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Charter schools' troubled waters Derrick Z. Jackson

DESPITE promising us a compass, charter schools have hit another shoal. More evidence says they are no better than public schools.

''Proponents of charter schools have a deregulationist view of education that says the marketplace leads to better schools," Lawrence Mishel, president of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute, said over the telephone. ''The facts of the matter suggest that this view is without merit."

Mishel and three other university researchers from Columbia and Stanford universities are authors of the forthcoming book ''The Charter School Dust-Up." The researchers reviewed federal data and the results from 19 studies in 11 states and the District of Columbia. They found that charter school students, on the whole, ''have the same or lower scores than other public school students in nearly every demographic category."

In a politically charged environment where the White House and many governors, including Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, are pushing charter schools, the authors found that federal data ''fail to confirm claims that the performance of charter schools improves as these schools accumulate experience." Charter schools four years or older ''report lower scores than new charter schools."

Coauthor Martin Carnoy, an economics and education professor at Stanford, said one of the most telling findings was that low-income African-American students, the group many charter advocates claim to want most to help, showed no improvement. The study found that the test scores of low-income black students in charter schools are lower than in the public schools in both math and reading. That is despite the fact that a lower percentage of black students are low-income in charter schools (68 percent) than in public schools (76 percent).

''You might be able to account for lower test scores if you were able to say you were serving the most economically disadvantaged," Carnoy said over the phone from California. ''But the fact is, these aren't the most disadvantaged of black families. We tried to compare black kids with black kids on several levels, and black kids in charter schools are not doing any better and in a number of states are doing worse."

By definition, the comparisons debunk the charter school movement's trashing of teachers unions and the claim that if you get ''bureaucracy" out of the schools, you will get better schools.

Not only did Mishel, Carnoy, and coauthors Rebecca Jacobsen and Richard Rothstein of Columbia find that charter schools do not generate higher student achievement in general or the educational performance of central city, low-income minority children in particular, they also found that charter schools are associated with increased school segregation. And they found minimal accountability. Despite their inability to show across-the-board improvement, fewer than 1 percent of charter schools have been shut down for academic failure.

The authors say there are indeed many stellar individual charter schools, founded and staffed by innovative and dedicated teachers and administrators. In many cities, the lining up for charter schools debunks any stereotype that African-American families do not care about education. But such schools remain far from typical.

Also, many charter schools rely on less-experienced, uncertified, and often less-well-paid teachers. In a regular central city school, 75 percent of the teachers have more than five years' experience. In a charter school the percentage is only 34 percent. In public high schools, 70 percent of the math teachers either majored or minored in math in college. In a charter high school, the percentage is 56 percent. ''While freedom from certification rules undoubtedly permit charter schools to hire teachers who are more qualified than typical teachers in regular public schools, the data do not reveal evidence that charter schools, on average, are actually using their freedom to do so," the authors wrote.

Mishel and Carnoy both said that whatever systemic problems the charter school movement is trying to address, they may be far outside the realm of either public or charter school. Unfortunately, many of the possible solutions have either been underfunded for years or are currently being cut.

''If you want to talk about real improvements in education, you are probably going to have to talk about vastly expanding early-childhood education and targeted in-school and after-school programs for kids," Mishel said. ''We are probably talking about substantial after-care and a community schools approach that incorporates health, social services, and housing. It's going to take a full-court press . . . to attract quality teachers to stay in schools. It's not going to be one single thing."

It is certainly not going to be -- by themselves -- charter schools.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is jackson@globe.com.

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