Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute proposed a surprising new rationale for charter schools in the New York Times yesterday. He suggests that charters exist to give parents the ability to choose teaching methods and curriculum.
He’s responding to a long term study of the Parental Choice Program in the large, well established charter program in Milwaukee. The study revealed that test scores in the charter schools are not significantly different from test scores in public schools in that district.
Charter advocates have criticized the low test scores in public schools for many years. Now that they have plenty of low tests scores of their own, it appears that these advocates are wondering if test scores matter all that much after all.
Let’s be clear – test scores matter. They measure student ability to read and write and do math, the foundational subjects for all learning. Other factors are also important when judging school quality, but student achievement is education’s main goal and tests give very reliable information about achievement. Scores matter.
Now that the charter scores aren’t rising and the going is getting tough, are charter school advocates giving up on school improvement and student learning? Possibly.
Murray seems to believe that schools can’t really make a difference in student learning. He said, “What happens in the classroom can have some effect, but smart and motivated children will tend to learn to read and do math even with poor instruction, while not-so-smart or unmotivated children will often have trouble with those subjects despite excellent instruction.”
So. The chaos that has been caused by charter schools, the wasted money on extra buildings, principals, and bus routes, and all the criticism of the failing public schools comes down to this: schools don’t really matter. Smart kids learn, others don’t. But we’ll keep the charters so that parents can pick content? That’s not a good enough reason for all the criticism, waste, and chaos.
This change in rationale reminds me of another recent misadventure. When there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the new reason for the war was to bring democracy to the Middle East. Now that there are no gains in student achievement, the new reason for charters is to give parents a choice about curriculum. The former miscalculation has cost us in lives and treasure, the latter in another generation of low achievement and even more treasure.
We’re pulling out of Iraq. Maybe it is time to pull the plug on charters too.