Monday, December 14, 2009

Closing Charters: Help Many, Hurt Some?

I think I mostly agree with Jay Mathews' latest post on closing low-performing charter schools.  But I can't tell because he uses flimsy evidence and makes at least one wild assumption.  The post centers around a charter school he says is performing poorly and why, nevertheless, the school isn't slated for closure.  I've asked before whether closing a charter school was actually easier than closing a traditional public school -- an assumption on which the market theory backing charter schools relies -- and I think it's an important question.

But I have no idea how bad the school in question is.  He cites a few test score statistics and then compares them to what I assume are the two highest-performing charter high schools in DC (one of which, SEED, is actually a boarding school and receives a plethora of outside dollars).  He leaves me with no clear idea how this school compares to the average school in DC, nor does he provide any qualitative evidence that the school climate is poor or students unmotivated.  Part of me is willing to take his word for it, but the evidence is certainly lacking.  Nonetheless, even if he picked the wrong school his point still stands -- there are some poor charter schools out there, and in order for charters to work as intended they need to be closed fairly swiftly.

But my biggest problem is with the last sentence in the post, in which he writes about a parent who thinks her kid is doing well at the school he fingers, saying that she needs to be convinced "that temporary disruption in her child's life will give him a better future".  What?

First of all, there's plenty of evidence that moving negatively impacts a child's performance in school the following year.  Given that the child in question is already in high school, he may not have a year to spend adjusting to a move.

Secondly, it may very well be the case that the child actually is excelling at his new school.  It's rather arrogant to assume that the parent is clueless in this particular case.

Lastly, the odds may not be particularly high that the student ends up in a better situation if he switches schools.  I'm unsure how many better schools are readily available to him, but it's probably not too many.  And if a school is "better" overall, that doesn't mean the student will be a good fit there.

Mathews' assumption is a good example of a problem that a lot of policy people run into when telling people what to do.  A policy can be both better for most people in the long-run and worse for certain individuals in the short-run.  Sure, the country is probably better off if low-performing charters are closed swiftly.  But the individual student mentioned -- or, for that matter, many other kids in that particular school -- may be better served if they remain where they are.

2 comments:

din819go said...

In my district charter schools can be closed after two years of probation. Sure would be great if the government default schools could be closed down as quickly...instead of the 5 - 7 years it takes now

Rachel said...

Sure, the country is probably better off if low-performing charters are closed swiftly. But the individual student mentioned -- or, for that matter, many other kids in that particular school -- may be better served if they remain where they are.

Which leads me to wonder if a school reform program that relies heavily on school closure as an improvement mechanism is really the best approach.

It's not like we're opening a whole lot of lunch stands and seeing which ones survive market pressure...