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Charters as a diverse sector.

Charter schools are too often treated as a monolithic reform and too rarely treated as a diverse sector. When we think of charter schools as a reform, we tend to either praise or criticize, depending on the particular snapshot of charter schools we're discussing. When we think of them as a sector, we understand that charter schools mirror other sectors--private schools and traditional publics--in their range of quality and outcomes. And we can learn from their successes and failures.

Viewed from this sector perspective, your two charter school articles ("Brand-Name Charters," features, and "New York City Charter Schools," research, Summer 2008) offer valuable contributions. From a reform perspective? Not so much.

The article about franchise charter schools describes a vibrant subsector. It explores the problem of growing beyond a small number of successful schools while simultaneously addressing quality control. Where the article runs into trouble is when it tells readers, with no empirical backing, that the charter movement began "with tremendous potential for narrowing the achievement gap," suggesting that there are "too few" charter schools to fulfill that promise. In truth, research has shown charter performance to be similar, on average, to the performance of traditional public schools.

The second article offers a more direct comparison of charters to other public schools, using a random lottery design. The results add one more data point to the diverse assortment of studies about charter performance: an example of the charter sector outperforming, on the whole, nearby traditional schools. The comparison here, it should be noted, is to New York City schools that have been criticized as underfunded and underperforming. The study thus tells us either that the charters did well, the other schools did poorly, or a combination of both.

The authors are careful to state that the significance of the findings is limited to large cities with similar student populations, to which I would add a caution about the generalizability beyond New York City itself. As with the first article, the second is strongest when it approaches charters as a diverse sector, teasing out the sorts of school practices associated with higher test scores. Let's keep trying to learn about what works.



Education and the Public Interest Center University of Colorado at Boulder

As one of the next generation of Education Next editors, Martin Raymond West V (known to his friends as Quinn), lends a helping hand.
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Title Annotation:correspondence
Author:Welner, Kevin G.
Publication:Education Next
Article Type:Letter to the editor
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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