Charting an Education Course

Quantitative measures, the controversial linchpin of the Bush administration's approach to improving education, appear to have exposed performance problems with a favored alternative to public schools: the charter school.

A New York Times report Tuesday of 2003 Department of Education statistics shows that charter-school students across the country are behind their public-school counterparts by about six months. The data revealed 25 percent of fourth-graders at charters were proficient in reading and math, while 30 percent of fourth-graders at public schools were proficient in reading; 32 percent in math.

The data, the first national comparison of test scores for both types of schools, may disappoint charter-school advocates (that includes the Bush administration). They see these self-governing schools as a key alternative to failing public schools.

But not so fast. While measuring is a useful tool, it's open to interpretation. Right on the heels of the Times story came a response by two researchers at the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, poking holes in the data. The researchers pointed out, for instance, that there is no statistically significant difference between charter and public students when compared by race, specifically African-Americans and Hispanics. That's important because charters usually aim to help disadvantaged kids, often minorities.

The researchers also said nearly a third of the nation's charters were less than two years old when the data were collected. Charters typically experience problems at the start-up phase.

The charter idea, at least in principle, remains sound. Administrators at these schools - often privately run without the influence of overly bureaucratic school boards - have greater flexibility in hiring and firing teachers, and can more directly determine how those teachers teach. And charter schools have given a lot of children, especially economically disadvantaged kids, a leg up. A Boston Globe study of Education Department data earlier this year showed 60 percent of urban charter schools in Massachusetts doing better than traditional schools in the same cities on a state standardized test.

Still, the apparent national discrepancy deserves follow-up, and more sophisticated study. The Education Department does not plan to survey charters again anytime soon. That's a mistake. The report also suggests that charter schools, like traditional public schools, must be held to account. With a comparatively brief track record compared to public schools, the charter school experiment should not be stopped. But it does need closer attention.

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