On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education came out with a new study showing that fourth graders in traditional public schools are doing significantly better in reading and math than comparable children attending charter schools.
Most experts are not making much fuss about the study. The head of the National Center for Education Statistics, the U.S. Department of Education agency that put out the study, advised parents to pay no attention.Other experts interviewed by Washington Post Reporter Jay Matthews agreed.
But this study and others like it do add up to an inescapable conclusion: Charter schools are not currently performing way better than traditional public schools on standardized tests.
That in itself is a significant finding. Some people have supported charters over the years because they thought that they would do way better than traditional public schools on these tests. Freed from most regulations and open to innovation, these schools would soar.
Earlier this year I heard Ted Koldrie, a father of the charter school movement, discuss charter school performance at a conference. The original motivation for the creators of the charter school concept was not to prove that schools freed from government regulation do better, he said. The idea, rather, was to set up a legal structure that would allow and encourage educational innovation beyond what the traditional public school system was affording.
The important question, he suggested, is not whether charter schools as a group do better than traditional public schools. Rather, we should be asking: Which charter schools are doing well and why? What kinds of innovations that charters have piloted show promise? What can we learn from them?
It would be nice if we could say that being a charter school — being free of regulations — leads to much higher academic achievement for students, but no such luck. We're going to have to follow Ted's advice and look deeper for lessons that we can use to improve all schools, charter and traditional.