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Charter school ‘myths and beliefs’: US-style inequality?

“Myths and beliefs” are driving support for the expansion of charter schools, according to one education advocate. He warns the increasing the spread of independent schools will exacerbate inequality and stoke a continuing decline in educational performance.

Charter schools, which operate in various forms in the United States, United Kingdom, Sweden and New Zealand, are primarily government funded, unable to charge student fees and usually have open enrolment policies. In many places they are run by charities or groups of parents, and in the US and Sweden they are open to for-profit operators too.

Western Australia is rolling out independent school model, similar to that in place across Victoria for around 20 years, which incorporates some features similar to charter schools. Independent public schools are run by boards, usually consisting of parents, community members and business representatives, and have more power to choose teachers — reform the Abbott government has promised funding to help spread to other states.

But there are key differences between charter schools and independent public schools: charter schools can be owned and run by an organisation, whereas independent public schools cannot; as with other government schools, independent public schools are unable to fire teachers they don’t want; and charter schools tend to be new institutions, while Australian independent public schools have converted from regular public schools.

In Queensland, Noel Pearson’s Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy is inspired by the model, with an independent board but the same limited hire and fire powers as the rest of the state education system.

Australian College of Educators president Stephen Dinham is worried about the trend overall. “I believe these are proliferating despite a lack of supporting evidence and in some cases in spite of non-supportive evidence,” he said last week.

These developments “have been accepted almost without evidence or questioning in Australia” thanks to Australia’s historical links with the US and UK, and the misconception that public education is in crisis, he argued.

While “most public schools are performing well” and some non-government schools are not, Dinham says, there has been a drive in recent times towards private and charter schools.

On the topic of the academy system in the UK, which follows a similar model to America’s charter schools, he said in a speech in Perth on Tuesday:

“As with charter schools, the perceived advantages include greater autonomy and scope for innovation with resultant higher student attainment. Again, as with charter schools, there have been concerns expressed over the application process to establish a school, cost, effectiveness in terms of student achievement, the effects on and diversion of funds from state schools, lack of local accountability, implications for teachers (including de-unionisation and non-recognition of industrial awards and conditions), and discriminatory admission practices around ‘social selection’, whereby government-funded independent schools exclude lower SES students and make selection decisions on the basis of what parents can offer the school, something that works against ethnic and social diversity and results in a form of segregation.”

Dinham also pointed out that the results from the 200,000 K-12 students enrolled in “virtual or cyber schools” in the US were “dismal”, quoting the National Education Policy Center Virtual Schools report as saying:

“In the 2010-2011 school year, there was a 28 percentage point difference between full-time virtual schools meeting AYP [adequate yearly progress] and traditional brick-and-mortar district and charter schools that did: 23.6% compared with 52%, respectively.”

Citing the Gonski review, he argued that rather than pushing for governance changes that had not been shown to work, governments should focus on:

“… ensuring that the funds are expended on factors or variables that are known have the greatest impact on learning; factors such as teachers’ professional learning with appropriate recognition and reward, qualified staff both teaching and para-professional, evidence-based practice, effective instructional leadership and adequate school infrastructure.”

The most comprehensive study to date on American charter schools, by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, found that charter school educational outcomes in the US were little different to public schools — though there was a small increase in reading scores, maths results were largely the same.

Charter results had improved over the study period, but this was partly the result of the closure of some underperforming charter schools and partly due to worsening outcomes at comparison public schools. But for black, Hispanic, English second language and low-income students, the results were significantly better — between around 14 days and 50 extra days of school. The results were even stronger in some areas: in New York City and Washington, DC, scores indicated students were ahead by around 92 days and 99 days of education, respectively.

Despite concerns about charter schools draining more privileged students from the public system, the report also stated that:

“Charter schools and their feeder schools are educating more disadvantaged students than in 2009. Across the 27 states in this study, more than half of charter students live in poverty (54 per cent), a greater share than the US as a whole and an increase for charter schools from 2009.”

An evaluation of the Swedish free school system by the Department of Education’s Institute for Evaluation of Labour Market and Education Policy found that municipalities with higher numbers of free school enrolments performed better at the end of compulsory schooling as well as long-run educational outcomes, even after controlling for demographic, family background and municipality-level characteristics.

It took a decade for positive results to become observable, argued the report, and the impact of free schools was primarily “due to external effects (e.g., school competition), and not that independent-school students gain significantly more than public-school students”. The improved results were also achieved without extra government expenditure.

Increased autonomy may also mean independent public schools are cheaper than traditional public schools; the same is sometimes claimed for charters.

A case of mixed evidence

“The problem with charter schools,” Melbourne Graduate School of Education lecturer Dr Glenn Savage told The Mandarin, “is that there’s research which says they are a good thing, and there’s research which says they’re not.”

Because it is difficult to isolate the effects of school structure from factors such as teacher quality, student socio-economic or educational background, both sides of the argument are able to find evidence to further their agendas, he argues. The different details of the design of charter school systems and their relation to the broader public school system in each jurisdiction also make it difficult to compare results.

Savage believes the evidence is inconclusive. “It makes you wonder whether the tinkering with governance models of schools is the most important thing to be looking at when there are a whole lot of other factors like teacher quality, adequate funding and strong curriculum that we actually do know have an impact,” he said.

“I wouldn’t be going in there boots and all saying it’s a magic bullet.”

Dr Suzanne Rice, also of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, takes a similar view. “I wouldn’t be going in there boots and all saying it’s a magic bullet,” she told The Mandarin. “Overall the evidence is inconclusive. Is it worth putting in a lot of time and money to setting up charter schools if there are other things that will make a big difference?”

Research she has seen suggests a lot of the things successful charter schools did “tended to relate to what we already know about effective schools”, such as maintaining a shared vision across the school of a “high expectations culture that says everyone can achieve”.

A key feature of many charter schools is increased instruction time for students. Rice says that on this, too, there are mixed findings. “Sometimes it seems to work, sometimes it doesn’t,” she said. “If you’re just doing more of the same thing, is it going to help?”

Both Rice and Savage echo concerns about allowing for-profit companies to run schools, as has occurred in Sweden and the US.

“If money’s going off into profits, that’s money not being spent on education. That raises questions about social stratification,” said Rice. And Savage: “I can’t imagine us adopting a charter school system like in the US, and I can’t imagine us doing it in the same way.

“In Australia there’s a long-held sense of need for egalitarianism. Should all schools be different, and should schools be competing against each other? I don’t know the answer to that but there’s a big argument about equity to do with charter schools.’

More at The Mandarin: Independents day? The report card on independent public schools

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.