An important story of the week past about public schooling reveals a lot about the ongoing dismal state of affairs regarding how we think about education in our country. As we debate technical matters of who can do what and where in schools, and as entrenched interests fight to protect turf, our children, and particularly our children from poor families, remain the sad and pathetic victims.
The widely covered story, which broke on the front page of the New York Times, reported on the first comparison of test results of kids in charter schools with kids in traditional pubic schools. The report, done by the American Federation of Teachers from data compiled from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, concludes that charter school performance lags behind that of other public schools.
The test results show, according to the Times story, that "only 25 percent of the fourth graders attending charters were proficient in reading and math, against 30 percent who were proficient in reading and 32 who were proficient in math, at traditional public schools."
The big news and conclusion here, according to remarks from an AFT spokesperson, is that the "sunny claims" of charter school advocates do not appear to stand up to the scrutiny of the test results. Charter schools, as a magic bullet for solving our problems with schools and education, do not seem to be all that they've been trumped up to be.
It is hard, of course, not to have a sense that the AFT is pleased by what it reports. As a teachers union, the organization cannot be enthusiastic about charter schools, where private management has a wide range of flexibility in decision making, including hiring nonunion teachers. So, a victory for the status quo and a defeat for innovation is a victory for the AFT.
Various credible analyses quickly came forth after the release of the AFT study, challenging its methodology and conclusions and giving good reason to believe that the AFT study is far from the last word on this matter. However, the attitude of the AFT and the general manner in which this story has been reported and received tell us more about the nature of our problem than do the data and conclusions in the report.
Public education, charter and otherwise, is in bad shape. Although the data in this particular study seem to point to results in the charters lagging behind the traditional public schools, let's not lose perspective that the results in both are terrible. When we are reporting that less than half of kids tested are proficient in reading and math, this is a crisis. This fundamental point seems to be have been lost in the reporting the news comparing charter and traditional school results.