Fact-checking The Angle on education reform

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In Tuesday’s The Angle video on Boston.com, Globe columnist Scot Lehigh and cartoonist Dan Wasserman slug it out over how to reform our schools. It’s great when people debate education with passion, because we need to keep business, community and neighborhood leaders focused on this issue. Is anything more worthy of debate than how to ensure that our next generation is better prepared than the past and current ones.

the_angle_header__1269026360_0933But great debates need quiet facts. And that’s true as much for Wasserman and Lehigh as it is for Patrick, Baker, Cahill and Stein. So here is a friendly fact-check for the Lehigh-Wasserman smackdown. For example, what to make of Dan Wasserman’s suggestion that charters have pockets of excellence but for the most part aren’t any better than district schools?

The majority of charter schools are not significantly better than the schools that were shut down and that they replaced.

Hmmm. First, charters in Massachusetts have not really “replaced” any particular district schools. Student/Parents choose the schools from a variety of specific schools. But let’s take the larger point and perhaps point to some research. A 2006 Massachusetts Department of Education report notes two important facts:

In both English Language Arts and Mathematics, at least 30 percent of the charter schools performed statistically significantly higher than their CSD [ed. note: charter sending districts–i.e., district systems sending kids to charters] in each year with the exception of 2001.

The report then goes on to point out that 60 percent of charters were either as good or better than their CSD. (Only 10 percent of charters were lower performing than sending districts.) Overall, Dan’s remark is strictly taken defensible, but the fact that 9 out of 10 charter are as good or better than their CSD is pretty darn good and pretty consistent performance. Dan’s remark is less defensible in Boston.

A January 2009 Boston Foundation report shows Boston charters blowing the doors off of Boston district schools. To show you just how good their performance is, you might think about the impact of charters over middle school years as akin to bridging the gap between Boston public school performance and Brookline public school performance.

Not a bad outcome for people who cannot afford, or don’t want, to move to Brookline.

After discussing overall performance, Scot, who has more appreciation for the opportunities charters can provide, explains that longer hours is the “significant singular thing” charters do to achieve success. Implicit in this statement is that longer hours in district schools would have the same effect. A recent ABT Associates report on “extended learning time,” as it is known among edu-geeks, calls that notion into question. The ABT study admittedly covers only an abbreviated period of ELT implementation, but it does give us reason for caution in singing hosannahs for extended day learning.

  • ELT had a significant, positive effect on 5th grade science MCAS scores in year two, but no statistically significant effects on other MCAS outcomes in year one or two.
  • ELT had a statistically significant, negative effect on school attendance in both year one and two.
  • While very few students received suspensions or were truant, ELT schools had slightly higher rates of out-of-school suspensions in both years.
  • 8th-grade students in ELT schools were more likely to use a school computer for school work at least once a month in year one, but not year two. ELT students were no more likely to spend ¬> 3 hours a week on homework in year one, and less likely in year two. 8th grade students in ELT were no more likely to use a home computer for school work at least once a month, or two or more hours per week.
  • 5th grade ELT students were less likely to participate in non-academic clubs at school (no other significant effects).
  • ELT had no effect on 5th grade students’ perceptions about their relationships with teachers. ELT had no effect on 5th grades students’ perceptions of the learning environment offered at their school or level of school engagement.

So if charter performance is not primarily a function of longer days, what is it? It is the creation of a culture of achievement (a real focus on academics and learning), flexibility to get there for managers and teachers, and the energy and drive that accountability (the risk of losing your charter) all bring. With those things in place, extended learning can make a big difference. Without them, well, it’s more hours in an unfocused, bureaucratic, and lethargic school.

I understand the political impulse to push ELT — just more money and more time will solve the problem. Nothing against more time. If kids in Japan go to school more like 240 days a year, and we go 180, sure, there is no way we can keep up. But let’s not miss the real lessons from charters.

Crossposted at Rock The Schoolhouse.