Earlier this year, Michael Gove addressed hundreds of teachers, charities and parents at the first ever Free Schools conference, where his fellow speakers included US Charter school experts Mike Feinberg, CEO of Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), one of America’s most high profile charter school chains and Joel Klein, the former Chancellor of New York City Schools and now CEO of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp Education Division.
Gove initially promoted Swedish Free Schools as the inspiration for the model to be replicated here but by the summer, he had ditched them and moved onto giving much greater significance to the inspiration drawn from Charter Schools. The extravagant claims made by Charter School advocates, from President Obama down to the parent seeking state funded education for their children, are intoxicating and Gove himself repeated them in his speech to the Policy Exchange in June when he said:-
“And in America – where the Charter Schools system implemented by New York and Chicago is perhaps the quintessential model of school autonomy – the results are extraordinary…Charters are helping these pupils achieve amazing things. Pupils attending Charter Schools achieve better results than those who applied for a charter school but failed to secure a place in the admissions lottery”.
This enthusiasm is shared by the New Schools Network, whose website
has a section dedicated to the popularity and success of American charter schools. It offers up as evidence studies which purport to show that charter schools outperform regular public schools. We are told that the results from New York City charter schools have been “extraordinary”. It claims that professors at Harvard, Stanford and MIT have carried out evaluations of charter schools and found that they improve attainment and that a 2009 study of New York charter schools conducted by Caroline Hoxby is “the most comprehensive ever to have been done on charter school students”.
But how correct is the New Schools Network to further these claims and what information have they omitted or misrepresented?
The New Schools Network does not reveal that the most authoritative study of charter school performance (CREDO, Stanford University in 2009) concluded that only 17% of charters provided superior education opportunities for their students. Almost 50% deliver results that are no different from the local public school options and 37% deliver learning results that are significantly worse. The report also finds that, despite charter schools having become a rallying cry for education reformers across the US, the study reveals, in unmistakeable terms, that in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well as their public school counterparts.
The New Schools Network omits to mention that the CREDO report uncovered a disturbing and far-reaching sub-set of poorly performing charters, which authorizers find difficult to close; that quality of charters varies enormously across the US and that their study was narrow, concentrating solely on student academic growth in reading and mathematics as the standard for evaluating the impact of charter schools.
Over the summer, the justification for the coalition’s Free School/Academy policies became ever more focused on the specific example of New York City, held up as America’s greatest charter success story and the precise model on which Gove is to replicate school reform in the UK. Gove’s advisers were quick to ensure that the government was seen to be both inspired by, and allied to, the New York phenomenon. Sam Freedman, A Gove special adviser at the DfE tweeted about the excellence of an article written by Joel Klein in Atlantic magazine, in which he justified his controversial tenure as Chancellor of New York schools - forcing schools to close, widespread standardized testing, hostility towards teachers unions – by arguing that his legacy was a greatly improved school system in New York. Rachel Wolf, former adviser to Gove and Director of the New Schools Network repeated her website’s claim, during a radio debate on Woman’s Hour , that New York charters “have reduced the gap between rich and poor students by 87% in maths and 66% in English and Languages. This is an almost unprecedented achievement.” She repeated this claim in Prospect magazine, which Local Schools Network discussed here
Rachel’s claim comes from a 2009 report - “How New York City’s Charter Schools Affect Achievement” by Caroline Hoxby, whose primary finding was that, on average, a student who attended a charter school for all of grades kindergarten to 8th grade (around ages 13-14) would close 86% of the “Scarsdale-Harlem” achievement gap [the difference in scores between students in Harlem and those in the affluent New York suburb] in maths and 66% of the achievement gap in English. The report stunned the education policy world and was seized on by school reformers as evidence of the undeniable and absolute success of the charter school programme. This conclusion was uncritically repeated by the majority of the American media, including the New York Daily News which announced, in rhetoric familiar to those in the UK who have questioned the motives and claims of the superiority of Free Schools and Academies, that anyone opposed to charter schools was “fighting to block thousands of children from getting superior education”.
So, how reliable is Hoxby’s report and has Rachel Wolf wilfully ignored and suppressed the major flaws of the study in order to persuade us that, in by following the NYC template, the government’s Free School policy virtually guarantees success?
Sean Reardon’s review of Hoxby’s report, published by the Education and the Public Interest Center (EPIC), urges the need for caution in accepting some of the Hoxby report’s conclusions since the results appear to overstate the cumulative effect of attending a charter school. Hoxby doesn’t actually follow any student or group of students from kindergarten age right through to grade 8 (actually a total of 9 years). Only 25% of her sample has 6-8 years of “charter treatment”, with the majority of her sample being students with between 3 and 5 years or less in a charter.
Hoxby comes up with the “Scarsdale-Harlem” finding by estimating an average single-year gain for charter students (these being her primary results), then multiplying the single-year gain by 9 years to produce a sensational talking point. This extrapolation is a massive stretch – it ignores measurement errors in test scores, the fact that student achievement gains fade out between school year and fails to acknowledge that long-term charter students entered lotteries between 2002-3 and 2003-4 when there were only about a dozen charter schools in the city.
Hoxby does not provide enough technical discussion and detailed description to enable a reader to assess the validity of some aspect of the report’s methodology and results, so it is impossible to precisely quantify the extent of overestimation. It is therefore inappropriate to use the results seen by this small group of students attending this tiny group of schools to draw conclusions about the 9-year cumulative gains produced by the entire population of NYC charter schools, especially when as Reardon asserts, many ineffective charters were omitted from the study. Reardon’s report concludes that the Hoxby findings, promoted by Wolf as concrete facts, are so unreliable that “policymakers, educators and parents…should not rely on the estimates until the authors provide more technical detail and the analysis has undergone rigorous peer review.”
Policymakers Michael Gove and Rachel Wolf have suppressed information that does not support, or flatly contradicts, their claim that New York Charters are superior providers of education. Report after report show that the poorest do not fare better in charters. The Scarsdale-Harlem effect which they claim have dramatically reduced the gap between rich and poor is based on flawed, selective and exaggerated data.
Rachel Wolf and Natalie Evans, Chief Operating Office of New Schools Network, have not responded to requests to comment on this article.
Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States CREDO/Stanford 2009
“How New York City’s Charter Schools Affect Achievement” by Caroline Hoxby, 2009 NBER/Hoxby
A Review of “How New York City’s Charter Schools Affect Achievement” by Sean Reardon, 2009 EPIC/Sean Reardon