Friday, April 29, 2011

Charter to Public, Apples to Oranges

Those who have been paying close attention to the education debate have no doubt heard 'experts' state that charter schools are doing a better job of educating students than traditional public schools. If one were to look specifically at test related data, this conclusion could easily be drawn. As an example, let's look at a comparison of the KIPP Academy (Lynn, MA) against its traditional public counter parts: Marshall Middle School, Pickering Middle School and Breed Middle School. Below is a chart looking at the 'needs improvement' or 'fail' rates on the 2010 MCAS.

MarshallPickeringBreedKIPP
NI/FailNI/FailNI/FailNI/Fail
English51%35%49%33%
Math76%56%66%37%

*NI - Needs Improvement

From this table, we could conclude that KIPP is doing a significantly better than its counterparts, especially in math education. What experts often fail to take into account or perhaps tend to underplay is that charter schools' populations often differ from that of the traditional public schools. This is important because we may work for a particular group of students attending a charter school may not be applicable to the district as a whole. In this case, the population of KIPP compared to the other middle schools does indeed differ.

MarshallPickeringBreedKIPP
ELL62.6%31.2%57.7%38.1%
LEP21.6%4%19.5%1.6%
Special Ed19.2%18.8%20.6%10.5%
Low Income93.3%58.3%83.7%88.9%
Total Population9306451168370

*ELL - English Language Learner
*LEP - Limited English Proficiency

These numbers show that KIPP is educating a much lower number of English language learners and limited English proficiency students than the other three schools; KIPP also enrolls a lower number of special education students than the district as a whole. Therefore, one could say that comparing the schools is not appropriate because each school is facing challenges that the others may not. Pickering for instance has a much smaller low-income population than the other schools, while Marshall is nearly 100% low-income. Breed has the largest population overall and the highest percentage of special education students. Additionally, the sizes of each school vary such that there is likely differences in the percentage of students facing other issues such as domestic violence, medical problems, and mental illness, factors that obviously affect academic performance. The comparison becomes even more nuanced if you add school absences and parental involvement to the mix. Therefore, simply replicating charter or even private school policies in so-called underperforming schools may not produce the same positive results due to the varying dynamics within each school environment. Because of this, each school should be allowed to created individualized academic plans that would cater to the specific needs of their school's population. The one-size fits all standard of academic progress and success as defined by No Child Left Behind has created a culture in which many if not all of our nation's schools (even charter schools) will be considered failing by the year 2014 (when all schools are supposed to reach 100% proficiency).

While charters school are an option for those searching for an academic experience not found in traditional public schools, the way that policy makers and the media have touted charter schools as "the answer" is unfortunate. Charter schools work for some parents and students just like private and parochial schools work for certain families. To continuously compare charter schools to traditional public schools without considering this sort of data simply perpetuates the apples to oranges comparison that has resulted in direct attacks on teachers and unions without any real solutions to the issue of education reform.

**All data taken from www.doe.mass.edu

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