Magna Charter?

Both the Economist and the Wall Street Journal are hyped about charter schools, and worried about Bill de Blasio’s effort to make life harder for them. Those two magazines don’t agree very often (which is why I like reading the Economist, and feel less enthusiastic about reading the Journal). That suggested to me that either something must be very wrong with this picture – or charter schools must really be as good as they say.

In case you’re also late to the party (or, like me, not from the US), charter schools are publicly funded schools that are run independently. They have much more freedom to hire and fire teachers and set their curriculum than ‘regular’ public schools, although the exact regulations vary from state to state. They are also not unionized. And the Economist and the Journal love them.

The articles both cite a couple of examples of charters outperforming neighboring public schools. Says the Economist:

Bronx 2 [a charter school], part of the Success Academies network, serves black and Latino children from mostly low-income families. Its pupils did extraordinarily well in the 2013 state examinations—97% passed mathematics and 77% passed English. The school ranked third in the state, even beating children in well-heeled Scarsdale, a well-to-do New York City suburb. Bronx 2 shares space with PS 55, a traditional district public school where only 3% of pupils passed English and only 14% passed maths.

That sounds pretty impressive. And there’s plenty of stories like this one out there. Probably enough to persuade the average sociologist or PoliSci major. But let’s be honest, as an economist it takes something special to convince you. Doesn’t this whole thing just beg to have a paper written about it?

Turns out you weren’t the first to think that. The good news is that there’s a vast literature on the subject. The bad news is that it’s highly inconclusive. Findings on the gains that charter schools bring range all the way from none to basically none to (modest) benefits (some actually find negative effects). They also seem to be much more segregated than ordinary public schools.

At any rate, the picture is much less rosy than the Economist and the Journal try to make it seem. I kind of expected this, because neither article really has a convincing argument as to why charter schools should be better, they simply state that they are.

I think charters get a lot of good PR partly because some of them do phenomenal things with kids from less phenomenal parts of town. Which is good, because those kids might fall through the cracks otherwise. But it’s also the reason why charter schools are often highly segregated.

Some charters also seem like an attractive place to highly skilled, progressively minded teachers due to their less restrictive curricula (and, sometimes, substantially higher salaries). Which is good for kids who attend them, but not as great for kids who don’t.

So what now? Should we abandon run-of-the-mill high schools for charters? All told, I don’t think it’s charter schools per se that make a difference. There’s nothing special that somehow magically makes them generally better than regular schools (least of all the lack of a teacher’s union, no matter how much the Journal tries to hammer that point home).

But there is something special about some charter schools. Some of them attract really good teachers. People in education love to talk about a meta-study published by John Hattie in 2008, which aggregated the results of 50,000 smaller studies and tried to answer one question: what works in education? Hattie came up with a list of things that drive students’ performance. Turns out that a bunch of them are ultimately down to one person: the teacher (by the way, I love how the least important aspect on that list is, “Teacher subject matter knowledge”).

So what we really shouldn’t worry about is whether charter schools ‘work’ or ‘don’t work’, or whether the teacher’s union should be squashed (I think it shouldn’t, in case you’re wondering). We shouldn’t worry about that because charter schools in general are no silver bullet.

What we should really worry about is how we make sure that we get good people to teach in all of our schools, no matter who runs them or who pays the salaries. What we should worry about is how we can keep teachers motivated instead of using them as cannon fodder. What we should worry about is providing appropriate funding and making sure that everybody gets a shot at a decent education (that last point alone should be enough to keep people busy for a while).

There are some charter schools that could teach us a lot about addressing those issues. Both ‘ordinary’ public schools and other charters would do well to listen to them.