Aug 1 2009

NYT Grades Charter Schools on the Curve

Covering the official spin on education 'reform'

There was something particularly Timesian about the New York Times’ response to an important new study on charter schools—public schools that operate under special rules, seen by some as the main engine of reform for a fundamentally dysfunctional educational system and by others as a thinly veiled effort to drain resources from existing public schools and disempower teachers’ unions. The paper demonstrated both its blinkered deference to official spin and the so-called “liberal” media’s desire to have it all ways editorially, earning conservative credits for supporting “reform” while attaching a fig leaf of concern for any harmful fallout.

The peer-reviewed study, by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), was the first detailed national assessment of charter school impacts, using data from more than 2,400 schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia. The results were “pretty sobering,” in the words of lead researcher Margaret Raymond (L.A. Times, 6/15/09). Nationally, more than 37 percent of charter schools “deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their students would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.” Nearly half the schools had results no different from public schools; 17 percent were found to “provide superior education opportunities.”

Such findings tend to shore up the stance of those concerned that charter schools, which receive public funding but operate with limited oversight from school districts and without many of the curricular requirements or regulations governing public schools, are being oversold as an easy fix to a complex problem by people more interested in “marketizing” education than in serving students. Critics’ questions, like whether charters’ achievements are harder to assess given their selectivity—which leaves students with special needs, for example, underrepresented in comparison to traditional public schools—deserve serious consideration.

Interesting, then, that the New York Times chose not to cover the Stanford study on its June 15 release, but instead waited a week, then ran a story (6/22/09) not on the study but on Education Secretary—and ardent charter booster—Arne Duncan’s spin on the study, as delivered in a prepared speech, “the text of which was provided to the New York Times by his advisers.”

In “Education Chief to Warn Advocates That Inferior Charter Schools Harm the Effort,” Sam Dillon wrote that the charter movement “is smarting” from the Stanford study, which he described (rather backwardly) as finding that “although some charter schools were doing an excellent job, many students in charter schools were not faring as well as students in traditional public schools.”

But no sting was in evidence here, as the piece was shaped entirely around Duncan’s view that all those poorly faring charter schools raise no fundamental questions for the push for more charter schools, as long as advocates are urged “to become more active in weeding out bad apples.”

Of course, some might ask why such a “keep the good, lose the bad” approach couldn’t be equally appropriately applied to existing public schools; the most prominent critics of the charter movement don’t argue that the model should be junked in every instance, but that the track record shows they are, as American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten put it, “not the panacea they often are made out to be” (L.A. Times, 6/15/09).

A critic might also have remarked on the vagueness of Duncan’s call for states to “scrutinize plans for new charter schools to allow only high-quality ones to open.”

Or his rather stunning claim that the solution for public schools determined to be “chronically failing” is to “find 5,000 high-energy hero principals to take over these struggling schools, and a quarter of a million great teachers who are willing to do the toughest work in public education.”

But no critics of charters were given voice in the Times piece, just Duncan and the president of the charter school alliance, who got the last word.

Whatever guided the Times’ decision to cover relevant research only through Duncan’s prism was in further evidence in a July 6 editorial, “Lessons for Failing Schools,” which endorsed the secretary’s “bold policies,” including a plan to change federal law to allow direct financing of charter-school operators. As for Stanford’s evidence that upwards of 80 percent of charter schools are no better or even worse than regular public schools, the Times told us Duncan “confronted this issue directly” by “pointing out that the states needed to do a much better oversight job.”

The paper hailed plans to “change the culture” of the country’s worst schools, which might mean “to simply force out the current staff and bring in a new one.” No mention of whether Duncan’s “culture-changing” record as head of Chicago’s school system—where he created military academies and expanded ROTC programs in middle school and junior high, and where his office never attended any of the public hearings held to address community concerns about school takeovers (Rethinking Schools, Spring/09)—suggests any caveats about his future performance.

But, near the end of the editorial, the Times added it trademark rhetorical asterisk: that “efforts at especially difficult schools will need to include social service and community outreach programs.” Ah.

This calls to mind other editorials in which the paper has attached qualifications to its policy endorsements—qualifications which are initially presented as crucial but which subsequently disappear, like the labor and environmental agreements the paper once claimed were critical to its support for NAFTA, but whose failure to materialize somehow didn’t actually impact their hearty endorsement (Extra!, 7-8/98).

Likewise on eliminating Aid to Families With Dependent Children: In 1994, the Times’ editorial support (e.g., 5/23/94) for any welfare “reform” plan hinged on guaranteed, subsidized jobs for those who couldn’t find work in the private sector. As late as 1996 (5/3/96), the paper was still saying that an “ironclad job offer” was crucial to fair reform.

But by the next year, these jobs had unaccountably morphed into “workfare,” in which welfare recipients work in exchange for benefits—not, as was immediately and painfully obvious, the same thing at all. Making no note of the shift, the Times (4/11/97) simply began referring to “adults who cannot find private- or public-sector work or a government-provided workfare slot.”

Readers need only wait to see whether the social service and community programs now presented by the paper as a sine qua non for educational “reform” meet the same fate. Not as easy as calling for “hero principals,” the paper’s attention to these things will indicate how seriously to take their professed concern for students “trapped…at the margins of society.”