December 21, 2015; Los Angeles Times

Will learning and knowledge be important to decision-makers? In the midst of heated and polarized debates over how to solve the critical problems before us, is there room for solutions driven by the reality of our experience? Or are we best served by finding only the answers that are consistent with our philosophies and beliefs?

The continuing argument about educational reform and national educational policy puts these questions center stage. One side of the ongoing debate has drawn their solutions from a firm belief that the marketplace’s “invisible hand,” if set free, will push education forward for all children. This belief leads to policies that create an educational marketplace in which all students can attend a school of their choice, a marketplace in which lower performing schools fail and be replaced by better performing schools. To make this marketplace a reality, it is necessary to eliminate the monopoly of traditional public schools, create new schools that can operate free from many of the traditional constraints of the public school system and offer channels for attendance at non-public schools.

On the other side are those who see the weaknesses of our current educational efforts arising from economic and social inequities in our society and see solutions coming from more effective government policy. While it is easy to propose actions and argue in support of them based on our underlying philosophy, after decades of effort, should we not be basing our next steps on what we our actual experience has been and what we have learned along the way, even if it tends to challenge our beliefs?

With the Los Angeles Unified School District currently considering a proposal to have charter schools grow to serve at least 50 percent of their students, a recent study of the Los Angeles schools, published by Institute of Human Development, University of California, Berkeley, gives us a chance see if we can look what has become a very divisive issue from a reality based perspective. The study looked at the educational experiences of 66,000 pupils over the 2007-2011 period. LAUSD is the nation’s second largest system, hosting 229 charter schools and 112 campuses that enjoyed site-level autonomy by the end of 2011.

Their findings don’t conveniently support a philosophical winner.

Traditional Public School (TPS) campuses that converted to charter status…attracted more experienced and consistently credentialed teachers, and served relatively advantaged families, compared with newly created charter schools (start-ups). Charter schools overall attracted pupils achieving at higher levels as they began a grade cycle…relative to students attending traditional schools. After taking into account these differences in prior achievement and family background, students attending charter elementary or middle schools outperformed TPS peers over the four-year period. […] The benefits of attending a charter middle school appear to be consistent across subgroups and moderate in magnitude, especially for students in startups. Most other charter advantages remain small in magnitude or statistically insignificant. We detected no achievement differences between pupils attending charter versus TPS high schools.

Clearly there are some benefits from charters for some students. But are these the result of policies and practices used in charter schools that could be implemented in a system responsible for all children? For policymakers, this should be the key question and where experience and knowledge should be paramount.

The authors of the Berkeley study believe they have found some things that would question the wisdom of just expanding the marketplace.

One nagging worry is that the spread of startup and conversion charters may further separate high from low-achieving students across LAUSD—organizational diversity that even inadvertently may worsen segregation. Nor do we understand how this evolving landscape of alternative schools may harm the educational trajectories of weaker students who remain in traditional schools. This threat of wider disparities could be minimized if LAUSD’s traditional schools responded to the challenge presented by charter schools. The District might learn, for example why charter middle schools appear to lift achievement higher, and then advance the effectiveness of TPS counterparts. Still, we don’t know whether the ongoing spread of charter schools serves to spur or erode LAUSD’s capacity to lift its own campuses. Our findings do suggest that many charter schools will continue to draw out higher achieving students from traditional schools. Finally, evaluation researchers often endeavor to associate variation in the internal features of organizations with varying results for students or clients. Instead, we have shown the utility of backing up to understand how segmented sets of schools are becoming more diverse in a less regulated field. The contrasting features of these diverse charter schools in Los Angeles each vying for stronger students, each advancing particular educational aims and social-class interests—then set a telling causal chain in motion. Researchers could better inform stakeholders and policy makers by capturing this entire process—illuminating how schools serve differing kids and families, acquire teachers and resources of varying quality, yielding unequal achievement effects.

Will experience affect policymaking? Perhaps it will. The L.A. Times reported that school board President Steve Zimmer said the results of the research weren’t “earth-shattering” for either side of the debate:

“When you’re talking about the same kids in the same situations, we’re not talking about huge breakthroughs for charters,” said Zimmer, who has supported most petitions to open or renew charters but also has criticized the rapid growth of charters as harmful to the school system. He added it would be important to learn why charters appear to benefit middle school students. “The data doesn’t indicate what charter middle schools are doing better, but it does give us some suggestion that there might be some effective approaches,” Zimmer said.

But, then again, perhaps not. The California Charter Association quickly issued a statement challenging the study’s data.

It is unfortunate that Dr. Fuller and his team seem unwilling to acknowledge that the credit for charter schools’ superior performance goes to the highly talented and driven educators who, with a healthy balance of autonomy and oversight, have innovated and adapted to their unique communities’ and students’ needs, yielding student gains that should be celebrated, not snubbed.

It may be easier to keep the argument on simply ideological grounds, but the future will be better served if we can build processes that are capable of seeing beyond our biases and open to real learning.—Martin Levine