Jewish World Review August 23, 2004 / 6 Elul, 5764

Joanne Jacobs

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Consumer Reports

Charter schools' dispute bad report card; books like me | Charter schools  lag traditional public schools in test scores, according to a New York Times story, which is based on the American Federation of Teachers’ analysis of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores.

However, the Times ignored the AFT’s huge caveat: When students are compared by race and income, there’s no statistically significant difference in achievement between charter and non-charter students.

The Times writes:

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.

That’s accurate. It’s also not surprising: The charter schools tested had nearly twice as many black students, who tend to score poorly.

This paragraph goes astray:

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.

The differences weren’t statistically significant, notes Eduwonk, which doubts that the AFT is acting "more in sorrow than anger" when it promotes anti-charter news.

They just don't like charter schools; they're not reluctantly concluding that they don't work, they're fervently hoping and working to ensure that's the case.

The Times story does concede that there’s evidence that charter students start out behind comparable students but make faster progress.

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One previous study, however, suggests that tracking students over time might present findings more favorable to the charter movement.

Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, who conducted a two-year study of 569 charter schools in 10 states, found that while charter school students typically score lower on state tests, over time they progress at faster rates than students in traditional public schools.

Unfortunately, NAEP won't track charter students over time to see how they improve.

Most charters are new schools still getting up to speed. Charter teachers often are young and inexperienced, though idealistic. I've seen a lot more troubled than cream-of-the-crop students in charters. But the bottom line is that the charter concept doesn't guarantee that every new school will work; it promises that ineffective schools will improve quickly or shut down.

The story sparked strong reaction from Education Secretary Rod Paige, who complained the Times ignored differences between charter and non-charter students, Chester Finn writing in the New York Post, Floyd Flake rebutting in the New York Times, Linda Seebach in the Rocky Mountain News, and bloggers Mickey KausRobert Tagorda and The Torch. The Center for Education Reform cited data showing strong achievement by charter students. In the Wall St. Journal, three Harvard professors observe that the data also show the superiority of religious schools to public schools, if crunched in the AFT’s way.

Chicago Tribune editorial by Tom Loveless pointed out the city’s charter schools have long waiting lists.

"Any parent who has a kid in a school who's doing great and is learning a lot, is happy and is scoring high on standardized tests probably isn't going to take him out of his regular school and put him in a charter school," Loveless wrote.  

The AFT-Times’ spin is being exploited by Washington state teachers campaigning to repeal the state’s new charter law, reports Shark Blog.

The Times capped its distorted reporting with an editorial that concluded: Charter schools are bad and it's all Bush's fault.

Eduwonk, which is pushing for a Democratic education policy that's not tied hand and foot to the status quo, keeps repeating that President Clinton backed charter schools, as do some liberal groups concerned about improving education for low-income, minority students. The Times implicitly argues that providing alternatives to kids trapped in bad urban schools is a Republican policy. That can't be a good strategy for the Democrats.

Books Like Me

Will black students read better if they read stories by black authors? Students show higher reading comprehension if they read stories that are "culturally relevant," says a study reported in the Christian Science Monitor. And schools now have access to much more literature by non-white authors.

Blogger Michael Lopez of Highered Intelligence predicts relevance will backfire.

Let me make a prediction here: the more we segregate education, the more we implicitly tell "black" kids that they should only be getting excited about "relevant" books, the more we're going to intellectually ghettoize said children, and the less they will be able to achieve. Reading is supposed to expand -- not reinforce -- your horizons.

I've seen working-class Mexican-American students enthralled by Harry Potter's adventures. They also like to read about Mexican-Americans, of course. But the ones who lack basic reading skills don't enjoy reading anything.

In Rhode Island, disadvantaged students are turned on to reading the classics through drama, writes Samuel Freedman in the New York Times.

When Kurt Wootton was fresh out of graduate school and brimming with idealism, he took a job (in Providence, R.I.) teaching English at Hope High School. He was white, his students were black, and so he assumed the best way to reach them was through relevancy. He assigned Richard Wright's autobiography, "Black Boy," and he put on jazz CD's by John Coltrane.

Students were unmoved.

Almost a decade later, Mr. Wootton remains every bit as convinced of education's power to transform stunted lives. He has changed his tool of choice, however, from a mirror in which students see only reflections of themselves to a window that opens onto the rest of the world. The program he devised and directs, ArtsLit, teaches literacy to children in some of Rhode Island's most troubled schools though performances of texts, many of them classics of the Western literary canon.

"Mr. Wootton sees high culture not as the oppressor of the lowly but as an agent of their liberation," writes Freedman.

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JWR contributor Joanne Jacobs, a former Knight-Ridder columnist and San Jose Mercury News editorial writer, blogs daily at She is currently finishing a book, Start-Up High, about a San Jose charter school. Comment by clicking here.


© 2004, Joanne Jacobs