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Shifting Edupolitics

Another Kaus item...

Kaus notes some shifts in edupolitics.

For one, New York's governor-to-be, Eliot Spitzer -- a Democrat, as you may be aware -- has now endorsed opening more charter schools in New York state. (An issue on which I called him out for being reluctant to speak up here.) Spitzer's running mate -- David Patterson, a Harlem Democrat -- also supports the largely non-union schools.

For another thing, Kaus notes Clinton appointee Joel Klein's (five-years-old) support for charter schools and war against New York's United Federation of Teachers.

Third, Kaus notes that the lefty Center for American Progress may start ruffling some union feathers. (God willing)

Anyway, I wanted to address one question Kaus had: Is a new study on charter-school effectiveness out of New York state really meaningful? My answer (if I may be so bold as to step on Eduwonk's toes): a little, but not a lot.

[You can find a very biased union response to the report here (PDF).]

The study is a snapshot of the 2004-2005 school year, and shows students in charter schools outscoring students in nearby public schools. Noted conservative education wonk Fred Hess warned charter-school supporters (for tactical reasons) not to make too big a deal of these results. Essentially, snapshots like this control for ... well, nothing.

The essential problem is that state and city education bureaucracies don't study these issues appropriately. All education data should test how much progress students make in a year -- in other words, value added -- rather than taking snapshots. Essentially, you'd want to take a group of kids in a charter school, and then a similar group of kids who didn't get into that same charter school (admissions are done by lottery, so this would be random), and then compare the groups' results over the years.

But, there are very few studies done like this.

At the same time, this study confirms what we've all known for a long time in New York -- there are charter schools with scores that are simply off the charts. Take this example from the New York Post article:

At the Harlem Day Charter School, 100 percent of its fourth-graders passed the English exam and 94 percent passed the standardized math test.

By comparison, an average of 52 percent of students in neighboring schools in Community School District 4 in East Harlem passed the English test and 75.6 percent passed math.

These are kids who have improved dramatically after being plucked from traditional public schools. There's just no question. And since the point of charter schools isn't just getting high scores at every charter school, but rather experimenting and seeing what works and what doesn't, charter schools have been an unqualified success in showing us that there are educational models that can reach low-income, urban kids.

These models invariably involve: longer hours (more "time on task" and thus longer work days for teachers), frequent testing of students to identify where they need help, and strict accountability of teachers for their students' results.

All of these things are anathema to the teachers unions -- thus their hatred for charter schools. (And, oh yeah, teachers at charter schools don't like to unionize ... and that costs the unions dues-paying members.)

My basic plea on education: more charters, vouchers and experimentation ... AND (and this is a big and, hence the CAPS) an investment by cities and states in independent testing and evaluation bodies. State "accountability" systems are a joke, and almost all government-created data falls short.

New York City, for instance, has an Independent Budget Office that evaluates various things and puts out wonky reports. An independent body like this measuring the schools would be better than reports put out by city and state bureaucracies with overriding political agendas. The problem, of course, as with all "independent" bodies, is making sure that institutional players (and ideologues) don't take over. America's teachers colleges are already worthless because they're run by left-wing social-justice crusaders.

Back to the politics: There is a shift going on here among Democrats. New York will be the state to watch on that front. Will Eliot Spitzer take on the teachers unions that run the state's education policy when he takes office? Stay tuned ... I, for one, will be watching.