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Being a charter doesn’t make school good or bad

Updated: January 6, 2012 8:08AM

Surprise, surprise: Chicago’s charter schools aren’t doing much better than those in the Chicago Public School system.

I don’t say that as one of those foaming-at-the-mouth charter school haters who believe that these publicly funded out-of-district schools do nothing more than cherry pick the decent students and divert money from neighborhood schools. No, it’s a wistful observation from someone who for years has been following charter schools’ mixed track record all over the country, hoping they would emerge as a viable and scaleable solution to the conundrum of how to educate poor, at-risk students.

“Wildly uneven results” is how a Sun-Times’ story last week characterized the charters’ performance, which is a pretty good way to describe how well charters tend to perform overall, nationally.

Last December I pointed out as much when Terry Mazany, then interim CEO of CPS, led his first board meeting, where he bowed to parent pressure and put off a vote for four new charter schools and the expansion of several existing ones.

“Some charter schools are unambiguously providing a more effective education for students than is provided by regular public schools serving similar students,” concluded a Brookings Institution report released at that time. “Other charter schools are no better than the public schools with which they compete, and some are worse. Knowing that a school is organized as a charter school does not, in and of itself, say much about whether the school is good, bad or mediocre.”

Well, Chicago charter schools are good, bad and mediocre, both between charter operators and among individual schools in charter networks. Only one of nine multi-site operators beat CPS’ district-wide ISAT scores.

To be fair, no one can really point to these numbers and say for sure that even the lowest-performing of the charters are failing to live up to expectations. As with most “report cards,” the numbers presented don’t tell the whole story.

The data reflects only the 2010-11 school year, so we have no baseline to compare scores and can’t see whether academic progress has improved over time. In a letter to the Sun-Times, Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, pointed out that “in 2011, of the 26 Chicago charter high schools with sufficient data over three years, 17 schools outperformed average growth in Chicago. Across all charter schools, the average growth rate of 3.8 scale points over those three years is 60 percent higher than the Chicago average, an average that includes selective enrollment high schools.”

Other observers have noted that it’s difficult to truly compare individual charter’s ISAT passing rates to the CPS district average passing rate given that schools often serve wildly different neighborhoods. Much more research is necessary before anybody can honestly conclude that “charter schools don’t work.”

Despite the polarizing savior/demon arguments about charter schools, they are going to be around for a while. And we have to get past the pat competing narratives to figure out what will best serve each neighborhood’s students and their families.

After all, what’s the alternative? Just trying harder hasn’t helped schools like Dyett and Crane, which learned last week they’re now in an extinction phase before closing for good.

It’s time to set aside the spin and debate the issue on the basis of solid, if not perfect, facts. And we need even better numbers so we can really start comparing apples to apples.

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