Charter report a coup for AFT

EDUCATION BEAT

Scores: The No. 2 teachers union seized the spotlight with a study questioning a favorite Bush administration idea.

August 22, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

AS THE smaller of the two national teacher unions, the American Federation of Teachers has had to try harder. Over the years, it's been a little smarter, a little faster, a little nimbler than the giant National Education Association.

Last week, the AFT proved how nimble it can be.

Using what the union called "a combination of intuition, prior knowledge, considerable digging and luck," a trio of AFT researchers analyzed data on student test scores in charter schools. The information is buried - deeply buried - in a U.S. Department of Education online databank.

The resulting report, the first national comparison of charter schools and regular schools, was then leaked to The New York Times, which on Tuesday published a story in the lead position on Page 1 under the headline "Charter Schools Lagging Behind, U.S. Data Reveal."

The next day, the lead editorial in the same newspaper kicked the Department of Education and its secretary, Rod Paige, in the behind. The Bush administration's education program had "received a devastating setback," said the editorial.

Needless to say, all heck broke loose. Spin doctors for both sides of the charter debate were in full throat the rest of the week. It's an important issue because under the No Child Left Behind Act, states and school districts are encouraged to convert failing schools to charters, which are publicly funded but independently operated, usually by for-profit companies or parent and community groups.

The Bush administration is stacked with proponents of charter schools, vouchers and other modes of school "choice," and the AFT report strongly hints that the charter school achievement data, originally scheduled for release this past January, were kept in the electronic vault while the administration figured out a way to rationalize the bad news.

The administration is in a tough spot. If it does repackage the data with some sort of excuse, that would be a first for the federally administered National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation's report card. And it would "tarnish NAEP's gold-standard reputation," said Bella Rosenberg, one of the authors of the AFT report.

The national data, which you can obtain from the Web if you have a few hours to spare, show charter school fourth-graders about a half-year behind regular public school students in reading and math.

The researchers also compared scores by race and family income, and they compared urban charter schools with traditional urban public schools. In most comparisons, the traditional students outperformed charter students. The one exception was race. The researchers found no statistically significant difference between the performance of minority children in charters and those in traditional schools.

Given the increasing number of black and Hispanic children now attending charters under No Child Left Behind - nearly 30 percent of charter pupils are African-American - this finding may be "especially salient," said Chester E. Finn Jr., a leading charter proponent and former federal education official in Republican administrations.

Finn made another excellent point. Since these scores were collected from charter schools for the first time in the 2003 administration of NAEP, they amount to a snapshot. They don't tell us anything about the academic performance of children before they entered charters - many were already dismally behind - nor how rapidly they made progress.

Finn said some studies show charter children are making greater gains than their age-mates in traditional public schools, even if their absolute scores are lower.

Nor do those traditional public school children and their parents and teachers (many represented by the AFT) have much to crow about. The union study shows only 30 percent of fourth-graders in regular public schools are proficient in reading, 32 percent in math. That's deplorable.

Ironically, the AFT was an early supporter of charter schools. The union's late iconic president, Albert Shanker, is credited with having first broached the idea in 1988.

"The AFT's early support of charter schools reflected Shanker's belief that there should be careful experimentation with the charter school model, with high standards for achievement and accountability to help realize their potential," says the new report. "Unfortunately, the charter school movement has taken a very different turn."

But don't give it up for lost. There are 3,000 charters serving nearly 800,000 students in 38 states. That's not a passing fad, and we need to know much more than what's revealed in this one-time snapshot before we declare the movement a failure.

A correction

An item in Wednesday's column about the college rankings of the Princeton Review listed awards that were given in 2003, not this year. Marlboro College in Vermont won the 2004 award for best professors, the State University of New York at Albany for top party school, Pomona College in California for happiest students and Pepperdine University in California for best dormitories.

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