Trends: Charter Vs. Pilot Schools
In the national charter school debate, Boston has special significance. The city has unleashed imaginative teachers to run both independent charter schools and semi-independent “pilot” schools, with much of the rest of the country waiting to see which does best.
Teachers unions and charter opponents have put unusual emphasis on this contest. Boston pilot schools were designed to show that schools with collectively bargained pay scales and seniority protections could do just as well as charters, whose teachers are usually non-union.
Charters, independently operated schools with public funding, were not designed to be anti-union. American Federation of Teachers founding president Al Shanker originated the charter idea. But many conservatives who think unions stand in the way of raising student achievement have embraced the charter school cause, thus politicizing the debate. Their side just won the first round in Boston, and they are not likely to let charter opponents forget it.
A study by scholars from Harvard, MIT, Michigan and Duke, sponsored by the Boston Foundation, shows the Boston charters are doing significantly better than pilots in raising student achievement. This includes results from randomized studies designed to reduce the possibility that charters might benefit from having more motivated students and parents. The study is called “Informing the Debate: Comparing Boston’s Charter, Pilot and Traditional Schools.”
People who see charters as a ruinous drain on regular public schools, and a threat to job security and salary protections for teachers, are not going to accept this verdict. The data come from just one city, with many qualifications. For instance, the randomized results apply only to charters so popular they have more applicants than they can accept. Less popular charters were not included in that part of the study; they could have reduced the charters’ measured gains if their data had counted.
Here is how the scholars summarized their findings. Don’t be frightened by the techie reference to standard deviations, a statistical way of measuring difference that the authors quickly explain:
“We generally find large positive effects for charter schools, at both the middle school and high school levels. For each year of attendance in middle school, we estimate that charter schools raise student achievement .09 to .17 standard deviations in English language arts and .18 to .54 standard deviations in math relative to those attending traditional schools in the Boston Public Schools. The estimated impact on math achievement for charter middle schools is extraordinarily large. Increasing performance by .5 standard deviations is the same as moving from the 50th to the 69th percentile in student performance. This is roughly half the size of the black-white achievement gap. In high school, the estimated gains are somewhat smaller than in middle school: .16 to .19 standard deviations in English language arts; .16 to .19 in mathematics; .2 to .28 in writing topic development; and .13 to .17 in writing composition.”
The scholars add: “The results for pilot schools are more ambiguous and deserve further study. In the elementary grades, the estimated impact of pilots was positive in English language arts (.09), but not statistically different from zero in mathematics. In the middle school grades, the observational results suggest that pilot school students may actually lose ground relative to traditional public school students, with point estimates of -.05 standard deviations per year in English language arts and -.07 in math.”
These results appear at an interesting time. Some union leaders, particularly AFT President Randi Weingarten, have begun an aggressive effort to show they can match the best charters’ reading and math gains with charter or pilot schools run by union members. Teachers at a Brooklyn charter school started by the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) recently joined Weingarten’s union. If they challenge the longer KIPP school day and the power of KIPP principals to fire teachers, a clash is possible between Weingarten and KIPP co-founder Dave Levin. The New York City KIPP education director, Levin has one of the best records in the country for raising the achievement of inner-city middle school students and winning fervent parent loyalty.
Mathematica Policy Research is studying several KIPP schools, using the same method employed in the Boston study. Students who enroll in KIPP in fifth grade are being followed for several years, their records compared with a control group of students who also applied to KIPP but were not selected in the randomized lotteries required when charters are oversubscribed. The Boston study gathered similar data for charter schools and pilot schools with an overflow of applicants.
In Boston, charter and pilot schools have proved popular with parents. Both have performed better than regular public schools in at least some categories. Giving school leaders more independence seems to produce more energetic teaching and better-coordinated programs. It is a shame these two experiments have been put in conflict with each other. But the role of unions in education is a lively issue, often discussed in campaigns and conferences, so Charters vs. Pilots will continue to draw a big crowd, with many rounds to go.
Washington Post editors
| February 13, 2009; 3:00 AM ET
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