Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Charter Schools Debate

Student learning outcomes achievement is arguably the toughest of development challenges. Experience from developing and developed world show that even when schools have good infrastructure, teachers are in place, teaching and learning materials are provided, and both teachers and students attend class regularly, teaching does not automatically translate into learning. Successful pilot experiments of the transactions in the black-box called classroom has proved near impossible to replicate on scale.

Charter Schools had gained prominence in the US over the past two decades on the belief that independently run, publicly financed schools, unleashed from regulatory fetters, and facing the threat of closure if they fail, would improve learning outcomes. But a recent Times editorial sums up the evidence so far,
The charter advocates promised that unlike traditional schools, which were allowed to fail without consequence, charter schools would be rigorously reviewed and shut down when they failed to perform. With thousands of charter schools now operating in 40 states, and more coming online every day, neither of these promises has been kept. Despite a growing number of studies showing that charter schools are generally no better — and often are worse — than their traditional counterparts, the state and local agencies and organizations that grant the charters have been increasingly hesitant to shut down schools, even those that continue to perform abysmally for years on end.        
A study of student performance in Charter Schools across 25 states in 2009 finds that  only 17 percent of charter schools provided a better education than traditional schools, and 37 percent actually offered children a worse education. Another study finds that the standards used by the charter authorizers to judge school performance are terribly weak. 

I not one bit surprised. Cynical as it may sound, I do not think that there is any one single strategy, however broad, to dramatically improve student learning outcomes. Such quality reform strategies may work or appear to work for sometime in smaller jurisdictions. But when scaled up, and systemically forced to generate positive outcomes, they are more or less certain to be exposed. Instead, I believe that sustainable improvements in learning outcomes are intimately linked with strong demand-side pressures and underpinned by cultural and social factors. 

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