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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Should We Record K-12 Teachers While They Teach?

Three years ago, Bill Gates delivered a ten-minute TED presentation about the lack of meaningful feedback teachers receive so they can improve their instruction. Gates believes other countries outperform the United States across every subject for K-12 education because the United States has no system for the development of entry-level teachers with high-quality models, mentors, and evidence of the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of their own practices. Gates offered a controversial solution: recording teachers across the country and evaluating their performance based upon student outcomes and the videos themselves. While Gates conceded this proposal would cost approximately $5 billion and would probably face immediate resistance from teachers and districts, he asserted the benefits of this program would significantly outweigh its costs. You can watch the entire presentation below:

The question remains: should we record our teachers, and how should we use the information collected from these videos? Gates and his supporters list several benefits of recorded lessons: these videos can help teachers recognize the relative success of their own lectures, activities, and classroom management procedures; share effective lessons and policies with their colleagues; produce databases of the best-practices of instructors nationwide; and identify teachers who deserve rewards for their work or need additional guidance and support. Nevertheless, this proposal has some potential drawbacks. First, continual video would significantly reduce the privacy of teachers and students during class. Second, if administrators used these videos for teacher evaluations, then districts would need regulations against “cherry-picking” positive or negative results for specific instructors. Finally, schools need resources so they can not only identify the limitations of their current methods but also incorporate technology, policies, and personnel whenever shortcomings are identified. Overall, I believe we should let teachers record themselves so they can improve their own instruction but feel we should approach any mandatory video system with caution.

NewsELA: Science and Current Events Written for K-12 Students

Since I started working with AJ Tutoring over the summer, I have regularly needed fiction and nonfiction material designed for middle-school students so I can provide diagnostics, reading comprehension exercises, and writing assignments for my clients. Whereas high-school students can generally read political and scientific news from sources including The New York Times, Time, The Economist, and Scientific American, these periodicals sometimes cause difficulties for younger students who would clearly benefit from their real-world content. Unfortunately, some media outlets specifically directed at children either oversimplify complex problems or focus upon trivial subjects which do not accurately represent current events or recent scientific discoveries.

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The education website NewsELA has solved this problem with its own writers who read and revise articles from credible journals, newspapers, and magazines for multiple grade-levels. Each NewsELA article includes three or more difficulty settings so teachers can choose the reading-comprehension level most appropriate for their students, and these settings range from elementary school to high school. My students and I have successfully discussed the recent Tesla autopilot accidents, the controversy over whether or not athletes with prosthesis should compete against their “able-bodied” counterparts, and a scientific study concluding Greenland sharks may live for around 400 years. While you cannot read full articles from the site without registering your email address, the investment more than repays the cost of another weekly newsletter. The site also follows one of the central principles of technical communication: it evaluates the needs and capacities of its intended audiences and designs its content accordingly. You can explore the website yourself using this link: NewsELA Homepage.

Sabbaticals for K-12 Teachers

This editorial from Jessica Anderson, the 2016 Montana Teacher of the Year, claims K-12 teachers should request sabbaticals so they can learn new technologies and instructional methods for their classrooms. Unlike professors, who often arrange sabbaticals for their academic research, K-12 teachers usually seek professional development over the summer and during the school-year. K-12 teachers must accordingly balance between their daily classroom administration and curriculum design responsibilities and their experiments with virtual reality software (Google Expeditions), online flashcards (Study Blue), content management systems (D2L, Moodle, etc.), and practice-problem applications (NoRedInk, IXL, etc.). The limited time and resources teachers can allocate for these “side-projects” necessarily reduces their usefulness, and Anderson states teachers cannot draw their classes into the twenty-first century until K-12 educators and districts properly facilitate the long-term improvement of their employees.

Anderson also addresses the reservations many teachers have about leaving their classrooms for a year. Anderson believes teachers underestimate how much sabbaticals may improve their skill-sets and insists teachers should not feel guilty about temporarily leaving their schools with the long-term objective of returning with applications and techniques that they can share with their coworkers. Many public-school contracts already have options for sabbaticals, and Anderson feels these opportunities are underutilized because teachers cannot see themselves outside the classroom. Those who assume expert teachers always belong inside the classroom may disagree, but I side with Anderson: if one year of research, conferences, and trying new applications yields three-five years of meaningful returns for students, then the K-12 education system should not merely allow but promote sabbaticals for its instructors. I also wonder whether colleges should more-actively support the use of sabbaticals for instructional purposes instead of focusing so intently upon articles and book projects. Click the link below for more details.

Anderson K-12 Sabbaticals Editorial

Online Adaptive Learning Technology

When educators consider the future of online and hybrid education, they frequently stress how digital platforms might personalize the content and activities provided for individual students. With sophisticated algorithms capable of determining what information students need and how they learn using past results, computer-mediated education programs could design assignments and lectures for each member of the classroom without overburdening teachers who already have nearly-unmanageable workloads. This article discusses the Habitable Worlds course from Arizona State University, which has students explore the historical development of biological organisms and the viability of extraterrestrial life using “digital courseware.” This courseware monitors student progress, presents feedback, and adjusts how its students learn and practice the content of the HabWorlds curriculum. Digital courseware may someday increase the pass-rates for general education classes and improve the quality of mainstream courses, but I question whether software, monitored or otherwise, should make automated decisions about student capabilities and classroom objectives. Click the link below for more information:

Digital Learning’s Pioneers Are Cautiously Optimistic

EdSurge Online Education and Adaptive Learning Article

Preschool Computer Programming with Wooden Blocks

This article discusses the gradual integration of computer science into K-12 classrooms and considers how preschools might teach students the basics of coding using colored blocks. The author surveys the objections instructors have raised against screen-based instruction and concludes tactile methods of learning code will not only help students prepare for increasingly-digital schools and workplaces but also harness the benefits of kinesthetic activity for long-term skill development. Much like the recent Google Bloks project, this article calls for means of acquiring online and computer-mediated skills without electronics, which could help schools with smaller budgets and less technically-trained instructors better serve their students. Click the link below for more details.

Why Pre-K Computer Programming Should Be More Hands and Less Screen

Preschool Computer Programming Editorial