Knocking Down Misconceptions About Charter Schools

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The recent article in The Nation by Adolph Reed Jr. and Cornel West offers an unfortunate example of how a selective read of available information can lead one to draw conclusions that go well beyond what the research and data can reasonably support. Furthermore, articles like this leave very little room for common ground, and instead push folks further into camps where we are unlikely to develop stronger policies focused on serving our students better.

The authors engage in a myopic review of the evidence and, as a coauthor of a study they cite, I can say that they missed a couple of others I co-wrote that provide a fuller and more nuanced story. But nuance doesn’t work well when you’re trying to sell a narrative. Neither does checking the veracity of the evidence as many of the studies they leverage to support their points have serious flaws and have not been subject to peer-review.

In what follows, I provide some brief highlights of both incomplete and unsubstantiated evidence used by the authors. For brevity I focus only on academic performance, segregation, discipline, and teachers.

The first glaring point is that the authors cite as fact a 2009 CREDO study that found charter schools underperforming when compared to their traditional counterparts in a little over a third of all cases, but then criticize a follow-up study done by the same group that found overwhelmingly positive results for charter schools on the grounds that the methodology was flawed. HINT: the methodology was the same for both studies.

The authors then suggest that these negative academic results exist even after charter schools cream skim enrollments and that admission practices lead to increased racial segregation. This has long been a topic studied by the academic community and while evidence has been mixed (positive, negative, and neutral) there have been systematic changes such as common enrollment systems that have been designed to address such concerns.

But there are two fundamental problems with the discussions at the intersection of charter schools and segregation. One, there is a comparison problem. Many studies use aggregate comparisons that do not consider the communities the schools serve, including the one that the authors cite. So naturally if one is comparing a charter school that serves a primarily non-white community to district schools that have a more heterogenous population the charter school will appear less integrated. But that may be precisely where the charter school is needed if the traditional district was underserving those students. Two, there is a math problem. A recent study suggested that charter schools could serve as tool to integrate our schools. But perhaps unintentionally, the study also demonstrated that in the traditional public school system about 40 percent of all non-white students would need to switch schools in order for those schools to be perfectly integrated. When charter schools are added, that number only goes up one percentage point.

The authors then cite a news article that mistakes correlation with causality in attempting to document high suspension rates in several charter schools in Los Angeles. Overly restrictive and potentially disproportional suspension rates are certainly of concern but are not a manifestation of charter schools. They have been documented for decades and have been found in traditional and charter schools alike. Again, the authors ignore the math as traditional schools account for 94 percent of all public school enrollment. The authors also miss an opportunity to highlight innovation happening in many charter schools around discipline reform including restorative justice and data-driven positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS).

Finally, the authors highlight what this means for the teacher workforce. As I mentioned previously, the authors cite a study I did that documented changes to the teaching workforce in New Orleans. While the city’s percentage of Black teachers went down from 71 to 49 percent, there is much more to that change beyond the increased presence of charter schools. There are demographic shifts, retirements, and issues with diversity in the pipeline to name a few. But still, the city’s charter schools have shared the concern about the demographic shift and have developed innovative solutions to attract and retain teachers of color. The authors also ignore recent evidence that a student of color in a charter school has a higher likelihood of having a teacher or color than a student of color in a traditional school. This is particularly important given emerging research on the importance of a student of color having at least one similar race teacher.

Ultimately, the article presented by Reed and West does not provide a credible indictment of the charter sector and the merits of how it can serve students of color. Instead, they provide yet another example of how we have become so entrenched in our own beliefs that we cannot—or will not—seek out a more pragmatic approach to solving some of our toughest challenges. There are just too many missed opportunities.