Charter Schools: For Better or Worse?

Graded Standardized Test with Red Pencil
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iStock 000020095044XSmall 150x150 Charter Schools: For Better or Worse?I probably should not touch this subject. But, I’ve always wondered about charter schools. On the one hand they seem to be a great idea. Held accountable to the same standards as public schools and yet allowed to innovate and reform unencumbered by unwieldy bureaucracies. On the other hand they don’t really seem to deliver a superior education.

Using standardized testing as a barometer, study after study pretty much concludes that there is simply no record of enhanced achievement by charter school students. In fact, According to the Stanford University Centre for Research on Education Outcomes, 17 per cent of American charter schools provided a superior result to state schools, 37 per cent were worse and 46 per cent were the same. In Sweden, there was no demonstrable difference, on average, between charter and public schools. Hardly a ringing endorsement of charter school education.

A recent attempt to open the first such schools in New Zealand led to resistance by many parents and teachers. As is the case with many such controversial initiatives the simple question of whether charter schools were a good idea or a bad idea could not be answered. Even though charter schools have existed for over two decades and number in the thousands in the US, Great Britain, South America and Sweden to name a few, no one can prove if they have been a success. A report from a tumultuous school board meeting in New Zealand reads:

Isaac admits there’s a mixed record for charter schools in the US, Britain and Sweden, and acknowledges some of the good-news stories that did emanate from Britain’s charter schools (called “academies”) simply resulted from the Blair government burning enough money to ensure success.

Opponents and supporters brandish statistics as if they were pistols in a duel.

There are many measures of success and failure, and each side deploys these indices to support its argument.

Of course one could argue that holding charter schools to the public school standards does not really allow them to innovate as they would like, asking them, in essence, to fight with one hand tied behind their backs. In addition, perhaps standardized tests do not reflect the change such schools seek to effect. Perhaps a better barometer would be asking parents if they felt their children were receiving a better education.

However, if the reason for standards is to verify that agreed upon educational goals have been met, no school should have the right to veer from those goals, only to find other ways to guarantee their attainment. Most simply put, any way you package it, failure to reach learning goals is failure. And, thus it begs the question: why the poor record?

While there are many ways to approach the above query, one would be to give our public schools a pat on the back and admit that they are doing a better job than we had given them credit for. Maybe we should realize that the problems and challenges facing our schools cannot be easily rectified by adopting new methodologies and different teaching practices. While there is much to be learned from the charter schools, and all initiatives to better our educational enterprise should be praised and encouraged, we must be cognizant of the limits of such endeavors.

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