Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Charter Schools: Polishing a Data Turd

A few years ago Bill Gates and a few other members of Billionaires for Annihilating Public Schools funded a very expensive study on Charter Management Organizations (CMOs). (Yes, they call them CMOs--I didn't make up that part).

CMOs are private businesses that manage charter schools. They are the new "middle men" of the charter school industry in the USA. They will grow into one of the largest businesses in the USA if charter schools continued to be allowed to (partially) displace our system of public education. They the where the rubber meets the road in the trillion dollar opportunity that mega-rich investors--sorry, philanthropists--see in charter schools.

Why haven't you heard about this study? Strange, isn't it? Seems like the Charter folks would be shouting about it from the rooftops.

Suffice it to say that the results of the study were mixed, and anybody taking a serious look at this data would have to conclude that charters are not a solution to anything significant and certainly aren't worth the money and massive diversion they are causing in taking energy away from reform and programs that would actually help.

They found the usual array of "mixed" results from charter schools in general: some improve over the local school district, many don't. (I continue to be amazed how many charter schools cannot improve upon their local schools considering they are "shooting fish in a barrel" by engaging in creaming and only taking the relatively best students and throwing out the lower performing ones).

The study also focused on success factors. What makes a successful charter school? Here are the key factors the study found:

  1. Charter schools implement school-wide behavioral policies. Translation? They get to kick out the harder-to-educate kids and send them back to public schools. This is the other half of the equation I talked about in my article on creaming: find the easiest-to-educate kids first, and throw out the expensive ones, repeat.
  2. Charter school teachers receive more "coaching". Translation? Charter schools have more money (the report admits the study's numbers are highly skewed by schools with "philanthropy" e.g. they get a lot more money than just public funding) and thus have more time to spend on management overhead. (I have also discussed the role the parents play in simulating this management overhead, and it's likely that charters benefit from both paid and parental management far more than public schools).
  3. Charter schools have more instructional time. Translation? Unless you believe in magic, this means quite simply that many of today's charters simply have more money to educate their relatively uniform, relatively non-special needs kids.
So in reading this study's rather extensive data, you must conclude:
  • That charter schools aren't a silver bullet and have not solved any real educational problems.
  • That more money means better outcomes in aggregate (although not always). Who would have guessed that?
  • That creaming continues to be charter school's sole advantage over public schools.
So there you have it. Bill Gates and the Walton (Walmart) family just spent a small fortune proving their model has no merit. Clearly this research company won't be getting their contracts renewed.

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