Charters are closing the gap

Student academics, not racial demographics, are what counts

Read the opposite view in “A Setback for Diversity” here.

for decades, education policymakers have attempted to bridge the yawning achievement gap between affluent white students and poor black and Latino students. Each attempt has failed, leaving new generations of poor, urban minorities with an inadequate educational foundation to succeed in an increasingly competitive market. Without a high quality education, the cycle of poverty for most of these children continues from generation to generation with little opportunity to change course.

The most radical of these experiments — forced integration through busing — failed so miserably that urban public schools were transformed from districts that had “separate and unequal” white and minority schools to wholly segregated districts whose students were overwhelmingly black and poor. The “white flight” that ensued left urban educators with a population of minority children separated from their white, suburban counterparts by race, income, and municipal boundaries.

The education systems in many poor, urban areas that resulted from this effort represent the truest and biggest failure of the civil rights movement. Instead of creating integrated urban oases of educational achievement in which children have the same chance at a good education regardless of race or income, our urban school systems have become increasingly minority, increasingly poor, and increasingly underperforming.

The recent report on charter schools by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA seems to ignore the lessons of these previous efforts to “socially engineer” the demographic makeup of our public schools. What’s more, its authors seem to cling to the race make-up of schools as the measure of success in providing quality education for all at a time when education reform efforts are zeroing in on student success as the ultimate objective.

The report criticizes charter public schools as promoting “apartheid,” a disturbing invocation of a highly charged term that is myopic at best and disingenuous at worst. The real apartheid in American education today is the rich set of choices available to those in affluent suburbs, whether high-quality district public schools or high-cost private schools, while the vast majority of poor minority children are trapped in failing urban school districts with no way out. Charter schools represent the boldest attempt of the past two decades to end this system of education apartheid by beginning to provide low-income minority families some of the educational opportunities enjoyed by those in predominantly white, more affluent suburbs.

Providing children with the same academic opportunities as affluent suburban kids is the objective of integration in the first place. On this measurement, charter public schools excel like no other. To ignore the success of Massachusetts charters diminishes the value of the education we are providing disadvantaged children in our cities.

For most charter students, the alternative to a “segregated” charter school may be a slightly less segregated district school that is weaker academically.We agree that cultural diversity is a critically important component of the academic and social development of a child. But it is one factor in a hierarchy of needs that need to be met. Academic achievement must be the gold standard by which we judge schools today, for it represents the only path out of poverty through which the civil rights movement’s goals of equality for all can be realized. The UCLA study’s focus on charter schools’ demographic inputs — the race and income breakdown of their students — rather than the critical outcome of academic achievement among these students ignores the fact that charters have been effectively closing the achievement gap and equalizing educational opportunity between disadvantaged students and their suburban counterparts. The authors also fail to recognize that for most charter students, the alternative to a “segregated” charter school may be a slightly less segregated district school that is weaker academically.

First, let’s dispel the myth that charters are any more “segregated” than neighboring district schools. Most urban charters reflect the demographic mix of the communities they serve. In Boston charters, our students are 78 percent black and Latino versus 76 percent of district students, and 63.5 percent low-income versus 71.5 percent of district students. That means there are more middle-class students in our classrooms (i.e., more economic diversity). Charters have been successful at keeping middle-class families in the cities; something the UCLA report doesn’t even acknowledge. If district schools are to attract more middle-class families from all races, they need to improve academically.

We agree with the recommendation that our schools need to do a better job of reaching families who do not speak English. Many are unaware they have public education choices either because of a lack of information or language barriers. That has been the focus of an intense recruitment drive this winter. During this year’s lottery cycle, our schools saw a dramatic increase in the number of non-English-speaking families who entered our enrollment lotteries. These efforts will continue.

The study quotes previous research showing segregated schools spell “less opportunity” for their students. Segregated schools hire less qualified teachers, experience higher teacher turnover and higher dropout rates, and lack access to important learning resources and social networks linked to college and jobs, according to these studies. By insinuation, the authors claim that these effects can be found in charter public schools. But, the opposite is true in Massachusetts charters.

Generally, all Massachusetts charter public schools are based on a college preparatory program. Right from the elementary grades, our teachers begin talking to students about college, instilling in them the confidence that they can achieve at a level that will lead to college acceptance. Visits to college campuses start in middle school. Flags adorn the halls of some of our high schools from colleges attended by graduates. Our teachers know the stakes and understand the mission. Our principals have the flexibility to hire highly qualified teachers and dismiss those who are not performing. Higher teacher turnover rates at charters are a result of this philosophy, not an indicator of unqualified teachers.

The high standards we set for our administrators, teachers, students, and parents have created a culture of exemplary performance. In Massachusetts, our urban charters are not only outperforming schools in their host districts, but also outperforming schools in affluent suburban districts. Many of our urban charter high schools are sending nearly 100 percent of their graduates to college; many of these are the first in their families to attend.

On the 2009 eighth- and 10th-grade English and math MCAS exams, the top six non-exam middle schools in Boston and six of the top seven non-exam high schools were charters. Several urban charter public schools ranked number one in the entire state on math and English test at various grade levels. These schools are achieving at higher levels of proficiency than affluent suburban schools in Newton, Brookline, Dover, and Weston. We take pride in the fact that these schools all have a high percentage of disadvantaged students — whether they are minority, low-income, special needs, or coming from families whose native language is not English.

In January 2009, the Boston Foundation released a study of Boston schools comparing the academic performance of children who entered the annual charter lotteries and “won,” versus those who entered the lotteries, “lost,” and remained in district schools. Just one year in a Boston charter erased half the achievement gap between low-income and affluent students. After four years, the students who “lotteried into” charters raised their test scores from just above Boston’s district average to just below Brookline’s — one of the top scoring districts in the state and one that is predominantly white and affluent. The test scores of those students in the control group who remained in Boston district schools were stagnant.

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Results like these help reinforce the most urgent civil rights question: How do we ensure that all children have access to excellent schools? Rather than try to attempt to control for variables that are inherently difficult to control (e.g., the mobility of people based on race/culture), why not control the one variable (school quality) that matters most?

Declaring a civil rights victory does not come from a demographic juggling act that ensures just the right mix of students. If closing the achievement gap is the civil rights issue of our time, then charter public schools are in the forefront of today’s civil rights movement.

Greg Shell is chairman of the board of trustees of Roxbury Preparatory Charter School. Kevin Andrews is headmaster of the Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester and president of the Massachusetts Public Charter School Association.