Thursday, 23 October 2014

Good news from charter schools

Radio New Zealand told me this morning that, according to copies of Education Review Office reports RNZ had been shown, two of the early group of charter schools have been found to be doing well ('Big ticks for charter schools').

I'm delighted to hear it. Charter schools have the potential to address what is one of our main educational challenges: the long tail of underachievers in our public schools. To be clear: our educational performance on average is pretty good, and we score well on international comparisons like the PISA ones. But there's a large group at the bottom who struggle. For one reason or another, the standard state school isn't working for them.

What's encouraging about the experience overseas is that the main positive impact of charter schools tends to be the improved performance of precisely those groups who struggle most in the traditional schools. Here's what the big (many would say definitive) study of charter schools in the US had to say (executive summary here, pdf):
Looking back to the demographics of the charter school sector in the 27 states, charter school enrollment has expanded among students in poverty, black students, and Hispanic students. These are precisely the students that, on average, find better outcomes in charter schools. These findings lend support to the education and social policies that focus on education as the mechanism to improve life chances for historically underserved students. Charter schools are especially beneficial learning environments for these students (p18)
Enrollment and persistence in charter schools is especially helpful for some students, particularly students in poverty, black students, and English language learners all of whom post significantly higher learning gains in both reading and math. Hispanic students are on par with their TPS [traditional public school] peers in both reading and math. For students with multiple designations (such as being black and in poverty), the impacts of charter schooling are especially positive and noteworthy (pp23-4)
It's interesting to see that on these early ERO findings the same thing is happening here. RNZ quoted the ERO report on Vanguard Military School as finding that "A significant proportion of students have not experienced success in their previous schools. At this school they are responding positively to adults' high expectations".

Just what you'd expect when you get a variety of options, where students have more opportunity to match up what they want with a school that provides it. As usual, greater choice, more competition and more innovation work, and they work most for those who had least choice previously - typically those on the outer, for one reason or another.

Neither of these two schools, by the way, would have worked for me or my wife or our kids - Vanguard, according to an earlier report by RNZ, has gone for "the ethos and training methodology of the military", and South Auckland Middle School for "project-based learning based on Christian philosophy and values". But then there are lots of people who'd have hated the school I did well at (and others did well there too, if they were either academic or rugby-playing - the rest, not so much).

And that's the whole point. Students need to be able to access the approach that best suits them. Vanguard and South Auckland are just the ticket for some kids who would otherwise have floundered.
More choice is an excellent idea: we shouldn't be lumbered with markets in important areas like education and health, where there are limited "one size fits all" options on offer, and especially when the losers from limited choice are towards the bottom of the social and economic ladder.

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