Charters: To Skim or Not to Skim?
A new study finds that children who enrolled in the Harlem Success Academy (HSA) charter school did better than those who tried to enroll but were not selected in the school lottery. This type of study, which compares the fate of students who won the lottery with that of those who lost, challenges the notion that the best charters do well merely because they select students who would do just as well in any other environment.
But the study also suggests that there might be limits to the charter model.
For one, the study reveals a few differences between students at HSA and their peers in traditional public schools. Students who entered the lottery but lost did substantially worse than those who won. But those who never entered did worst of all. This finding suggests that the lotteries might attract students who are more likely to succeed. Perhaps they or their families are more motivated, savvier, or able to draw on resources the other students lack.
One group that is noticeably absent from the HSA lottery: students who are still learning English. A full 21 percent of third graders who had never enrolled in the lottery were English Language Learners. Compare that to the four percent of those who had enrolled and the zero percent who won. HSA is apparently not yet reaching a critical population.
None of this diminishes the finding that HSA seems to have made a big difference for those who won the lottery. None of it allows us to wave aside the triumphs of the school, its staff and its students. HSA should prompt us to understand what the school is doing well and see if we can transfer those practices to other schools.
But the study should also prompt us to pay closer attention to so-called "peer effects" in charter schools. Do these schools concentrate students from the most motivated or savviest families in one place? Do the students benefit, at least in part, from the company they keep? Do students in regular public schools lack that advantage? Will regular public schools suffer if charters draw students who, for one reason or another, are most likely to succeed?
Some strong charter supporters openly acknowledge the role of peer effects in the success of the best charter schools. They argue that motivated families deserve the best possible choice for their children, full stop.
But the grander claims offered by some in the media--that charters show us "what works" for all kids, or that the best charter schools don't cream--aren't yet ironclad. Reporters should at least think twice before they use the triumphs of a wonderful charter school as a stick with which to flog regular public schools in the same area.
If we truly believe in our rhetoric of "all kids" and "every child," then I'm not sure we can put so many of our eggs into the charter basket. We still need to help those families who, for whatever reason, aren't enrolling their children in the lotteries. And we must do even more to help those children who have no advocates at all.
(Hat tip to Debra Viadero.)
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