There’s much yet to learn about privately operated public schools; we needn’t be so polarized about them.
By Jeffrey R. Henig | BLOWBACK | LA Times Online
February 13, 2008 - Informed dialogue about the proper role of charter schools and traditional public schools — and what each can and can't best offer — is a good thing. But last week's Op-Ed by Eli Broad and the response by Cal Poly Pomona professors Walter P. Coombs and Ralph E. Shaffer keep us stuck in our separate silos.
By looking more carefully and thoughtfully at what we know and do not yet know from research about charter schools, we can find other answers that may actually bring us together. The charter school debate is often painted as one best addressed with either-or questions and quick answers.
When The Times solicits comments to Coombs' and Shaffer's Blowback by asking readers, "Do charter schools provide a sure-fire recipe for success, or exacerbate LAUSD's performance problems?" public dialogue is shoehorned into black-and-white thinking, and people find themselves in fiercely opposing camps.
In fact, research on school choice has gradually converged on a number of widely accepted findings. This quiet consensus shows how solid research can bridge partisan cleavages and sensational headlines. Among those findings, for example, are the fact that some charter schools are very good while others are very bad, and the fact that it can matter how chartering policies are designed and carried out.
But even more troubling than artificially polarized thinking are claims that both sides make that go well beyond what the current evidence supports.
Unfortunately, Broad takes what he says are characteristics of successful charter schools and, without evidence, insists that these are things that only charter schools can do. With the possible exception of his "small central office" point, there are also good traditional public schools that can and do measure up. And there are some oversight and program management functions that charter groups don't have to do because the district or the chartering authority is doing them.
Coombs and Shaffer raise an important issue about selection bias: Are test scores for Green Dot, the Knowledge is Power Program and other charter groups better because they effectively screen out some students either at the intake stage or later, thereby discouraging some from returning? But Coombs and Shaffer present what is essentially their hypothesis as if it were instead an established fact.
In my book "Spin Cycle," I argue for a bit more humility in recognizing that our knowledge of the success of charter schools is still incomplete and that things continue to change over time. One glance at one report today is not enough for insight that will enlighten policymakers and better inform the public about charter schools.
Recognizing that there is much we still don't know does not mean we must sit on our hands until better data come in. Parents want better schools now, and responsible political and educational leaders want and need to respond. While I have concerns about how the charter school movement may ultimately evolve, I think that overall and to date, it has provided a useful shot in the arm for a range of public school systems across the United States
But neither side of the debate does readers a favor by posing the issues as if the facts are clear at this point. That sticks the label of uninformed ideologue on an opponent who may have reasonable and legitimate concerns. Making policy in the face of uncertainty requires judgment, discretion and an ongoing commitment to collecting and reassessing information. Our polarized way of thinking about charter schools need not trap us, however. If we start to take a more thorough, long-term and nuanced look at the research, we can find answers that bring us together in ways that could result in increasing public understanding and better informing sound public policy.
Jeffrey R. Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University's Teachers College, is the author of "Spin Cycle: How Research Is Used in Policy Debates, The Case of Charter Schools" (copublished by the Russell Sage Foundation and The Century Foundation, February 2008).