Thursday, May 6, 2010

The challenge of maintaining school quality

Improving learning outcomes in government schools has been amongst the most persistent and challenging of all last mile problems in public service delivery. The popular refrain has been that deficient infrastructure facilities, recalcitrant teachers, and weak and corrupt monitoring and supervision are responsible for the poor state of public schools.

However, an excellent article in the Times that assesses the mixed performance of the much talked about charter schools in the US is a timely reminder to everyone that "raising student achievement for poor urban children... is enormously difficult and often expensive", and "heavily dependent on human capital".

The 5000 odd charter schools in the US - which are publicly financed, run independently and free to experiment in classrooms - were set up in 1992 (mainly in urban districts with high poverty rates) as an alternative to the regular district schools with the specific objective of achieving improved learning outcomes, and now run in 72 US cities and have 10% of all students in the public school system.

In recent years, despite opposition from teachers unions, charter schools have gained widespread popularity, with parents competing to send their children to the nearby charter school and enrollment often being done through lotteries when applicants are too many. They have been heavily patronized by philanthropists with generous financial support for improving infrastructure and expansion, academics who have conducted numerous experiments to evaluate their performance, and education reformers who see it as the "way forward".

A study of charter schools in New York (full report here), commissioned by its mayor Mike Bloomberg, a strong supporter of these, and carried out by the NBER found that charter students made better progress in math and English than their counterparts who ended up in traditional schools, and in math charter students came close to equaling the achievements of suburban students. But a more broad-based Stanford study that draws on data from the District of Columbia and 15 states (but not New York), shockinngly found that 83% of charter schools are doing no better than local public schools. They attributed the good performance of New York schools to the rigor in its academic oversight, a reflection of the personal interest shown by mayor himself and its schools chancellor. The Times article writes,

"The majority of the 5,000 or so charter schools nationwide appear to be no better, and in many cases worse, than local public schools when measured by achievement on standardized tests, according to experts citing years of research. Last year one of the most comprehensive studies, by researchers from Stanford University, found that fewer than one-fifth of charter schools nationally offered a better education than comparable local schools, almost half offered an equivalent education and more than a third, 37 percent, were "significantly worse"...

the report, by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, warned, "this study reveals in unmistakable terms that, in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well" as students in traditional schools. Researchers for this study and others pointed to a successful minority of charter schools — numbering perhaps in the hundreds — and these are the ones around which celebrities and philanthropists rally, energized by their narrowing of the achievement gap between poor minority students and white students."

Though both the good and low-performing charter schools require student uniforms, a longer day and academic year, frequent testing to measure learning, and tutoring for students who fall behind, there exist striking differences in how the schools are run, the way classes are taught and how school culture is nourished.

The better schools use technology extensively as both teaching aid and in measuring performance; compare and publicize student and teacher performance using a variety of statistical techniques to both create competition and foster self-assessment opportunities; constantly re-adjust the curriculum; re-teach if standardized test results are poor; teach more hours everyday than regular public schools; disciplined school environment and clearly-defined testing protocols and periodicity; continuous involvement of teachers with the students; and highly motivated and newly recruited young teachers. As one school supervisor put it, there’s not one big thing that the good schools do differently that explains their success, but "there are 100 1-percent solutions".

As the Times report illustrates, the success of the few charter schools and their widening gap with the remaining schools is deceptive. A substantial share of the improvements in their performance can be attributed to the heavy patronage that many of these good schools have been receiving from philanthropists like Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Walton family etc, and non-profit networks of charter school operators who instead of starting their own schools have preferred pumping money into the already successful charter schools.

The ideological premise behind these arose from the arguement that these charter schools would serve as pockets of excellence that would generate competition for public schools. Parents would now have school choice and be encouraged to shift their children to these schools, thereby increasing the pressure on public schools to shape up or face closure. But none of that has happened on a scale that would have made an impact. Further, though it was thought that the poor performing charter schools would be shut down, not a single such school has be closed due to performance failure.

Apart from those run by the respective state education departments, many states grant charters to run such schools to nonprofit groups (both local and those which work as charter networks) with the expectation that they will exercise the same independent oversight that public school boards do. These non-profits, in turn outsource services, like learning assessment, examination paper preparation and evaluation, to commercial management companies.

This involvement of commercial agencies has led to accusations of squandering of public money with inadequate oversight. Regulators in some states have found instances where they have elbowed the non-profit charter holders out of virtually all school decision making — hiring and firing principals and staff members, controlling and profiting from school real estate, and retaining fees under contracts that often guarantee their management in perpetuity.

In the final analysis, stripped of all rhetoric, school quality is heavily dependent on the quality of its teachers. Only the best quality human capital can have the motivation and sincerity to innovate and implement the aforementioned "100 1 percent" initiatives that differentiate the good performing schools from the failures. And since the quality of teachers cannot be influenced, beyond a point, by exogenous factors like trainings, rigor of monitoring, school environment etc, it is inevitable that there exist wide variations in the quality of schools themselves.

I am inclined to believe that a similar assessment of the students of Navodaya Schools set up by the Government of India would show up much the same results if they are compared to the Kendriya Vidyalaya students.

Update 1 (14/3/2011)

Roland Fryer et al have an assessment of Charter Schools here. They describe Charter schools as "one of the most promising education reforms in the past fifty years". Such schools are publicly funded but privately run schools in large urban areas, with considerable freedom to adopt different interventions to improve quality of learning outcomes. They include parental pledges of involvement and aggressive human capital strategies that tie teacher retention to value-added measures.

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