Wednesday, August 18, 2004

NY Times Bashes Charter Schools

When I first saw this article, (thanks to You Know Who), my first question was "what is the margin of error?"

The first national comparison of test scores among children in charter schools and regular public schools shows charter school students often doing worse than comparable students in regular public schools.

The findings, buried in mountains of data the Education Department released without public announcement, dealt a blow to supporters of the charter school movement, including the Bush administration.

I read the whole article and it turns out they never do answer that very basic question. The closest the article comes is this tantalizing but basically uninformative piece of trivia:
The math and reading tests were given to a nationally representative sample of about 6,000 fourth graders at 167 charter schools in February 2003. Some 3,200 eighth graders at charter schools also took the exams, an insufficient number to make national comparisons.

This makes it sound like the 4th grade results are statistically significant, since, hey, they are excluding data that isn't, right. Evidently not, according to Mickey Kaus and his various correspondents (scroll down to "Times Crusade I--Anti-NCLB").
The executive summary of the AFT's paper--clearly written with spin in mind--also quite deceptively hides the fact that the differences in reading scores between central city charter and central city public schools were "small and statistically insignificant."

So, OK, that's what I figured and pretty much what I would expect from the NYT. Reporting an insignificant difference as if it were significant is par for the course and nothing to get excited about.

My second question on seeing the article was "is it possible that these students started out below-average and that is exactly why they are seeking alternatives to the government monopoly schools in the first place?" Well, that actually did get an answer. Below the fold, but an answer none the less:
Detractors have historically accused charters of skimming the best students, those whose parents are most committed, from the poorest schools. But supporters of charter schools said the data confirmed earlier research suggesting that charters take on children who were already performing below average. "We're doing so much to help kids that are so much farther behind, and who typically weren't even continuing in school," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, in Washington, which represents charter schools. She said the results reflect only "a point in time," and said nothing about the progress of students in charter schools.

That, she said, could be measured only by tracking the performance of charters in future tests. For the moment, however, the National Assessment Governing Board has no plans to survey charters again.

One previous study, however, suggests that tracking students over time might present findings more favorable to the charter movement. Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, who conducted a two-year study of 569 charter schools in 10 states 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.

So it looks like this is nothing much to worry about. I favor vouchers over charter schools anyway, since there is still a lingering taint of government monopoly about charter schools, but I am glad to see that my distrust of Big Ed is in no immediate need of reevaluation.

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