Charter Schools Are Losing the Narrative But Winning the Data

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Teacher Calvin Hobbs works with students at African-centered Timbuktu Academy of Science and Technology in Detroit. Photo: AP

Several months ago, David Leonhardt wrote a column in the New York Times summarizing evidence of the striking success public charter schools have had in providing better educations for urban children. “Many charters have flourished, especially in places where traditional schools have struggled,” he wrote. “This evidence comes from top academic researchers, studying a variety of places, including Washington, Boston, Denver, New Orleans, New York, Florida and Texas. The anecdotes about failed charters are real, but they’re not the norm.”

The most striking thing about the coverage of charter schools is the contrast between the tone of data journalism and narrative journalism. In the New York Times, readers of the the Upshot, its data site, have absorbed a story of a movement producing clear successes. “A consistent pattern has emerged from this research,” wrote University of Michigan professor of education, public policy, and economics Sue Dynarski in 2015. “In urban areas, where students are overwhelmingly low-achieving, poor and nonwhite, charter schools tend to do better than other public schools in improving student achievement.”

There are important caveats. For one, charter schools in suburbs have not produced measurable improvement. For another, there is a high level of state-by-state variation. The most successful charter systems tend to be highly regulated, with controls to require high-quality operators and close down low-performing schools. Systems that rely on the market entirely tend to perform much worse. “The best charters tend to be nonprofit public schools, open to all and accountable to public authorities,” concluded Kevin Carey earlier this year. “The less ‘private’ that school choice programs are, the better they seem to work.”

But it is the anecdotes, not the data, that command the largest and most prestigious real estate in the Times. And the anecdotes tell a very different story. A prominent front-page Times report on Michigan’s charter-school experiment last summer concluded, “Michigan leapt at the promise of charter schools 23 years ago, betting big that choice and competition would improve public schools. It got competition, and chaos.” The Times Magazine has a new story again recounting the Michigan charter experiment and again reporting the same dismal conclusion.

The anecdotes, as Leonhardt conceded, are true. Michigan really does have one of the worst-run charter sectors anywhere in America. DeVos’s fanatical devotion to a deregulated charters system, along with her unstinting support for private-school vouchers — a proven failure, as the data journalists have told us — is an important policy story. (Private-school vouchers are often confused with public charters, but they are not the same thing. Charter schools, unlike private schools, are secular, publicly run, cannot charge tuition, and cannot control their admissions except by random lottery. The fact that charters use lotteries for admission allows researchers to directly compare students who win admission with those who don’t. My wife is an education-policy analyst who believes enough in the potential of charter schools to help urban students that she now works for one.)

The headline on the Times Magazine story offers a bold and compelling claim to its readers: “Michigan Gambled on Charter Schools. Its Children Lost.” The “dek,” or smaller headline below the main headline, unspools a lengthier and less bold thesis: “Free-market boosters, including Betsy DeVos, promised that a radical expansion of charter schools would fix the stark inequalities in the state’s education system. The results in the classrooms are far more complicated.” Note that the thesis has been ratcheted way back, from “children lost” to the plan failing to “fix” problems (and even here the result has been upgraded to “far more complicated”).

And then, more than 5,000 words into the story, which depicts the charter experiment in Michigan as a catastrophe, we encounter this passage: “More than half of Detroit students already attend charter schools, and studies have found these schools, on average, to be either as poorly performing or only marginally better than the public schools long called a national disgrace.” Readers paying very close attention to the language will note that “as poorly performing or only marginally better” is another way of saying “as good as or better.” So a story about a cataclysmic failure is basically a story of small progress. Disappointingly small progress, to be sure. But not a change that made things worse for students.

The story refers to a study of Detroit’s charter system by Education Trust-Midwest, a highly respected think tank. The unmistakable thrust of its analysis is that the problem with Michigan lies in the deregulated quality of its schools, not its decision to allow charters at all. That is what makes Michigan’s failure so striking: A well-run charter system would be producing huge gains, not minuscule ones. As an Education Trust-Midwest study argues, “In a leading education state like Massachusetts, serious charter sector accountability has proven to be a huge difference in providing dramatically better educational outcomes.”

The Times story does detail the operational decisions that have made Michigan a disappointment. But it omits evidence that well-run charters have a proven track record. Indeed, the story leaves readers with the distinct impression that Michigan is some kind of positive model, the failure of which disproves the entire concept. “The ultimate proof-of-concept for charter-school advocates in Michigan has been Detroit,” the story asserts at one point. “Michigan has become a symbol — and, for some, a cautionary tale — of a movement gone astray,” it states at another. The data actually tell us that Michigan is just the opposite: not a symbol of a movement gone astray, but an outlier of a movement that is performing extremely well.

Charter Schools Losing the Narrative But Winning the Data