No cheating on charters: We must be honest about the performance of our schools

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette February 1, 2013 12:14 am
PrintEmailRead LaterBy Grant Oliphant

Wouldn't we all love to respond to a disappointing performance review by changing the measuring tool to give us a better result? Many of us would joyfully toss the bathroom scale out the window in favor of one that knocked off 10 pounds. How about moving the end zone five yards closer so our favorite wide receiver could catch the game-winning throw?

Unfortunately, that's not how things work -- unless you are Pennsylvania Education Secretary Ron Tomalis and you are not pleased with the number of charter schools making Adequate Yearly Progress, the standard set by the No Child Left Behind Act.

In 2011, Mr. Tomalis allowed charter schools to use a more lenient measure to achieve AYP. The result was that 77 of the 156 charter schools in Pennsylvania whose students took the 2012 PSSA math and reading tests met the AYP standard.

Then the federal Department of Education intervened, ruling that Pennsylvania must use the same measure for charter schools as it did for all other public schools. Only 43 made AYP.

A Post-Gazette editorial published Jan. 27 ("Sub-par Options: Charter Schools as a Class Don't Measure Up") delivered a strongly worded rebuke to the Corbett administration for engaging in this kind of tomfoolery and thinking that Pennsylvanians were not paying attention.

I completely agree. What's more, I am dismayed at the disservice that was perpetrated upon the charter school movement, which I believe serves an important role in contemporary public education.

In its original form, charters were designed to increase competition, foster innovation and give parents a choice when their children were not receiving an adequate education from traditional public schools. The promise of creating a vast network of laboratories for innovation remains largely unfulfilled, but much can be learned from experiments like Pittsburgh's City Charter High School and the Environmental Charter School that might improve the quality of education for all Pennsylvania children. This will never happen, though, if decision-makers randomly re-invent the rules to justify their ideology.

I believe in charters as an idea, but our system of public education and the children it serves are not pawns to be manipulated in a political game. Charter schools should be held to the same standards as other public schools so we can tell, honestly, whether they are accomplishing the goals we hope they reach. Stacking the statistical deck in favor of charters tells us only that they have powerful political friends while obscuring the one thing we really need to know: Do they work?

Let's not forget that charters can function without many of the organizational and operational constraints that apply to traditional public schools. They are not subject to collective bargaining agreements. Their infrastructure tends to be newer, simpler and less costly.

Charters also don't share in the same commitment as public systems to educate each and every child who comes in the door regardless of his or her special needs. And yet they get compensated with public dollars as though their costs are the same as the school districts from which they siphon students and resources.

Those are sizeable advantages, and we need to know whether they really result in better educational outcomes. How we measure that should be determined neither by political doctrine nor by creating antipathy between charters and the public school systems they are intended to complement. What we need are clear heads and thoughtful analysis that will keep in sharp focus those who matter most -- our children.

A consistent and reliable measure of student performance must be developed to assess the quality of education our children receive whether they attend charters or traditional public schools. These measures must allow us to determine where our schools are falling short and how we can improve them.

Troubled as our system of public education may sometimes be, it is a landmark achievement of American society. As we work to improve it, we should hold ourselves and our leaders accountable to be fair and truthful about the results of the reforms we explore. Our children and their families depend on this, as does the future prosperity, competitiveness and economic strength of our community and nation.

Grant Oliphant is president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation (pittsburgh foundation.org).

Comments

I think this post over-simplifies things. My wife has volunteered with a charter school in Raleigh that helps with children that are highly under-privileged. As an example: one child was moved to another location because the rats were chewing his head at night. The children were often being looked after by grandparents or other relatives. They were woefully behind other children in their age group, but a number of teachers who cared for such children were working at this charter school to give these children the extra help and attention they needed. In normal public schools they would be lost in the crowd and a heavy burden on the infrastructure. They would likely either wind up bringing the level of teaching down in a class or wind up being ignored. This Charter School helped these children in a way that a normal public school would not. Yet the writer thinks "A consistent and reliable measure of student performance must be developed to assess the quality of education our children receive whether they attend charters or traditional public schools. These measures must allow us to determine where our schools are falling short and how we can improve them." While the idea *seems* correct, for many readers it will lead them to believe that a charter school such as the one my wife volunteered at would not be doing well - clearly the children would fall below the academic standards of the average - but in reality, the school is providing much better schooling for these children than a normal public school could.
That is the strength of Charter Schools - they can provide focused attention on subgroups of children normally ignored or marginalized by the public school systems.