TCS Daily

Buying Teacher Union Spin, Hook Line and Stinker

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - August 26, 2004 12:00 AM

The American Federation of Teachers recently released a report gauging the performance of charter school students against public school students. The New York Times ran a story on the AFT's findings in which AFT's spin was bought hook, line and sinker:

"The data shows fourth graders attending charter schools performing about half a year behind students in other public schools in both reading and math. Put another way, only 25 percent of the fourth graders attending charters were proficient in reading and math, against 30 percent who were proficient in reading, and 32 percent in math, at traditional public schools.

"Because charter schools are concentrated in cities, often in poor neighborhoods, the researchers also compared urban charters to traditional schools in cities. They looked at low-income children in both settings, and broke down the results by race and ethnicity as well. In virtually all instances, the charter students did worse than their counterparts in regular public schools."

But the story of charter school performance is more complicated than what the Times and the AFT make it out to be.

A study performed by the Center for Education Reform demonstrates that charter schools both provide an invaluable service to underserved students, and allow those students to outperform students from public schools when results are gauged on "student-to-student analysis." And when it comes to examining the effectiveness of charter schools, Joanne Jacobs -- another education blogger and a TCS contributor -- points out that despite the misinformation directed against charter schools, people are well aware of the capability of charter schools to provide the kind of quality education that public school officials can only dream of providing. As Jacobs puts it, "Most Chicago charter schools have long waiting lists. Parents apparently think the charters offer more than neighborhood schools."

But one does not need to rely on anecdotal evidence to realize the effectiveness of charter schools. On the contrary, one need only examine the many ways in which the attack on charter schools is flawed.

The education blog Eduwonk points out a serious problem with the AFT/Times report:

"For starters most of the charters are new and so this data is better considered as baseline data rather than some sort of final evaluation. In addition, charters tend to serve the most at-risk and struggling students. These can be difficult variables to operationalize, complicating comparisons with other schools even while holding some demographic factors constant.

"Most importantly, though, when one controls the grade 4 data for race it turns out there is no statistically significant difference between charter schools and other public schools. 
But, you'll search in vain in the Times story for that context. In fact, to the contrary, a chart accompanying the story fails to offer readers any significance tests for the numbers they're looking at, inaccurately indicating that there are significant differences by race."

In addition to taking apart the AFT/Times spin, this Wall Street Journal editorial shows that the data used so gleefully by the AFT to smear charter schools is not as convenient for the Federation in pointing out other findings:

"Indeed, if the AFT believes these findings [regarding charter school performance], it must also concede that religious schools excel. According to the same NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] data from which the AFT study is taken, religious schools outperformed the public schools nationwide by nine points, a gap that is as large as the public school-charter school difference AFT is trumpeting.

"On other occasions, the AFT has objected to interpreting such findings as evidence that religious schools are superior, on the grounds that they attract an especially able group of students. But for charter schools, apparently, similar student differences are less important."

Jay Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute highlights in the 
New York Sun yet another flaw in the AFT/Times report:

". . . Unlike regular public schools, many charter schools are specifically designed to serve students with low test scores. Denouncing charter schools for having lower-than-average test scores is like denouncing drug rehab clinics for having more drug users than regular hospitals. . . . Across the nation there are charter schools with the stated purpose of educating groups like pregnant teens, high school dropouts, delinquent youth, or even the broadly defined group of at-risk children. About 13% of New York's charter schools are targeted to such underperforming populations. So are about 41% of charter schools in Texas and 67% of charter schools in Illinois.

"It should come as no surprise that charter schools promoting themselves as special alternatives for low-performing students would have below-average test scores. Such schools simply have no equivalent among regular public schools."

And finally, Chester Finn -- who was quoted in the Times report as saying that the charter student scores reported by the AFT data were "dismayingly low" -- takes the AFT and the Times to task in severe fashion in a recent New York Post op/ed, pointing out the many discrepancies in the AFT data.

In the end, the fact that this report even turned into a story is remarkable -- considering the extent to which charter school-bashers got this story wrong. The question is whether the corrections cited above will receive the same kind of prominent attention the AFT report did. On that issue, I'm not holding my breath.

The author is a TCS contributor. Find more of his writing here.


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