(Part of my recent post on conventional wisdom of education)
Charter schools are not bad for traditional public schools
One common complaint about Charter Schools is that they hurt the local Traditional Public Schools. This makes a lot of sense because it looks like it is stealing money directly from the schools by decreasing student enrollment. To be fair, Charter Schools are a big and complicated problem and every instantiation of charter schooling is different. However a lot of the studies that try to measure the impact of Charter Schools on Traditional Public Schools show that Charter Schools often improve the performance of local public schools because of the extra competition for students that Charter Schools provide.
Charter school success is not because of cherrypicking students.
It is commonly argued that charter schools are only successful because they are able to cherrypick the students who get into the schools (sometimes called “cream skimming”, I did not choose these names). This view is common and has been pushed forward by many news outlets. A recent Reuters report about some of the worst abuses of charter school cherry picking has had a lot of influence on the general public’s sensitivity to the issue.
In the literature this problem is called selection bias. The idea is that if you can get the best students in your school those students scores will be successful regardless of what the school actually does. Now this can happen in some circumstances. That is always a possibility. However it’s commonness is considerably over reported.
When you actually look at the research you’ll find that most studies on the subject find that there is either little evidence of cherrypicking in charter schools or the effect is very small. For this particular topic we need to be especially careful of evidence that is overly anecdotal or biased by funding source since the majority of actual scholarly reviews finds little evidence for cream skimming.
Charter School success is not only because of “no excuses” disciplinary policies
Another common scapegoat for explaining away the success of charter schools is to say that charter schools are only successful due to Draconian “no excuses” disciplinary policies. Now once again there can be situations where the disciplinary policies of schools can look very tough and borderline unfair to people who do not work in the schools. There is no doubt about the fact that structured disciplinary policies improve the overall success of the school however there are a lot of ways in which journalist can be unfair in how they assess these disciplinary policies.
“Urban charter schools adopting a No Excuses approach have been associated with the largest gains in academic performance. Most of the urban charter schools included in the lottery-based studies reviewed here have adopted a No Excuses approach characterized by strict and clear disciplinary policies, mandated intensive tutoring, longer instruction times, frequent teacher feedback, and high expectations for students. In combined data from Massachusetts , New York City , and national studies , this set of No Excuses practices was positively associated with charter school effectiveness.”
The term “no excuse” is typically a misnomer. It doesn’t describe the majority of actual disciplinary policies that charter schools use. “No excuse” or “zero-tolerance” policies typically describe the system’s popularized in the 90s to try to ensure that schools would not have issues with violence or drugs. You would have a “zero tolerance” policy on bringing weapons, drugs, or violence to the school — one time and you’re going to be sent to another school. These policies have been taken to the extreme in some cases and they have a record of being very destructive to communities in some cases.
However, Charter Schools policies are not necessarily “no excuse” policies. Instead they tend to use complicated multi-tiered disciplinary systems that include a lot of restorative practices along with the use of social workers and counselors to try to mediate problems and provide a long range of incentives to improve student behavior while maintaining school safety. This is not the case in every school, but there are literally thousands of charter schools across the country. The coverage of them is frequently in bad faith, and what is often labelled as “no excuse” is not necessarily problematic or destructive. At least anecdotally, my own school’s disciplinary system is frequently cited by my student’s parents as their favorite aspect of the school.
To people who do not work in education, this can seem unfair because it is so drastically different from the typical suburban school. However the alternative in many underdeserved districts is a lot of classroom chaos with students not respecting other students or teachers. There’s often little safety and there’s freqently no learning going on in the classroom.
Disciplinary policies are arguably the most important aspect of the school’s health. In some cases the studies on this matter show that without no excuses policies — or, in this case, without strong disciplinary policies — Charter Schools perform as well as public schools. However I do not personally think that tough and structured disciplinary policies should be seen as a charter school failure that should be factored out. When we just throw around the term “no excuse” to describe all charter school discipline systems, we are starting with a negative connotation for a practice that is uniformly found to be extremely effective in improving school outcomes. If anything, we should see all of these studies and put more work into figuring out how to best build disciplinary systems that maximize learning while also prioritizing student mental health. For anyone who actually has experience in education it is very clear that having a very structured school environment can be very helpful and, in most cases, necessary.
Public charter schools don’t hurt minority and poor students
I just want to inject uncertainty into how most people in education should think about these topics. The majority of evidence shows that charter schools on average improve student outcomes especially for underserved students of color. If we are to attack charter school systems we will likely be hurting many students who are being benefited by these institutions. On top of all of this I think that there are important human rights at play in the school choice debate. I also don’t think that this debate is the type where empirical evidence will be very important in shaping people’s opinion on the matter.