A Second Look at the AFT Report on Charter Schools
September 10, 2004
What would the first day of school be without a little
controversy from a teachers union? On August 17 the American
Federation of Teachers (AFT) challenged claims that charter schools
help boost student achievement. The New York Times hailed
the AFT report "Charter School Achievement on the 2003 National
Assessment of Educational Progress" as "a blow to supporters of the
charter school movement." According to the Times, the
report shows charter students "often doing worse than comparable
students in regular public schools."
There is, of course, more to the story than what the AFT or the Times would lead you to believe. Historically, the AFT has supported charter schools, especially since AFT's Al Shanker is sometimes credited with practically coming up with the idea. Further investigation into both the Times' article and the AFT report show that things are not as bad as reported. Far from it, in fact.
First, as the New York Times admits one of charter schools' best selling points is that students at charters improve more quickly than do students in traditional public schools. Exhibit A is the work of Tom Loveless at the Brookings Institution. According to the Times Loveless has found "that while charter school students typically score lower on state tests, over time they progress at faster rates than students in traditional public schools." But the Times only mentions this evidence in one of the last paragraphs of its article.
Exhibit B is the AFT report itself, which notes in its executive summary that differences between Black and Hispanic charter students and their peers in public schools are not statistically significant. Also, "The achievement gaps between white and black students and between white and Hispanic students were about the same in charter schools as in regular public schools."
This is, of course, a far cry from the Times' assertion that charter students "are often doing worse than comparable students." And as Jay Greene wrote in his response to the report, "many charter schools are specifically designed to serve students with low test scores." In fact, he reports that 13 percent of New York charter schools, 41 percent of Texas charter schools, and 67 percent of Illinois charter schools serve poor performers.
Harvard researchers Paul Peterson, William Howell, and Martin West put the AFT's conclusions in proper perspective: "These results could easily indicate nothing other than the simple fact that charter schools are typically asked to serve problematic students in low-performing districts with many poor, minority children." These researchers also explain that "one needs to track student progress within a school over multiple years in order to ascertain how much the child is learning." But the AFT only looked at "student performance at a single moment in time."
More accurate and complete results are on the way. The Department of Education has been scheduled-even prior to the AFT report-to release a full report on charter schools based on the same NAEP data. This report will include information about student demographics and school characteristics to help us understand more about charter schools' progress.
In his response to the union's report, House education committee chairman John Boehner dismissed the spin from the AFT-New York Times tag-team and chose to focus instead on the real problem and its solutions. "For decades, our nation has been grappling with a sad reality: Too many minority children aren't learning," he wrote in the National Review Online. "Massive spending increases haven't dented the problem." Boehner is well aware of this since all major pieces of education legislation must pass through his committee.
Boehner agrees with Greene and the Harvard researchers. What America needs is what charter schools have to offer: the freedom to innovate with appropriate accountability. Charter schools are created with the understanding that if students do not make achievement gains, the school will be shut down.
If only all schools operated that way.