Sarah Faude and Emily Mann: Beyond the Charter vs. Public School Debate

Beyond the Charter vs. Public School Debate: A Search for Educational Equity
By Sarah Faude and Emily Mann


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Charter schools continue to be placed in contrast with traditional public schools in the search for the most promising educational opportunities for low performing, high-risk students. A recent article in the Boston Globe highlighted that low performing students who transitioned from public to charter schools made greater gains in student improvement than high performing students. Reactions to the 2013 report from Stanford’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) suggest that successful charters are improving and their students are outperforming those in nearby public schools. While the debate between charter and public education deserves a spotlight, the standard framing of the discourse obscures some underlying issues concerning educational access and equity.

The CREDO report serves as a reminder that despite progress in charter schools we have a long road ahead of us before all of our children have access to a school they deserve. Despite showing statistical gains in overall charter performance since their last study in 2009, CREDO found that 56% of charter schools (based on reading scores) and 40% of charter schools (based on math scores) were not significantly different than comparable public schools More troubling still, 19% (reading) and 31% (math) of charter schools were found to be significantly worse than their public counterparts, leaving only 25% (reading) and 29% (math) of charters in the category of “significantly better.” Even CREDO’s most compelling finding, the statistically significant growth in average student performance in charters, is largely explained by 8% of the original cohort of charters closing between their 2009 and 2013 studies.

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Recent critiques of the CREDO study suggest both methodological flaws as well as concerns about the meaning behind the study findings. While some evidence from charter schools in the Boston area was encouraging (showing strong student improvement), the practical significance and implications for policy and practice remains limited. The expansion of charters, broadly d

efined, has not been shown to be the silver bullet capable of fostering educational success universally. Instead we need to continue to consider how innovative educational models, in all types of schools, in conjunction with community resources can be implemented to support all children.

“The expansion of charters, broadly defined, has not been shown to be the silver bullet capable of fostering educational success universally.”

We all know what our nation’s children deserve: schools that are clean, well-resourced, and full of compassionate and competent teachers and leaders. All children, regardless of ability or disability deserve schools that engage them, foster their curiosity, and inspire their love of learning. All children, regardless of their neighborhood, deserve schools that work to support their families, include them in the educational process, and work collaboratively with community resources to reduce the impact of disadvantage.

For some children, there is an expanded educational opportunity in the form of charter schools. For others, traditional public schools provide meaningful and rigorous educational opportunities. However, choice is not synonymous with charter, nor do the choices families have always lead them towards educational equity or success. We do not mean to suggest it is time to abandon the charter debate, but we do hope that with the recent evidence, we can reassess our debate priorities. Rather than continue to argue and take sides, we must realize that there continues to be a lack of high quality high performing schools in Boston and across the country. We need to rectify this with educational and social resources that attack both the causes and effects of inequality.

“Rather than continue to argue and take sides, we must realize that there continues to be a lack of high quality high performing schools in Boston and across the country. We need to rectify this with educational and social resources that attack both the causes and effects of inequality.”

About two years ago, Paul Reville wrote that educational success could only be fostered by a “series of strategies” that focused both on school readiness and the predictors of school readiness. Reville stated, “It is now clear that unless and until we make a more active effort to mitigate the impediments to learning that are commonly associated with poverty, we will still be faced with large numbers of children who are either unable to come to school or so distracted as not to be able to be attentive and supply effort when they get there. In other words, we must create a healthy platform in the lives of all of our children if we expect them to show the learning gains expected to result from optimized instructional strategies.”

Reville’s “healthy platform” is not an inherent feature of either the public school or charter school sector, but instead of a comprehensive school model that should be available and accessible to all students at risk of academic failure. Despite the history of research on charter schools, there has not been a common thread substantiating that charters are better for our nation’s children than traditional public schools. Instead, the totality of education research merely reaffirms that we still live in an educational system of haves and have-nots, regardless of the school type children attend.

Sarah Faude is a PhD student in Sociology at Northeastern University with research interests in urban educational equity and access. She received her Masters of Science in Education from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. While pursuing her MSEd Sarah was a Teach for America corps member, and taught both middle and high school English/Language Arts for three years in North Philadelphia charter schools. She is spending her summer between coursework working on a variety of urban education research projects as well as supporting novice teachers as an Instructional Coach at Breakthrough Greater Boston.

Emily Mann is an Associate Academic Specialist in the Human Services Program at Northeastern University. She received a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the State University of New York at Geneseo, a Master’s of Science in Social Work, and a Ph.D. in Social Welfare from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied the effects of early intervention on delinquency prevention. Dr. Mann spent two years as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Clinical Research Training Program (CRTP) at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, and was also a National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow. Dr. Mann’s teaching and research focuses on educational interventions and academic and social functioning.

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