The NAACP called for a moratorium on the rapid growth of charter schools last year and commissioned a task-force to hold hearings across seven cities to learn from various parents, teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders. Their just-released report from the task force relies heavily on anecdotes and the opinions of interested parties to paint a distorted picture of urban charter schools that contrasts with the large body of serious empirical research over the last several years.
We should learn from those with first-hand experience of charter schools. But anecdotes and individual experiences are necessarily limited and are often misleading when applied to such a politically charged issue. Some people say one thing, others say the exact opposite. Such testimony thus should be understood within the context of a careful consideration of the available evidence.
The NAACP report, instead, either selectively cites or simply ignores the wide body of charter school research in order to support their preferred stories.
For example, despite a large body of research, the only evidence on the impact of charter schools on students attending them comes from Stanford University's Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO). The CREDO research is well-done and in most cases compelling. Yet how one cites CREDO's expansive work has become a common Rorschach test that reveals one's predispositions about charter schools.
The NAACP report cites CREDO's 2009 paper measuring the aggregate effects of charters in 16 states which found that a larger proportion of charter schools perform worse than surrounding traditional public schools than perform better than them. That sounds damning.
But why didn't they instead focus on the 2015 CREDO report that applied the same methodology to study urban charter schools in 41 regions? It's hard to conclude the reason is anything other than that that paper did not fit the task-force's preferred narrative.
In that paper, CREDO found that urban charter schools—the schools of particular interest to the NAACP—perform significantly better than their traditional public school counterparts. It turns out that aggregating all charters within a state, as did the paper the task-force cites, mixes the positive effects of urban charters schools with negative effects for suburban charters.
The report quietly puts in the disclaimer that charter school effects vary by locality. Boy, do they! According to CREDO, charter schools serving heavily minority populations in Boston, the Bay Area, Memphis, Newark, New York City, Washington D. C., New Orleans, Denver, and Detroit produce very large test score gains relative to surrounding traditional public schools. Only the charters in a few southwestern cities and Florida have negative effects relative to nearby alternatives.
Is it worse to selectively cite research or to ignore it? The NAACP report does both.
Among the committee's recommendations for ensuring charter school quality is to require charters to hire only certified teachers. That sounds like good advice on the surface. The report cites evidence that charter teachers are less likely to be certified than teachers in traditional public schools. But it cites no evidence linking teacher certification to higher student achievement. Why? Because it doesn't exist.
An enormous body of research finds no link between teacher credentials and student performance. The evidence suggests that a better approach would be to remove the unnecessary requirement that traditional public school teachers be certified, not expand it to the charter sector.
NAACP's biggest gripe is the allegation that charters refuse to enroll or push out disruptive, difficult-to-educate, or simply low-performing students. Support for this claim is found in anecdotes from parents and teachers who had bad individual experiences with charters and comparisons of expulsion rates in charter and traditional public schools. Such disturbing stories are common in charter school debates. But while charters have acted inappropriately, research shows that these stories do not represent the norm. None of the several existing analysis of enrollment data following students over time has found that charter schools experience disproportionate attrition of such students relative to traditional public schools.
The task-force's disinterest in empirical evidence stands out in the list of those who testified. They heard from superintendents, union leaders, and charter school administrators. They rightly heard from both charter school supporters and detractors. But they lacked testimony from researchers currently contributing to the charter school literature. Despite the committee's preference for her work, CREDO's lead researcher, Margaret Raymond, did not testify.
The task-force held a hearing in New Orleans but did not hear from Tulane's Doug Harris who is leading the analysis of that city's charter schools. Each of the handful of researchers that testified is a charter school critic and none are major players in the academic literature on charter schools.
Policymakers and representative organizations should engage in conversations about how to make the charter sector better. But those conversations will only be productive when they include both the experiences of those on the ground and the findings of high-quality objective empirical research. Unfortunately, the NAACP task-force's report failed to meet that very basic standard.
Marcus Winters (@MarcusAWinters) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is an associate professor at the Boston University School of Education and a Manhattan Institute senior fellow.
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