Charters vs. public schools: Behind the numbers
[See correction below]
Charter school advocates often like to say that many of these schools do a better job than nearby public schools with the same population of students.
That, in fact, is what writer Steven Brill says about two schools--one public charter and the other part of the New York City School system--in an article in today's New York Times magazine entitled “The Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand.”
The article is long, and says a number of things with which I could argue but won’t here. What I will do, though, is point out the very real differences between two school populations that Brill says are the same.
This is important, because, as we all know, it isn’t fair to compare apples and oranges and pretend the comparison is between two pieces of the same fruit.
In his story, Brill writes about a building on 118th Street in Harlem that houses a charter school, the Harlem Success Academy on one side, and a regular public school, P.S. 149, on the other. He says the charter school spends less per person, but achieves better results:
“P.S. 149 is rated by the city as doing comparatively well in terms of student achievement and has improved since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took over the city’s schools in 2002 and appointed Joel Klein as chancellor. Nonetheless, its students are performing significantly behind the charter kids on the other side of the wall. To take one representative example, 51 percent of the third-grade students in the public school last year were reading at grade level, 49 percent were reading below grade level and none were reading above. In the charter, 72 percent were at grade level, 5 percent were reading below level and 23 percent were reading above level. In math, the charter third graders tied for top performing school in the state, surpassing such high-end public school districts as Scarsdale.
“Same building. Same community. Sometimes even the same parents. And the classrooms have almost exactly the same number of students. In fact, the charter school averages a student or two more per class. This calculus challenges the teachers unions’ and Perkins’s “resources” argument — that hiring more teachers so that classrooms will be smaller makes the most difference.”
But Brill has it wrong. The student bodies aren’t the same. Here’s a breakdown, according to the NYC Public School Parents blog.
At P.S. 149, 20 percent of the kids are special education students; and 40% of these are the most severely disabled, in self-contained classes. Eighty-one percent are poor enough to receive free lunch, and 13% are English Language Learners. In 2008 (the latest available data) more than 10% were homeless.
[Correction: Eight-one percent is actually the "poverty rate" at P.S. 149 according to one May 2010 New York City government report on the school. It does not refer to free lunches. The city's School Report Card on P.S. 149, says that 68 percent of P.S. 149 students are eligible for free lunches and 2 percent for reduced-price lunch. The city's School Report Card on the Success Academy shows that 49 percent are eligible for free lunches and 21 percent for reduced-price lunch.]
At the Harlem Success Academy, 2% of the students are English Language Learners (compared to 13% at P.S. 149 --more than six times as many). The school says it has16.9% special education students, (compared to 20% at P.S. 149) and of these, few if any are the most severely disabled. The charter school had three homeless students in the 2008-09 school year, less than 1 percent of its population (compared to P.S.149’s 10 percent).
It is worth noting that education historian Diane Ravitch reported in her book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System that only about 100 of the 40,000 homeless schoolchildren in New York City public schools are enrolled in charter schools.
Charter school advocates don’t have to make bogus comparisons to boost their argument in favor of an expansion of these institutions.
The truth may not be as compelling, but it has the virtue of being, well, true. Some charter schools are excellent and work wonders with kids. Some do an average job, and some are awful. There is no evidence that charter schools are the silver bullet that will “save” public education.
Traditional public schools have to educate every student who is eligible to enroll. They can't counsel students out, as many charters do, or select who they want. This is not an excuse for bad schools. But it is part of the reason that the job of the traditional public school system, which still educates about 95 percent of all schoolkids, is far more complicated than many reformers today would have you believe.
Follow my blog all day, every day by bookmarking washingtonpost.com/answersheet And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our new Higher Education page at washingtonpost.com/higher-ed Bookmark it!
| May 23, 2010; 2:58 PM ET
Categories: Charter schools | Tags: brill and story about unions, brill's story and charter schools, charter schools, steven brill story, the new york times and brill story, the teachers unions last stand
Save & Share: Previous: California bill takes aim at new Texas standards
Next: Bad standards: Not just in Texas
Posted by: Brooklander | May 23, 2010 5:01 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: pondoora | May 23, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Nikki1231 | May 23, 2010 7:52 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: letsbereal2 | May 23, 2010 8:15 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: marksimon1 | May 23, 2010 8:20 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: mamoore1 | May 23, 2010 10:04 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: edlharris | May 23, 2010 11:16 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: celestun100 | May 24, 2010 9:52 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: sunshine71 | May 24, 2010 9:53 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: sunshine71 | May 24, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: celestun100 | May 24, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: jmartincox | May 24, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: efavorite | May 24, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: SpaaceMonkee | May 24, 2010 3:35 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: janetcamillebrown | May 24, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: pondoora | May 24, 2010 4:24 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: ThinkingSmith | May 24, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: jmartincox | May 24, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: edlharris | May 24, 2010 8:33 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: mamoore1 | May 24, 2010 10:39 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Nikki1231 | May 25, 2010 5:51 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: ThinkingSmith | May 25, 2010 5:22 PM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.