ON THE AGENDA | JULY 22ND, 2015 | Megan Rose Donovan
Why are Americans so divided on charter schools even when they don't fully understand what charters are and do? Here’s what we learned while working on Charter Schools In Perspective.
Back in February, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, who serves as the Chairman of the Senate Education panel, expressed some confusion over a basic characteristic of charter schools. During an event at the Brookings Institute, Sen. Alexander asked, "there are some private charter schools, are there not?"
If one of our top education policymakers — someone leading the effort to overhaul the nation’s main federal education law – is confused about charter schools, it’s easy to understand why parents, voters, educators and others also have significant gaps in knowledge.
Despite not knowing all that much about charter schools, we remain eager to comment on them. Yet our conversations about charter schools and how these schools should fit into the larger picture of education reform are often unproductive. In partnership with the Spencer Foundation, we’re trying to change that dynamic, with a new effort called Charter Schools In Perspective.
Charter Schools In Perspective is a set of resources that can help anyone – parents, voters, educators, policymakers – get past the clatter, focus on practical questions and have a better conversation about charters and school reform.
You can go to the website to explore all of the resources we’ve developed. But we also want to share a little of what we’ve learned and observed as we worked on this project.
Research on charter schools can be the subject of vigorous debate. Some of this debate obviously stems from ideological differences or biased studies. Yet we also found that, even among non-ideological, academic studies, there are a number of contradictions and complexities in the research. We bring these out in our synthesis of existing case studies, surveys, and student data related to charter schools. There are many questions that warrant further study and topics that need more clarification. Furthermore, there is no established definition of certain terms, like innovation, which make comparison or generalization between studies impossible.
There is a lot of variation between charter schools (and traditional public schools) in regards to student achievement, teacher workforce, diversity, governance and a number of other topics. We worked to shed light on that variation, examining why some states laws are more flexible than others and how those laws affect outcomes, what a charter operator does and how different operators perform, and how charter schools affect the finances of traditional public schools in different and sometimes unexpected ways.
Data on charter schools can be really hard to find, inaccessible, or nonexistent. Many studies about charter schools are behind paywalls or require the knowledge and language of a researcher, academic or statistician to translate. We’ve summarized a lot of the existing research so that things like academic journal paywalls or jargon don’t keep information seekers out.
Data and information alone will not improve the conversation. Research demonstrates that, when we’re confronted with new facts counter to deeply held beliefs, we tend to become even more rigid in our original beliefs. The most informative research in the world may not improve our conversations on divisive issues. From our own work, we know that engaging in dialogue with others who hold different perspectives can break down divisions so that people can talk practically about solutions, regardless of their differences. To that end, we also developed discussion material for In Perspective, so that voters, parents, schools, communities and others can have constructive discussions about whether introducing, expanding, limiting or closing charter schools in a school district would benefit education.
Charter debates will continue, and both sides will have their points, some well-founded and others not. A lot is riding on these decisions of expansion and closure – too much to not be willing to weigh and discuss all sides of the matter.
We encourage you to host an open dialogue at your dinner table, in your local library, or at a town hall meeting. Our research guide and discussion starter can help keep things in perspective and the conversation on a non-ideological, pragmatic track.
You have hit on the reason why the good charters school, or what we call choice schools that are not charter schools, practices have not spread to other public schools. "Data and information alone will not improve the conversation. Research demonstrates that, when we’re confronted with new facts counter to deeply held beliefs, we tend to become even more rigid in our original beliefs." It takes a gifted administrator to be open to new ideas to develop a good school. Gifted administrators that call make a good school are rare. Most administrators cannot accept much less drive change.