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Bruno: Charter Proponents Vs. The Charter Effect

RedTapeMatt Di Carlo has a great post over at the Shanker Blog explaining why we shouldn't think about charter schools as a monolithic educational intervention given their considerable diversity. As he says, studies seem to indicate that "schools’ effects on test scores may vary less by what they are (e.g., charter versus regular public school) than by what they do (e.g., specific policies and practices)."  So we should try to identify what characteristics of the best charter schools make them effective so that those interventions can be provided to as many students as possible.

That all sounds right, but I think it's worth stepping back here and remembering that, while it's true that charter schools vary dramatically in terms of how they operate, for a lot of charter school proponents it is precisely what charter schools have in common that is supposed to make them superior alternatives to traditional district schools.

What unites charter schools, but distinguishes them from other public schools, is freedom from some of the various rules and regulations to which most district schools are subject. And while many pundits have echoed Matt Di Carlo's nuanced stand on the virtues of charter schools, many others have claimed that schools granted these freedoms would ipso facto outperform traditional public schools.

In particular, these arguments have often focused on union work rules. Sol Stern's position, for instance, was that "the big teachers' unions are a key reason for the failure of American public education" and that much of the promise of charter schools was in their ability to avoid "the straitjacket of work rules that [union] contracts impose".  Marcus Winters has similarly argued that because charters "are not subject to the burdensome restrictions imposed by collective-bargaining agreements", teachers unions are "responsible for [traditional schools] inferiority in the first place." As recently as September John Stossel argued that:

[Charter schools] escape the bureaucracy of regular schools, including, often, teachers union rules. These schools compete for kids because parents can always choose another school. That makes them better. 

In other words, there have been many voices making fairly specific claims about how teachers unions and other burdensome bureaucracies as such are holding back school performance. Since charter schools are distinguished mostly by their freedom from union and bureaucratic forces, studies showing no overall "charter effect" do seem to offer at least some partial refutation of the Stern/Winters/Stossel line of argument. For them, what charter schools have in common was exactly what was supposed to matter a great deal.  Yet the evidence suggests that it doesn't. - PB (@MrPABruno) (Image source)


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@Paul, two words: Selectivity. Attrition.

Take a look at your classes and imagine if you could get rid of the less successful students, and, of course, the disruptive students. Oh, and the students with disabilities (especially complete exclusion of the students with more severe disabilities) and the English language learners.

Now add the freedom to create admissions processes that screen out those students to begin with.

How would your class do?

It seems that when we look 'state to state' in the USA, the most successful states have very strong teachers' unions while in the so-called right-to-work weak or non-union states, we see terrible educational results.

When we look outside the USA at the world's most successful education nations like Finland, Korea and Canada we see highly unionized countries with strong teachers' unions.


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