Expert Comment: Bad Press the Real Problem For Charter Schools

Published August 30, 2006

(Chicago, Illinois – August 30, 2006) On August 22, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released a study comparing students enrolled in charter schools with students who are not. The study purported to find that charter students often perform worse on tests than non-charter students.

Although NCES acknowledged the limited importance of its findings, the report was heralded by the media as proof charter schools don’t work.

The study led to an August 27 editorial in the New York Times,”Exploding the Charter School Myth,” which claimed, “The evidence so far shows that charter schools are not inherently superior to the traditional public schools they often seek to supplant–and that they are sometimes worse.” This is a misrepresentation of the available evidence.

What follows are comments on the NCES study by recognized education experts. Please consider calling them for comment if you choose to cover the NCES report or charter schools generally.

For more information about The Heartland Institute, or for assistance contacting the experts below, please call me at 312/377-4000.

Greg Forester, Ph.D. is director of research at the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation. He can be reached at 317/681-0745 or by email at [email protected]:

“Studies using proper statistical controls have consistently found that charter schools perform better than regular public schools. Analyses like this one, lacking the right statistical controls, are really looking at student quality rather than school quality. And it’s well known that charter schools intentionally seek out the most challenging students, the ones the regular public schools can’t handle.

“If the Department of Education can’t figure out how to use appropriate statistical methods, it should just release the data and leave the analysis to others. This is the second time in as many months that it has released a study lacking proper statistical controls to isolate school quality from student quality. The last one smeared private schools, and now it’s going after charter schools.”

Jeanne Allen is president of the Center for Education Reform and can be reached at 202/822-9000 or by email at [email protected]: (from CER News Release)

“This problem is at the heart of the ongoing research wars … The education establishment–teachers, unions, school boards associations, and more–tout these flawed studies in an attempt to discredit new school opportunities for parents. My message to any parent, especially those with children attending charter schools, is to look at state-level assessments and get a real picture of student achievement. It’s there that charter school students shine like the true stars they are.

“This latest interpretation of government data adds nothing to the question of how well students perform in charters compared to other schools … [A]s more than a million children go off to charter schools over the next month, how they learn will best be answered by local and state measures that have more depth and validity, and not by sloppy analyses of complex statistics.”

Collin Hitt is director of education policy and reform at The Illinois Policy Institute and can be reached at 217/494-6268 or by email at [email protected]:

“Because it looks only at the present test scores, and does not take into account past academic performance, the study–at best–serves as a snapshot of public and charter school performance. Every researcher agrees: no causal inference can be made from the findings. The study says as much: ‘The data [were] obtained from an observational study rather than a randomized experiment, so the estimated effects should not be interpreted in terms of causal relationships.’ In other words, they have no idea why some students are performing better than others.

“What’s more, the figures are from 2003. Since then, the number of American charter schools has increased by 40 percent. Cautioning against the inevitable use and abuse of the study’s findings, the commissioner of the NCES said, ‘The fact that this is 2003 data being reported in 2006 is something that I’m not proud of … This was a pilot study and not meant to be definitive … What does this report say to a parent? Not much, frankly.’

“Nevertheless, the AFT and other apologists for public education’s failing status quo have and will continue to attempt to make this study say what they want it to say: kids are better off–best off–in traditional public schools. That’s a frightening claim, and one that has no empirical basis.”