Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Evaluating Charter Schools

As charter schools grow in both number, size and importance in the educational landscape, there comes an inevitable call to measure the schools, to create some sort of "gold standard" as was noted in yesterday's Washington Post article by Jay Mathews.
Now, some charter leaders in the city that is a national epicenter for their movement are planning to take the next step in this sifting process. They say they want to create a "gold standard designation," to publicly identify for the first time which charters are doing the most to raise teaching quality and academic achievement for low-income students.

Ramona Edelin, executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools, likened the initiative to a certification system to show "what high quality really means in terms of children of color from impoverished backgrounds, which is the vast majority of the students charter schools educate here."

Officials at the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which oversees charter schools, said they have been discussing an annual report card that would play a similar role for the city's 56 charter schools, on 80 campuses, which serve roughly three of every 10 D.C. public school students. Such talk has not gone nearly as far in Maryland or Virginia. There are 31 charter schools in Maryland, many in Baltimore and some in Prince George's County and elsewhere in the Washington region. Virginia has three, none of those in the Washington suburbs.

National charter school leaders say the idea of certifying their best, already used in California, is likely to spread as the 4,000 U.S. charter schools face a strong pushback from traditional public school advocates. National research shows that charter schools on average are no better at raising achievement than regular public schools. But high-performing charter groups such as KIPP, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, Aspire, YES and Green Dot say they are not average.
The movement for a "report card" is not all that surprising and for the most part can be a good thing, both for the charter schools and for the traditional public schools in the same community. If the charters can come up with a meaningful standard or standards upon which to grade charter schools, beyond the simple statistics currently used, then there will be a push by the parents of non-charter students to see the same kind of evaluative tool used on traditional public schools--which goes beyond the current measures. Once again, charters are paving the way for new thinking in education--this time in grading the schools.

But the obvious hurdle how and what to measure to define the "gold standard." That in and of itself is a difficult enough hurdle. But an even more complicated hurdle is the differences between charter schools themselves. While some criteria, such as enrollment, test scores, and other factors can be objectively measured, there are some matters that aren't as easily measured. For example, how does one measure or account for the different focus between two schools-say a math/science focused school versus a more general school or a school that perhaps focuses on languages or government (and there are such differences in DC). Clearly a school with a math/science focus is going to do better in those categories and it would seem unfair to judge them harshly for not emphasizing say government or the arts.

There are other subjective factors as well, namely, selectivity, demand, the make-up of the student body, the relative age of the school (experience matters), whether or not the school is affiliated with a larger charter management organization (arguably KIPP and other has an advantage in terms of administrative matters and set up).

While I applaud the effort, I think we may be a long way from creating various standards and grading categories. But without a doubt any system that helps inform parents as to their choices and the characteristics and nature of those choices the better. I have argued that a choice based market in education can work, but I am often dismayed at the response that I get, that parents lack information to make an informed choice. Well, people make choices about where to live, based in part on poor quality data on schools (at least those with the means to make such choices in living arrangements), so what would make actual school choice any different? With a evaluative guide, even if it doesn't lead to the definition of a gold standard, there will be more information about charters and that is a good thing in and of itself.

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