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Evaluating Charter Schools Fairly

A recent editorial stating that "the typical New York City charter student learned more reading and math in a year than his or her public school peers" caught my attention ("Thinking Sensibly About Charter Schools," The New York Times, Oct. 16).  I can't let this statement about the 180 charter schools serving 70,000 students in New York City, home of the nation's largest public school system, pass without comment.  

As I explained in a previous letter to the editor of The New York Times, such reports lead to flawed conclusions ("Inside the World of Charter Schools," The New York Times, Mar. 3).  Here's why: When there are more applicants for admission to a charter school than seats, the policy is that a lottery must be used.  In sharp contrast, traditional public schools by law have to enroll all applicants.  As a result, self-selection contaminates results.

Researchers make every effort to control for this factor by focusing on students who won the lottery against those who did not.  In other words, they look at two groups that are composed of similarly motivated students.  But this strategy can be applied only to schools that are popular enough to require a lottery in the first place and that keep accurate records.  Therefore, I urge a healthy dose of skepticism about glowing reports regarding charters. 

But even greater caution is essential when comparing charter schools with traditional public school because the former do not have to enroll English-language learners and special education students. A new report about the success of charter schools in Boston readily admits this, but then curiously downplays its importance ("Boston and the Charter School Cap," Education Next, Winter 2014). You can't have it both ways. Yet this factor continues to be given short shrift.  

Nevertheless, I don't expect the charter school debate to end.  There's too much money at stake, with some 53,000 students on the waiting list in New York City alone.  This demand appeals to for-profit management companies hungry for low-risk investments.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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