Charter Schools: A Reconsideration

In reviewing the film Waiting for Superman, I gave the impression that charter schools are uniformly superior to pubic schools on standard measures of educational achievement. That is the claim propagated in the film, one that is flatly contradicted by Diane Ravitch in a ringing critique in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books.

Ravitch argues that the writer and director Davis Guggenheim failed to acknowledge evidence that “only one in five” charter schools are able to outperform comparable public schools. “Why propound to an unknowing public the myth that charter schools are the answer to our educational woes…when there are twice as many failing charters as there are successful ones?”

She claims that Guggenheim simply ignored the wide variation in the effectiveness of charter schools, the fact that some are run by “incompetent leaders” or [for profit] corporations, that others have been accused of “unsavory real estate deals,” or whose directors are paid fees that range from $300,000-$400,00 a year.

In support of her claims she cites a major study of half the country’s 5,000 charter schools that revealed only 17% achieved superior outcomes on math tests compared to a matched sample of public schools, while 37 percent were worse, and the remaining 46% were no different.

Ravitch says the film gives the impression that charter schools work so well because they hire truly excellent teachers. She counters with a study indicating “teacher quality accounts for about 7.5-10 percent of student test score gains.” While teachers may be essential to the success of any school, other factors like curriculum, student background, as well as family income and support of student schoolwork are more important. According to research cited by Ravitch, “…about 60 percent of achievement is explained by nonschool factors.”

I view Ravitch’s critique as a corrective to the depiction of charter schools in Waiting for Superman. The film is clearly designed to persuade viewers of their superiority. However, it does so by ignoring evidence that raises doubts about their effectiveness.

This is a common strategy in most persuasive campaigns. Yet there is much evidence that demonstrates presenting both sides of an argument is more effective. This approach not only enhances the credibility of the source, but also the strength of the message.

What is common to the effective charter and public schools that can account for their successes? To answer this question Ravitch points to the very excellent public education systems in Finland, Japan, and Singapore, widely recognized to be “high-performing” systems. She asserts they have “….succeeded not by privatizing their schools or closing those with low scores, but by strengthening the education profession. They also have less poverty than we do.”

These school systems often have a national curriculum that not only includes the basic skills of reading and math but also incorporates programs in the humanities, sciences, foreign languages, history, etc. They also have strong teacher training programs. Perhaps they can do all this so successfully because they are small countries with a fairly homogeneous population. Nevertheless, they represent an instructive model for those dedicated to designing more effective public education programs in this country.

I admit I have not read the reports cited by Ravitch. Rather my intent has been to report her views and thereby suggest a reconsideration of Waiting for Superman. In addition, I have not read the extensive literature comparing the effectiveness of charter and public educational programs. My account is based on secondary sources and the view of my informant who has read those studies and tells me that Ravitch’s claims are essentially correct.