On April 13, 2016, Randi Weingarten published a blog post on Huffington Post's website, "A Coordinated National Effort to Decimate Public Schools." She makes a number of allegations about charter schools in the United States in an effort to paint a picture of large-scale conspiracy and malfeasance aimed at toppling the collective institution of public schools.
Weingarten bolsters her argument with a number of statements about charter schools and their history, performance and behavior. These include remarks about work done by the research group I direct, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University. My point in this rebuttal is to set the record straight on the specific facts she has distorted. Not only are her inferences about the performance our research illuminates incorrect but her arguments undermine her own long-run interests and those of her teachers.
In her blog, Weingarten states, "A well-regarded Stanford University Study found that charter school students were doing only slightly better in reading than students in traditional public schools, but at the same time doing slightly worse in math." She refers to our 2013 study, "The National Charter School Study," but errs in both fact and interpretation. The main findings of the report are as follows. Over the course of a school year, charter school students learn more in reading than district public schools -- it is as if the charter school students attended about seven more days of school in a typical school year. The learning in math is not statistically different (not worse as she claims).
Weingarten misses three other key facts from that study, however. First, the results she cites are the average one-year growth, blending brand new charter school enrollees with students with longer persistence. When the length of time a student attends a charter school is taken into account, the results are striking: In both reading and math, we discovered that students' annual progress rose strongly the longer they attended charter schools. For students with four or more years in charter schools, their gains equated to an additional 43 days of learning in reading and 50 additional days of learning in math in each year.
Second, the results showed strong improvement for the sector overall -- the proportion of charter schools outperforming their local district schools rose and the share that underperformed shrank in both reading and math compared to performance four years earlier. The shift in performance is neither idle drift nor nefarious conduct on the part of charter schools -- we found no differences in the demography of students served by charter schools over the period.
To be clear, CREDO along with others has repeatedly called out the low performing charter schools. Evidence shows that improvement of poorly performing schools is unlikely so they must be dealt with. We hold the same view about the thousands of district schools that fail to educate their students.
Third, Weingarten ignores the most profound success of charter schools with students who need the most support. Here is the fact: Urban low income and minority students are the ones best advantaged in charter schools. CREDO released "The Urban Charter School Study" in 2015, a report conveniently overlooked by Weingarten. We found that gains in urban charter schools are dramatic overall (equivalent to 28 days of additional learning in reading and 40 days of additional learning in math every year) but for low income minority students they are nothing short of liberating: as much as 44 extra days of learning in reading and 59 extra days in math.
Weingarten's critique of charter schools has it all wrong. Parents see what happens to children in district schools -- and the lack of response on the part of the districts. Charter schools take a different approach that appeals to parents; namely, they act with the conviction that all students can learn and expect educators to modify their approach to make it happen. Nothing stops the AFT from recommending these proven practices for their own members. If Weingarten and her organization were truly dedicated to the cause of public education, they would embrace the thousands of positive examples of charter schools and seek collaboration, partnership and emulation instead of derision.
The author is Director of The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University. CREDO receives partial funding from The Walton Family Foundation among other foundations, across conventional divides, with the shared goal of building excellent education for every child in the U.S.