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Obama’s Race to the Top competition won’t fix public schools

Competition may bring out the best in business and sports, but that logic doesn’t necessarily apply to public schools. The practical way to mend the educational system is by implementing economic and social reforms that focus on the children.

By Walt Gardner / December 30, 2009

Los Angeles

For taxpayers who are frustrated and angry over the glacial pace of school improvement, it’s easy to understand the appeal of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative. Patience, after all, has its limits. But distribution of $4.5 billion in discretionary funding to schools that qualify will not improve educational quality for all children.

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This assessment is based largely on the emphasis given to competition as the centerpiece in creating successful schools.

A slew of recent commentary articles have argued that, because competition brings out the best performance in athletics and business, it should raise the quality of public education, too. Only by being patient with charter schools and by offering performance pay for teachers as the embodiment of competition can reform ever become a reality.

But since US education is at a crossroads, it’s imperative to take a close look at the assertion that competition would boost performance.

The trouble is enthusiasm for both charter schools and performance pay runs far ahead of any compelling data that indicates their merit.

The most recent data came in September, when economist Margaret Raymond of Stanford University released the results of her study of charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia. She found that 37 percent of charter schools posted worse standardized test scores than comparable traditional schools, 46 percent did about the same, and only 17 percent were superior.

Ms. Raymond concluded that “this study reveals in unmistakable terms that, in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well as their traditional public school counterparts.” In fact, according to the data, regular public school students have almost always out performed charter schools. In 2007, for example, charter students scored the same as their peers in regular public schools in eighth-grade reading. This led Education Week to report that “The latest data do not bolster the early hopes of charter advocates that the sector as a whole would significantly outperform regular public schools.”

Because the Raymond study is the largest study of charter schools so far, it offers hard data to help taxpayers judge the merits of expanding the movement. For states that have caps on the number of charter schools allowed, the Raymond study could be a decisive factor, since charter schools are publicly funded but free of many state regulations.

To be sure, there are aberrations. One such anomaly was the result of a study by Caroline Hoxby of Stanford University that came on the heels of the Raymond investigation. Ms. Hoxby found that disadvantaged students who attended charter schools in New York City for nine years closed the socioeconomic gap between the affluent suburb of Scarsdale and the impoverished section of New York City – what she termed the “Scarsdale-Harlem achievement gap.” But Hoxby did not say how many students completed the nine years in a charter school. This omission raised eyebrows because New York City had only about a dozen small charter schools in 2000 when the study began.