look at the whole picture and the story is much brighter, they will say.

So public education groups: If you seek a kinder, gentler approach to school accountability, keep rooting for Arne and company to continue their magnificent obsession with charters. Because the more real-life, in-the-schools experience the reform crowd gains, the more appealing these second-generation accountability systems are likely to be to them. And with the "new establishment" already calling for "more money"--well, their agenda is your agenda, too.

More By Author