Do Charter Schools Improve Education? Comparing Charter Schools and Traditional Public Schools

Americans have worried about the performance of our public schools for decades, and the charter school movement arose during the 1990s when some education reformers decided that government regulations kept traditional public schools from changing their policies and curriculums, streamlining their budgets, and holding themselves accountable for student performance. While traditional public schools operate under the control of local school boards, charter schools receive renewable contracts from cities, states, and nonprofits and usually stay open if their students meet state standards and pass national standardized tests at acceptable rates. Since the first charter schools opened thirty years ago, their visibility and popularity have increased dramatically; between 2000-2001 and 2015-2016, the number of students who attend charter schools nationwide has increased from 400,000 students to 2.9 million, and this population has grown about 10-15% every year since the mid-2000s. While advocates of charter schools claim that these programs save money and improve student outcomes compared with traditional public schools, the opponents of the charter movement question the academic benefits of charter schools and underscore how much stress charters place upon local school districts. Charter schools still only work with about 5-6% of all American students, but Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos clearly believes charter schools and voucher programs represent the future of American education. We must accordingly examine how well charter schools perform compared with public schools and whether their potential drawbacks make them a distraction from more-useful education reforms.

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The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University released its second comprehensive study comparing charter schools and traditional public schools with similar demographics in 2013, and the study produced three main results: 1) Charter schools have improved significantly since the first CREDO study from 2009. 2) Traditional public schools and charter schools provide nearly the same amount of academic growth for their students. 3) Charter schools have the most success with poor African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans, English-Language Learners, and students from all backgrounds who need special education services. When CREDO published its 2009 study, traditional public schools outperformed charter schools for Math and Reading across every social, economic, and racial category. The students who attended charter schools received the equivalent of seven fewer days of Reading instruction and twenty-two fewer days of Math instruction than their traditional public school counterparts. The 2013 study, however, concluded that students from charter schools had eight more days of Reading growth than students from traditional public schools and the same average Math performance. Overall, charters and traditional public schools currently provide about the same quality of education for their students, but charter schools have disproportionate benefits for demographics that public schools often leave behind (see chart below).

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Khan Academy, Khan Lab School, and the Future of Education

Last fall, I spoke with one of my former English teachers about her work with Khan Lab School, the experimental Bay Area campus founded using the philosophy of Salman Khan. I have finally read Khan’s book The One World Schoolhouse, which describes the main problems with the American education system, the potential solutions Khan himself has drawn from the success of Khan Academy, and his vision for the future of K-12 and higher education. While I have some reservations about the proposals from the book and hope I can eventually tour Khan Lab School itself, I respect how clearly Khan explains the drawbacks of the traditional assembly-line model of education and the logic behind his proposed alternatives. Whether or not his One World Schoolhouse will become reality over the next few decades seems beside the point: Khan helps us articulate which parts of our education system cause so much frustration among students and educators alike and challenges our fundamental assumptions about the structure, methods, and objectives of the classroom.

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Do Immigrants Cause Crime? The Facts of the Swedish “Refugee Crisis”

Since President Trump released his recently-suspended executive order against the entry of Middle-Eastern travelers and Syrian refugees into the United States, many Americans have cited the reported increase of violent crime across Sweden to defend the policy and the hostility of the Trump administration towards immigration. Conservative think-tanks and news sources, including the Gatestone Institute, the Express, the Daily Caller, and Breitbart, have asserted that countries with Middle-Eastern immigrants have unusually-high crime rates because foreigners, particularly refugees, commit crimes at much higher rates than native-born citizens. These news outlets frequently reference a sudden rise of the crime rate of Sweden over the past two years to prove that its relatively permissive immigration policies have placed the entire country at risk. Reports from Gatestone, the Express, and Russian national media outlets have even claimed that some neighborhoods in Sweden have become “no-go” zones where law and order has completely collapsed. While cursory research shows that the Swedish organization supposedly responsible for the secret report documenting these “no-go” zones, the National Criminal Investigation Service, does not exist, the question remains: has Sweden experienced abnormally high crime-rates over the past two years because of its admission of Middle-Eastern immigrants?

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If we consult Swedish crime statistics from 2014-2016, the answer is probably not. The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention has released preliminary data that show that the number of reported crimes decreased from 2014 to 2015 and then rose slightly from 2015 to 2016. Overall, the crime rate and the frequency of violent crimes have actually fallen from 2014 to 2016 during the peak of the supposed “refugee crisis.” For example, 6,700 cases of rape were reported in Sweden during 2014 compared with 5,920 in 2015 and 6,560 in 2016. Despite the publicized increase of the overall crime rate, the entire country only experienced 6,500 more crimes in 2016 than in 2015 out of 1.5 million crimes total (an increase of less than half of one percent). If we examine long-term figures from the Swedish Crime Survey, the murder rate has remained steady between 2-4 cases per 100,000 citizens since 2000 (the highest rate, ironically, appears for the year 2010). Since the middle of the twentieth century, the number of convictions for all crimes across Sweden has decreased significantly, from 300,000 during the 1970s to 110,000-130,000 during the 2000s. The only violent crime with any evidence of an increase over time is rape, an offense that the Swedish government has redefined since 2005 to include not only physical sexual assault but also sexual harassment and unwanted gestures and glances. Sweden now records every separate instance of harassment as its own count of rape, which makes its national rape figures higher than some other European countries (if an offender makes one sexual comment every day for a month, for example, he or she may be prosecuted for thirty counts of rape). Reports clearly show that Sweden has not experienced any short-term or long-term crime increase because of its immigration policies.

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The Danger of Alternative Facts

Over the past few weeks, supporters and opponents of the Trump administration have fought over the constitutionality of his immigration order, the appointment of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, and the size of the crowd at his inauguration. Whether we agree or disagree with these decisions, we should not let our politics overshadow the most worrisome result of the Trump administration: the presentation and circulation of “alternative facts.” Kellyanne Conway, the Counselor to the President, coined the term when she asserted that aerial photographs, public transportation records, and statistical estimates could not disprove the claim from White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer that more Americans attended the Trump inauguration than that of any other president. The possibility of “alternative facts” has become one of the primary defenses of the Trump administration, and many Americans who support President Trump believe the media has misrepresented facts with the explicit objective of undermining his actions. Those who have sided with Conway present two related arguments: 1) We cannot completely remove subjective biases from our perceptions of reality, so all facts contain some bias. 2) If facts cannot escape bias, then one set of “facts” cannot have any more validity than another set of “facts.” Therefore, what we consider the truth and the truth itself are more or less the same, and we can counter any fact with an “alternative fact” backed with any amount of evidence, research, or subjective belief.

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