Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Charter schools: it all depends what we do next

Bryan and Emily Hassel use a spaghetti sauce analogy to make an important point about charter schools:
Say you set out to improve your mother’s beloved spaghetti sauce recipe (treading on even more sacred ground than public education!) You try ten different variations. Despite your best efforts, three are worse than the original. Five are no better, but two are markedly superior. On average, the new batches are a little worse than your mom’s. But—would you say your experiment was a failure, or a success?

It really depends on what you do next. It’s a failure if, the next ten times you make spaghetti, you cook the same 10 trial recipes. But what if instead you avoid the eight bad and OK recipes, make more of the two good ones, and try more new recipes that build on the ones that pleased your palate? Your average experiment in round 1 was a “failure,” but your average meal going forward is going to be pretty tasty.

And so it is with charters. If mixed results means we ignore what we've learned and plow ahead blindly, we'll continue to get mixed results. If, instead, we learn to emulate what works, education will improve.

The Hassels refer to a recent study by Caroline Hoxby, which has gotten some attention in the media. Some of the more important lessons of the study have gone under-reported, however. Yes, Hoxby shows that charter kids do better than their non-charter counterparts. That's important. But also important is that Hoxby identifies those policies which appear to be responsible for the success of those charter schools:

We are confident that the following policies are associated with charter schools' having more positive effects on students' achievement:
  • a long school year;
  • a greater number of minutes devoted to English during each school day;
  • a small rewards/small penalties disciplinary policy;
  • teacher pay based somewhat on performance or duties, as opposed to a traditional pay scale based strictly on seniority and credentials;
  • a mission statement that emphasizes academic performance, as opposed to other goals.
This isn't the holy grail, of course. There is no guarantee that we can turn around a struggling school simply by popping these policies into place. But it's a start. The data suggest that these things make a difference, so we should implement them as we move forward in identifying other effective policies.

As an aside, the Hoxby study concludes that a long school year is the policy most strongly associated with success in the schools looked at. I read today that President Obama is butting heads with the teachers unions over just this policy; the unions absolutely oppose the idea. With the usual caveats about my wanting the federal government to get the hell out of the education business, kudos to Obama for being on the right side of this issue and for standing up against those who butter his bread. I'm skeptical that any good will come from this, but I have to give credit where credit is due.

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