Monday, September 28, 2009

(Why) Are NYC Charters Different?

Now that the Washington Post has also taken the findings of the latest charter school report as gospel, I think it's important that we examine some of the issues it raises more in-depth.

As Diane Ravitch points out, there a number of other studies finding blase or discouraging results for charters both nationally and in other cities.  So if we assume that the report's findings are correct (while I think the report skims across a lot of issues, it does seem fairly likely that charter schools are outperforming traditional public schools in NYC), the first question we should ask is why charters in NYC are different.  I can think of at least four reasons why NYC charters may be outperforming charters elsewhere when compared to other local schools:

1.) NYC schools are uniquely bad.  If the public schools in NYC are incredibly atrocious and dysfunctional, then it shouldn't be that hard to create a school that outperforms most local schools.  From experience, I can tell you that there are certainly a number of schools in NYC that are incredibly atrocious and poorly run.  While teaching there I regularly heard horror stories from other teachers (not to mention the things I experienced in my school) that should make anybody cringe.  I really can't say, though, that these horror stories make NYC schools any worse than those in Philly, Chicago, L.A., etc. -- I'm sure you can find more than any school's fair share of horror stories coming from other big cities as well.

2.) NYC charters more easily attract talent and funding.  NYC is, to many people, the most important city in the world.  There's certainly more talent and money floating around the city than there is in most other American cities.  I have no evidence either way on this, but it's certainly plausible that NYC charter schools both find it easier to attract both talent (both in terms of management and employees) and outside funding -- both when compared to charters in other cities and when compared to other NYC schools.  Especially since there are only around 80 charter schools in the city compared to around 1,000 or so traditional public schools.

3.) The NY Charter Review Board outperforms others.  It's certainly possible that the board that approves the creation of charter schools in NYC does a better job of screening and monitoring than do other boards.  One of our teachers during our pre-teaching summer training session was in the process of creating a charter school in Harlem.  From what he said, it sounded like an awfully involved process involving a heck of a lot of thought and work.  And maybe this has resulted in better planned and more successful charter schools.

4.) The other studies are all flawed.  In other words, maybe Hoxby et. al. are right and everybody else is wrong.  I'm sure all the other studies are flawed, but so is this one -- so I don't really find this idea convincing.  It's not out of the realm of possibility that charters are generally outperforming other schools and we just haven't proved it yet, but I find it more plausible that charters are performing differently in different places.


Anonymous said...

I don't know - I've heard from someone involved in the starting of a charter that the process was highly sketchy. This person left the project because so much information about the school-to-be was being flat-out invented... by people who would not be involved with implementation, and with little or no discussion or thought.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

I wasn't arguing that the charter review process is necessarily good -- I have very little idea what it's like either in NY or other places -- I was simply coming up with a list of what might be the plausible reasons for a difference in charter results in NYC.

Anonymous said...

Ravitch has turned into a tendentious one-sided whiner who just ignores literature she doesn't like, e.g.,

Corey Bunje Bower said...

You probably could've made your point without a personal attack. Besides, the point of Ravitch's op-ed stands regardless of who wrote it: a number of studies -- both nationally an within various cities -- have found no notable positive results from charter schools. Note that none of the studies that Greene cites are national ones. So, my question still stands: if we assume that this study is on target, why do NYC charters seem to be doing better than those elsewhere? And you'll note that one of the possibilities that I raised was simply that the other studies are flawed.

And, by the way, I find it kind of odd that the people who have lauded Ravitch over the decades have decided to disparage her now that she disagrees with them on some issues.

Anonymous said...

Why is it odd? People liked Ravitch when she made sense; now that she's taking out her personal grievances on certain New York politicians by flipping out 180 degrees, she's not as coherent any more.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Making sense is, to some extent, in the eyes of the beholder. I don't buy the argument that she suddenly stopped making sense at all. If you thought she was brilliant the last few decades, it sure seems logical to at least listen to what she says now . . . even if you don't agree with everything she says.

Anonymous said...

Well, it's not hard to compare. The 2001 Diane Ravitch writes a long New Republic article arguing that liberals should support vouchers. It's closely and tightly argued, well-supported with evidence both from history and from the prevalence of school choice in Europe. See

The 2009 Ravitch just whines that school choice is deregulation, with comments like, "Deregulation nearly destroyed our economy in the past decade, and we better be careful that we don’t destroy our public schools too." That's just stupid: Charter schools have absolutely nothing in common with financial regulation or the lack thereof.