More of Your Education Questions, Answered

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve started to field your questions to get a more accurate idea of what you, our readers, want to know. Few people have the time to read every single thing we publish, so we thought it would be helpful to retrieve pieces from our archives and elsewhere to help answer some of those questions. Check out the first round of education questions we’ve answered, specifically on standardized testing, teacher strikes, and classroom technology.

On to school reform and charter schools, two other big topics that cropped up in our callout. Consider this a brief reader’s guide to what we’ve found recently.

What’s up with school reform?

Broadly, school reform is exactly what it sounds like: a push to fix the education system. This can take a lot of forms as administrators, officials, and motivated advocates try out different strategies.

I found Education Next’s breakdown of the proposed systemic changes pretty helpful. The authors of Education Next’s latest public opinion polling categorized the agenda into charter schools, tax credits for scholarships to low-income students, school vouchers for low-income students, universal vouchers, merit pay for teachers, and teacher tenure. That doesn’t include hotly contested issues like standardized testing and Common Core standards, which pollsters also addressed.

Back in August, Alia wrote about the “highly polarized” debates on testing when it comes to school reform:

People tend to like (or at least not dislike) the building blocks of those policies: annual testing, universal standards, an emphasis on “core” academic subjects, and so on. But when those building blocks come with fraught political labels or, in the case of teachers, personal stakes, feelings start to change.

“School reform”—the improvement of schools—is starting to mean precisely the opposite in the eyes of the many American people.

Public approval aside, school reform appears to be working (slowly) when we look at closing the achievement gap for historically marginalized students. A report released in May this year—just in time for graduation—showed how African American and Hispanic students had made progress in high-school graduation rates:

Between 2011 and 2013, the two demographic groups saw their graduation rates rise by roughly 4 percentage points. The 2013 graduation rate for Hispanic students was 75 percent, and for black students it was nearly 71 percent. Still, while low-income students demonstrated gains, they still lag considerably behind their peers. The national graduation rate for students not considered low-income is estimated at 88 percent, while the graduation rate for low-income students stands at 73 percent.

The report’s authors attributed the increases to reform efforts, not an improvement in the economy, specifically highlighting the closures of schools plagued by low graduation rates.

School reform has put intense pressure on districts around the U.S., yielding cheating scandals in cities like Atlanta and D.C. When it comes to scrutiny of teachers in general, Dana Goldstein, author of The Teacher Wars, points to a long history:

“The history of education reform,” she notes, “shows … recurring attacks on veteran educators.” In the early 1800s, reformer Catharine Beecher argued that young women with a missionary calling should replace male teachers who were “intemperate … coarse, hard, unfeeling men, too lazy or stupid” to teach; she suggested those men should be sent into the mills instead. Two centuries later, Goldstein notes, programs like Teach for America are promoted as a kind of missionary calling, in which young fresh-faced college graduates replace lazy, stubborn, unionized teachers.

Finding the right equation for school reform continues to confound, though Cincinnati has fairly recently shown there’s hope for urban districts.

How effective are charter schools really?

The charter school movement turns 25 next year, but we still don’t have a clear answer on how advantageous they are for the education system in the U.S. According to a new report by the nonprofit consulting group Bellwether Education Partners, 2.9 million students attend more than 6,723 charter schools, which receive public funding but maintain independence from the public school system.

Efforts to study the effectiveness of charter schools have yielded controversial results, like this 2013 study from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). It concluded that charter school students were doing worse or about the same as their peers in traditional schools, though African-American and Hispanic students, as well as English-language learners, made solid gains in the 26 states studied.

Pro-charter activists took issue with the study’s methodology. As Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, told NPR at the time: “[T]he CREDO study did not compare real kids to real kids. Instead, researchers took selected data and created a ‘composite’ student to represent public school kids.”

Bruce Fuller, a professor at UC Berkeley, traced the history of the movement to see how close its current M.O. hews to the original idea—“an easy way of liberating inventive teachers from the burdens of staid classroom routines, bland textbooks, and cumbersome union contracts.”

Though they may display less fervor than they once did, charter activists continue to help diversify the nation’s landscape of schools; few parents yearn for the public-education status quo. A growing percentage of parents across the country now seek a school that’s outside their neighborhood attendance zone. The issue being debated in education circles is whether charters have gone “too corporate,” said [Dan Shalvey, the founder of California’s first charter who currently works at the Gates Foundation], but “thirtysomething parents don’t notice these debates. They simply see lots of options now.”

And whether America’s widening kaleidoscope of schools will one day elevate student learning overall or simply breed a patchwork of segregated schools remains a pressing question. But Shalvey may be right. A quarter-century later, charter schools offer worthy options for many parents, rich or poor. “I began teaching in the Summer of Love,” Shalvey said. “All those earlier education fads—team teaching, moving classroom walls around—quickly disappeared. The charter movement has stuck.”

As it’s stuck, however, trends have emerged that change the foundation. Charter schools are uncommon in the suburbs. In some ways, they’ve heightened the competitive school decision process for parents, and the lottery system to enroll isn’t as neutral as it appears.

Finally: We don’t have a clear idea of whether the majority of American adults support charter schools.

So the short, unsatisfying answer is that we still can’t say definitively how effective the charter school movement is in serving students. But it continues to play a major role in the evolution of schools, so let’s wait (even impatiently) and see.

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If you still have any lingering questions on education, ask them here.