With testing, where do we go from here?

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As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

Forget cheating on tests for a minute and think about the concept of ‘teaching to the test.’ Just what does that mean? The usual line (which I have used myself) goes something like this: “It’s OK if it’s a good test,” and that may be correct. Unfortunately, most of the tests that I have seen are not ‘good’ tests.

Think about teaching students to write, and then testing their skills. Clear writing is important. Employers want to hire people who can write clearly, accurately and well — but learning to write takes time and requires rewriting and more rewriting, under the guidance of a good teacher. There are no shortcuts. However, our obsession with numbers subverts both teaching and learning. Teachers are told that their students must be able to pass bubble tests and write a lot of short so-called essays (usually one or two paragraphs!) There’s no time for reflection or rewriting.

Instead, students are drilled in the ‘constructed response’ process: write a declarative statement and then add three or four details to support a statement, such as: “I always use sun block when I go to the beach.” And so they follow the formula they’ve been given and produce something like: “I always wear sun block when I go to the beach because too much sun can cause cancer, and because too much sun will make me all wrinkled when I get old, and because cancer can kill you. My mother makes me use sun block too.”

That ‘essay’ would get a passing score because the student supported his statement in four ways. The teacher (or machine?) grading the ‘essay’ could simply count the supporting reasons. Everybody — teachers, principal, superintendent and school board — would pat themselves on the back, but is Microsoft, GE or Hilton likely to offer someone who’s been trained to write that way a job?

That’s what we are doing to our children. It’s only slightly hyperbolic to say that we are lying to our kids.

Cracking down on cheaters — which we should do — won’t fix our problem. Think about it this way: You are sitting in your living room when drops of water begin falling on your head. Clearly, you have a problem. If you move your chair, have you solved it? After all, you no longer have water falling on your head.

Bubble Test
Tests aren't going away. But where do we go now?

Of course not, because the problem persists, although now the water is falling on your living room rug. Suppose you get a large pot and place it where it can catch the falling water? Have you solved the problem? Of course not, because you still have a leak somewhere.

You get the point. I think it’s time for those of us who are attacking bubble testing and the intense pressure to ‘produce’ to back off and ask, “Where do we go from here?”

Unfortunately, we haven’t asked and answered that question in the past. Subverting the testing system is an old story that we don’t seem to learn much from. Remember Austin, Texas, where most of the school board was implicated in test score deception? How about that small town in Connecticut with its ‘miraculous’ test score gains a few years ago? Not miracles, just plain old cheating.

Sometimes the system aids and abets the deception, as in Florida, where a loophole in the state law allowed districts to counsel low-performing students to drop out to go into GED programs. By law, the districts didn’t have to count these kids as dropouts as long as they suggested the GED alternative, no matter that no one had to follow up to see if the kids actually enrolled.

How about the so-called ‘Texas Miracle” that turned out to be the ‘Texas Mirage?’ Houston had great test scores, and Superintendent Rod Paige eventually became U.S. Secretary of Education. Then we learned that an inordinate number of low-performing 8th graders were simply being held back, often for more than one year, because high-stakes testing didn’t begin until 9th grade. Some find the seeds of No Child Left Behind in that misadventure.

Atlanta may actually be the proverbial tip of the cheating iceberg because evidence that suggests major cheating has also occurred in D.C., Pennsylvania, Florida, Houston, Baltimore, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Some consultants, test security companies and even the test makers themselves are licking their chops right now, expecting to make a lot of money designing what they will claim will be better defenses against cheating, because ‘firewalls,’ ‘fail-safe’ steps, ‘erasure detection software’, and other ‘technical fixes’ are a big part of the conversation. In fact, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the Atlanta Journal Constitution:

“The technical fix is very simple, and they need to put that in place. The job for a new superintendent coming in after a crisis is to rebuild public confidence with absolute integrity, transparency.”

I respectfully disagree, because cheating is not the real problem; it’s a symptom of a larger problem, and the solution is not simple. Not by a long shot.

The problem in Atlanta, in D.C., and wherever else cheating is occurring proves Campbell’s Law, which states “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

Live by the test, die by the test.

We rely too heavily on the scores of relatively simple (and relatively cheap) machine-scored ‘bubble’ tests as the measure of educational accomplishment, and that invites deception, cheating and criminal behavior.

So where do we go from here? Well, we aren’t going to ‘get rid of testing,’ that’s for sure. Anyone who wants to throw out that bath water ought to recall the New Orleans high school valedictorian that could not pass the Louisiana state graduation test, despite being given multiple opportunities!

Nor is it enough to endorse “multiple measures” of achievement. It’s more complicated. We have to ask ourselves what we want young people to be able to do upon graduation and figure out how to teach and encourage those behaviors. Then — and only then — do we figure out ways to measure them.

What if we were to ask large employers like Michael Dell, Steve Ballmer of Microsoft, Carol Bartz of Yahoo, the heads of Hilton, Hyatt, Avis and Hertz, Wendy Kopp of Teach for America, Steve Jobs, Jeffrey Immelt of GE, the provosts of some major universities, top advertising agencies and so on what they look for in potential employees? What would they say?

Or maybe you hire people for your company. What do you look for?

Life is not all about work, of course, so we ought to ask what we want our youth to be: good parents, concerned citizens, informed voters, discerning consumers, and so on.

Then let’s figure out what sort of school-based experiences teach or sharpen those skills and attributes. My hunch is that group activities and project-based learning will figure prominently. I think we will be reminded of the truth of the late Ted Sizer’s observation that “Less is more.”

Tests drive public education right now. But what should be driving the enterprise are agreed-upon goals that come from the real world.

Where do we go from here? That’s up to us, isn’t it?

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The play’s the thing

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As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.


How did you get through high school? If you are at all like me, your extra-curricular activities were the best part of the deal. The fun stuff — often what we worked hardest on — didn’t really count as far as many of the adults were concerned, but it kept us sane.

I bring this up because the Yale School of Music asked me to talk to 50 of the country’s best public school music teachers earlier this month. Perhaps foolishly, I accepted the invitation — but then had to figure out what I (not a musician) could say that might make sense to them. That got me thinking about the centrality of school’s ‘non-essential’ activities like music. And then I remembered how another ‘non-essential’ activity — drama — had rescued my own teaching. Here’s part of what I had to say:


You are music educators, but because I don’t have the bona fides to talk to musicians, I will try to say something worthwhile about education. But what? Well, Last week I arrived at a recording session early, before my producer got there. The sound engineer and I had some time to talk, and he asked me what I was working on. I told him that I had been invited to speak to some of the nation’s best music teachers and was grappling with the challenge — what to say.

‘That’s easy,’ he said. ‘Thank them for me.’

What do you mean, I asked?

‘Well, I wouldn’t have made it through high school or college if it hadn’t been for my music teachers.’

Tell me more, I said.

‘I played an instrument, but that wasn’t what made it matter. In music, the rewards are right there for the taking. You work with others and are only as good as the group. But you can get better — and know you are getting better — by practicing. In other classes, the rewards are external and symbolic (letter grades) but not in music.’

So, from 40-something Richard Fairbanks, thank you. I am certain there are hundreds of thousands of Richard Fairbankses out there, adults who survived school — and later prospered — because of you.

From me, congratulations. I am proud to be here with you.

I have read your biographies, and all I can say is ‘wow.’

Why teachers matter….

I think schools are teetering on the edge of a cliff marked ‘obsolescence.’ In my new book, I argue that two of the three reasons for having schools no longer apply. Now I realize there’s a fourth reason, one that involves you.

Here’s the story: I taught high school in New York in the mid-60s right after graduating from college. I write about that experience in The Influence of Teachers. One story I didn’t write about in the book I’d like to tell now, because it’s about how we turned to the arts — even then officially a non-essential activity — to energize our class. Looking back, I think it was the best teaching I ever did.

As a rookie teacher in a rigidly tracked school, I was not allowed anywhere near the kids who were on track to go to college. They were the ‘ones’ and the ‘twos.’ Instead, I was given five classes of ‘threes,’ the borderline kids that no one really cared very much about. They were Italian-Americans or working class Jews, with one or two Hispanics. For one class I was assigned to team-teach with an older Social Studies teacher named Patty Ecker (she was perhaps 24!). We struggled to interest the kids in the two subjects, without much success, until one day Patty said, “Let’s have them write a play.”

John Merrow teaching in 1966
John Merrow teaches at Paul D. Schreiber HS in Port Washington, NY in 1966.

Bingo! We told them that they had to come up with a story, explained plots, talked about ‘beginning, middle, end’ and all that stuff. They could decide on characters, action, plot, and so on. Once they realized that they had a blank slate, they took off.

Maybe predictably, the main characters of their play were tough but misunderstood teenagers, kids the adults looked down on because their hair was slicked back and they wore leather — girls and boys alike.

The plot involved shoplifting from a store in town. Cigarettes, maybe. The owner accused the greasers, of course, and I think the football captain actually fingered them.

You can guess the plot twist pretty easily. The goody-two-shoes guy and his perfect girlfriend were the thieves, and so on.

Word spread that Miss Ecker’s and Mr. Merrow’s class was writing a play and acting it out in class. Which we were. Kids would say their lines, and other kids would critique. Is that what Rocco would say? Is that how Vinnie would say it?

As enthusiasm built, someone suggested actually staging the play in the auditorium. That meant building at least two sets, because some of the action took place in a kid’s garage, some in an official office, maybe the principal’s, maybe the police chief’s — I don’t remember. They scrounged up props, including one kid’s chopped and lowered and louvered hot rod, if I remember correctly. Costumes. The whole nine yards.

For Patty and me, it was heaven. We were having — for the first time — the kinds of experiences that you have enjoyed throughout your careers, because we had engaged our kids in real work that both respected them and challenged them.

We had kids enthusiastically writing and rewriting. We heard from parents who had never been in touch with the school before. I remember a lovely letter I got from Joe Levy’s mother. Written in a loopy scrawl with a couple of minor mistakes, that letter touched me as very little has since, because she said that her Joey had been ready to drop out because he hated school but now he was jumping out of bed, eager to go.

When they put on the play one afternoon, those kids became heroes to a pretty sizable segment of the school, the large group of students who are barely visible to the adults. Their play stood up to the in-crowd, but that was only a small part of their triumph. They had flexed their creative muscles, something that hardly ever happens for most kids in “curricular” stuff.

Why these classes and activities are ever called ‘extra curricular’ is beyond me.

What we discovered, quite by accident, is something you know in your core: kids are not afraid of work, not if it’s work of value. Some teachers believe, incorrectly, that they can improve a student’s self-esteem with words and other easy expressions of praise (like high grades) even though the student isn’t doing the best work that he or she can. You know that accomplishment is the foundation of self-esteem. Students know when they’re doing their best, and they know when they’re being allowed to cut corners. They may grumble that their teachers are expecting too much, but good teachers know enough not to listen to that particular complaint.

So how do we save ‘extra curricular’ program like art and drama and music? I don’t believe that special pleading (“Save The Arts”) will work. We need a national conversation about our children, and I challenge you to help lead that.

(That’s my bumper sticker for you: DON’T PLEAD. LEAD.)

We have to ask a number of questions: What do we want our children (grandchildren, in my case) to be able to do? What kinds of people do we want them to grow up to become? What values matter? Are test scores a valid surrogate measure of our hopes for children, our own and those of others?

Then ask how we get there? Ask what the role of the school is? Ask what kinds of programs help kids grow in those directions?

If we ask those questions and if citizens and business leaders and politicians answer them honestly, the inevitable conclusion has to be that the arts in all their forms are fundamental, as important as — maybe more important than — the so-called basics.

When that day arrives, when we finally get our priorities right — and I believe we will — I hope you will be magnanimous and keep English and math and history on the list of ‘basics.’

But if you don’t, I will understand completely.

Again, my congratulations on your richly deserved honor, and thank you for the privilege of speaking with you today.



Does any of that ring a bell for you? What on earth can we do to get the people in charge to wake up to the importance of art, music, drama, journalism and even recess? They’re all being cut in the name of ‘academic rigor.’ And that insane policy is hurting children and youth everywhere.

A speech I’d like to hear

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As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

This is a speech I hope Arne Duncan will give one day. I don’t necessarily expect you to write a FULL SPEECH back in the comments, but I’d love to know the issues you hope the Secretary will touch on in major future addresses.


With my basketball playing limited recently because of my schedule and a nagging injury, I have been thinking about the sport and its similarities to education. That’s what I want to talk about today.

Some of you may know that I am comfortable on the court. I played a lot as a kid, was team co-captain at Harvard and then competed in an Australian pro league. I still play regularly and have been on the team that has won three national Three on Three titles in the past few years.

I know something about education too — maybe even more than my critics would have you believe. I grew up in my mom’s early childhood program, and I was CEO of CPS (Chicago Public Schools) for seven years.

What I have come to realize is that we are focusing too much on test scores — to the detriment of real learning. That’s like a basketball coach paying attention only to wins and losses while neglecting the fundamentals of the game.

Here’s what I mean. In basketball you compete to win, of course, but you play and practice a heck of a lot more than you actually compete in games against other teams. And that’s what should happen in school, if you think of big high-stakes tests as those competitive games.

In both, of course the scores matter, because winning is better than losing, but think about how you get those good scores in basketball. It’s not by practicing ‘winning.’ No, it’s by working on the elements that make up the game: passing, foul shots, jump shots, rebounding, diving for loose balls, defending, and so on.

When teachers devote a lot of time to practicing test taking, they are going down the wrong path. That’s like trying to practice ‘winning’ when they should be working on the essentials of the subject, the elements of ‘victory.’ Teachers should be helping with the academic equivalent of rebounding, passing, defending and so on. If you’re an English teacher, your students should be reading, writing, rewriting and arguing their points, and so on. As E. D. Hirsch, Jr. has noted, “If we want our children to do well on reading tests, they should be reading — not practicing taking reading tests.”

Friends who have been around Washington longer than I point out that, ever since No Child Left Behind, we have gotten away from the essentials of learning and focused instead on high stakes tests. We used to give high stakes tests just three times — in 4th, 8th and 12th grades — but now, because of NCLB, schools are required give them every year. In my basketball analogy, that’s like sending teams out to play in tournaments all the time, without giving them time to get game-ready.

Want an example? Take Connecticut, which had invested a fair amount of money to develop some pretty good (largely non-bubble) tests that were going to be given every other year, until the previous administration made it stop, effectively saying, ‘Test every year or lose your federal dollars.’ Connecticut fought back but lost the battle. Washington forced it to throw out its much better tests and replace them with cheap, off-the-shelf bubble tests.

And so, from now on, our policy will be to encourage more of the basketball equivalent of practicing the elements of excellence. I urge teachers to translate ‘rebounding, passing, defending, foul shots, three pointers, et cetera’ into their academic counterparts in their particular subjects, and concentrate their efforts there. When a coach does that, winning takes care of itself. If we do that in our classrooms, winning — doing well on accepted measures — will also take care of itself.

The Department will do its part by granting waivers from some of No Child Left Behind’s rules, to states that apply and qualify. But it’s up to ordinary Americans to get involved, to help figure out what we want for our children.

Thank you.


What do you want to hear from Arne Duncan? Seriously!

Test question — can you spell ‘blackmail?’

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As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

If memory serves, years ago a group of students at a California high school deliberately filled in incorrect answers on a test the state used to evaluate its schools, thereby guaranteeing that the school would sink in the rankings. They were upset because the principal failed to bow to their demand for a smoking area or some similar privilege.

Whether the principal was right or wrong is immaterial. What matters is that the state had put him in that position by creating a test whose results meant nothing to those being tested — but could lead to cash bonuses for schools doing well.

Students at other high schools apparently went to their principals and offered to do really well in return for privileges. Not sure how that turned out.

In 2006, according to California reporter John Fensterwald, students at a charter school in San Jose protested the dismissal of a couple of popular teachers by sabotaging a state test. The school’s score on the all-important Academic Progress Index dropped 203 points, from 731 to 528.

What brings that to mind is the news that New York City is going to spend at least $25 million to create tests whose scores will, they hope, allow them to judge teachers (not students).

As Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky said to the New York Times, “How do you create an additional assessment that is actually going to strengthen instructional practice, rather than divert time away from instruction?”

That, he added, “is what we set out to solve.”

From my vantage point, there is so much wrong with this thinking as to be laughable — although maybe Dr. Polakow-Suransky (by all accounts a brilliant man) is being logical given that the legislature passed a law last year that requires districts to find ways to rate teachers on a scale from ‘highly effective’ to ‘ineffective.’ The legislature was doing Washington’s bidding, to help the state win the Race to the Top competition, so perhaps the madness starts in the Congress and the White House.

But madness it is, because New York City will be piling more tests on top of those already being administered. The Times reports that, if the plan is carried out, high school students could end up taking as many as eight additional tests a year, because, after all, not everyone teaches math or language arts. As spokeswoman Natalie Ravitz said in an email, “Some of the things that need to be determined are how are we going to ‘test’ students in art classes…students in Physical education… students in Spanish.”

There will be more tests for elementary and middle school students as well.

Now about the blackmail: When New York City rolls out the test exams next year in 100 or so schools, how long before some savvy students let teachers know that they know what’s going on — and are willing to try their best if the teacher will agree to (fill in your own answer here).

Reporters have to be salivating at the prospect of some really juicy stories emerging from this idiotic policy. If it weren’t so stupid, I would be really pumped too.

According to the Times article, sample tests were given in 11 schools this spring, but no one told the students what the deal was. Good luck with keeping that a secret as the tests spread to other schools.

And in fact, Dr. Polakow-Suransky urged full disclosure. “I don’t think it should be a secret that part of how teachers are evaluated is how kids’ learning goes on in their class,” he said.

Bubble Test

(Perhaps I should say ‘if the tests spread,’ because spokeswoman Ravitz says they have only put out the RFP but “haven’t made decisions.”)

Doesn’t anybody have the courage to challenge this slavish devotion to standardized testing (mostly bubble tests, by the way)? Students in New York City finished taking their ‘end of the year’ state test in mid-May, but school itself doesn’t get out until the end of June. For kids (and for the policy types in their comfortable offices), the tests are everything. Teachers, of course, have to hold their students’ interest for another six weeks or so.

Dr. Polakow-Suransky said the challenge was to create an additional assessment that will ‘strengthen instruction.’

I say he ought to examine the premise of the law and challenge it, because the goal ought to be to strengthen teaching and learning. This entire exercise strikes me as a ‘gotcha game’ whose outcome will undermine the teaching profession, increase disrespect among students for schooling, and take time away from teaching and learning. It will, however, allow students to strengthen their bargaining and blackmailing skills.

Assessments can strengthen instruction, of course. Frequent school-based tests in math, for example, can pinpoint which teachers are having difficulty getting certain concepts across; they can then learn different approaches from their more successful peers. That’s not ‘gotcha’ testing but sensible assessment with an immediate feedback loop.

I write about many of these issues in my book, The Influence of Teachers. A lot of our problems in public education stem from a dearth of respect. We don’t respect students’ intelligence; hence we focus on the lowest common denominator in skills. We don’t respect teachers, which is why we turn to standardized testing as the be-all and end-all of evaluation. I’m not sure we even respect learning itself.

Nor do we expect very much from our kids, frankly. Imagine setting the bar for reading at third grade, when most first graders are fully capable of learning to read and learning to enjoy reading?

But enough of this rant. The questions are:

How do we raise expectations?

How do we get beyond the insult of ‘the basics’?

How do we wean ourselves away from our addiction to more and more standardized testing?

The floor is open for suggestions (I’ve done the ranting).

The international divide

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As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

Is it possible that the US has been heading in the wrong direction for most of the 30 years it has been focused on school reform? That’s the conclusion a reader of “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” would be hard pressed not to draw. The paper, written largely by Marc Tucker of the National Center for Education and the Economy, contrasts the approaches taken by five high performing (but quite different) entities — Toronto, Japan, Finland, Shanghai and Singapore — with what we have been doing here.

You can read the paper here.

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E.D. Hirsch, Mike Smith and Linda Katz offer insights on reading development

If journalism is history’s first rough draft, then perhaps blogs like this one are journalism’s notes and outline. For me, this blog continues to be a wonderful learning opportunity, largely because of thoughtful readers who question my assumptions and provide me with information I have either forgotten or never seen.

In the few days since I posted my thoughts about early reading, I have received several (welcome) wake-up calls from E.D. Hirsch, Jr. (of Core Knowledge fame), Marshall ‘Mike’ Smith (former Deputy U.S. Secretary of Education under Bill Clinton), and Linda Katz (Director of the Children’s Literacy Initiative in Philadelphia).

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MOVIE REVIEW: The Lottery

Put one notion to rest: The Lottery is not a poor cousin of Waiting for Superman.  In some respects it’s a purer and more honest film, ferocious in its anger.  And although an NPR reviewer called it “a devastating piece of propaganda,” the filmmaker begs to disagree.

Madeleine Sackler, not yet 30 years old, says The Lottery simply tells the stories of the lives of four families as they struggle to find better educational opportunities for their children.  “That word, propaganda, has a negative connotation,” she said. “This movie is true.”


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Superman, Rhee and Everything in Between

I have a couple of things on my mind this morning, all somewhat connected.  Before I am through, I am going to recommend a bunch of websites, all worth a look in my humble opinion.  So here goes.

Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim, Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates on OprahThe publicity train for “Waiting for Superman” pulls into the station this Friday, when the movie opens, and its cross-country trek has been a marvel: fulsome praise on Oprah, the cover of Time, and so on.

For a balanced view of the movie, please read Nick Lemann’s review in the current issue of the New Yorker.  And here’s another, tougher review, this one by a teacher.

I have already reviewed the movie but want to reiterate my point: the bleak picture of public education that the movie paints is a huge disservice to millions of kids and teachers.

Because I ran the meeting where charter schools were born (1988) and have been following the story ever since, I resent the movie’s endorsement of charter schools as the solution.  Continue reading

The Road Not Traveled: Tracking Charter Schools Movement

On the back page of Education Week this week is my essay about charter schools, including a trip down memory lane back to the meeting in Minnesota in 1988 where the dream took shape. I hope all of you will go over to Ed Week’s website to read it (subscription required), but, before you do, bear with me because the ground keeps shifting under this movement, even as many things remain the same.

I’d like to raise two issues: 1) quality control and 2) persistent opposition.

Charter Schools & The Roads Diverging

For one thing, the Obama Administration is embracing charter schools (or ‘chartered schools’) with great enthusiasm. Now, it’s true that Education Secretary Arne Duncan adds a qualification, saying that they support ‘good charter schools,’ but that strikes me as, for the moment anyway, an empty distinction, largely because of an absence of ways of measuring quality.

It’s true that egregiously bad charters get shut down, but mediocre ones keep plugging along, doing just as much damage to kids as mediocre public schools. But what the charter school proponents don’t seem to realize is that these mediocre institutions are also damaging ‘the movement.’ I’ve heard them (and you know who you are!) say that mediocre public schools aren’t punished, as if that justifies not closing mediocre charter schools! It doesn’t, precisely because the charter school advocates are claiming to be different.

I think that charter schools risk becoming like schools of education if they aren’t careful. How many of the 1400 or so schools and colleges of education are excellent? Continue reading

When Roads Diverge: Tracking the Charter Movement

Where Will the Charter School Movement Take Education?
By John Merrow / Education Week
November 30, 2009

When two roads diverge in a yellow wood, in poetry and in life, one must choose. After picking a path to follow, inevitably you ask the unanswerable question: What would have happened if you had chosen the other path?

Charters

Now we know what happens, at least in education, thanks to a remarkable study of charter schools in New York City. And that study, released in September, suggests that it’s time to widen one of the roads.

Because New York City doesn’t have enough room in its charter schools, admission is by lottery. Over the past seven years, only about half the 80,000 students who have applied have been accepted. Most of the others ended up going to traditional public schools in their neighborhoods.

Not only were the applicants similar in observable characteristics of race, gender, poverty, disability, and English proficiency, but, because all had made the effort to enroll in a charter school, researchers could infer similarity in motivation and family interest in education. Such an opportunity is what the study’s lead author, Caroline M. Hoxby of Stanford University, calls ‘‘the gold standard’’ in research, the opportunity to compare apples to apples.

The announced results are dramatic. The lottery winners went to 48 public charter schools, and those who finished 8th grade performed nearly as well as students in affluent suburban districts, closing what the researchers call the “Harlem-Scarsdale achievement gap” by 86 percent in math and about two-thirds in English.

By the 3rd grade, each year in a charter added about 5 points to math and English language arts scores on state exams, compared with those who lost the lottery. Every year in a charter increased a high school student’s likelihood of earning a state Regents diploma by 7 percent.

The study’s results can be generalized, Hoxby maintains, because most charters are in cities, most urban districts use a lottery system, and New York’s students resemble urban students everywhere.
But, as with all education research, caveat emptor is a good rule to adhere to. For one thing, nowhere in the published study does Hoxby reveal how many children actually went through eight years in charter schools. She does acknowledge that she did a fair amount of extrapolating.
Just what does that mean? Think of an eight-mile road race in which only some runners ran the entire distance. Most, however, ran some portion of the distance—miles one through three, say, or miles five through seven. And then the race officials compiled the final standings by assuming that those partial race times would have been replicated over the full distance. If someone who ran only three or four miles of the course got a trophy, there’d be an uproar, of course, but statisticians like Hoxby are comfortable with drawing inferences about academic performance.

But did she extrapolate beyond what the data support? Some in the field are skeptical of the study’s conclusions. They note that the research hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed, and that the study’s scope, confined to New York City charters, limits its usefulness on a national scale. A few also point out that Hoxby’s studies of charters tend to be consistently positive.

But Hoxby stands behind her results and their meaning. She told me recently that the peer-review process is under way and should be finished soon. But what’s more relevant to her, she said, is whether someone can articulate an actual problem with the methodology.

Meanwhile, her research shows clear performance differences among charter schools in New York City. While Hoxby will not name the best and worst, she is willing to identify the characteristics of the best. The high-performing charters have a longer school day and year; more time devoted to studying English; pay for performance, and not simply based on seniority and credentials; a clear academic mission; and a moderate disciplinary policy of both small rewards and small punishments (meaning that behavior issues—good and bad—are attended to on the spot).

Not all the charters were successful, though. It’s important to note that 14 percent of students in the study attended charter schools that had an overall negative effect on math performance, compared with students who did not win the lottery.

So what does all this mean for choosing education’s road to the future? What will happen now? Hoxby sees these results as a clear call to create more charter opportunities, something President Barack Obama, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and many others have been urging. The federal government, in fact, is doing more than talking. It has made it clear that states with limits on charters may be less likely to do well in competition for the $4 billion in Race to the Top stimulus funds it’s preparing to distribute. Some states already have removed their charter caps in response.
The general public clearly wants more charter schools—64 percent in the 2009 Gallup poll on education. And a 2009 survey conducted by Education Next reports that more than a third of public school teachers support charters, a number that jumps to nearly half when respondents are told of President Obama’s support.
Yet, that support notwithstanding, charter schools are not home free. To understand why requires some history.
Although the notion of chartering schools had been around for a few years by 1988, it was in October of that year that the charter movement was born, at a small meeting by the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Itasca County, Minn. Among those in attendance were two New York educators, Albert Shanker and Seymour Fliegel; Ember Reichgott, a visionary Minnesota state senator; and the Minnesota educators Joe Nathan and Ted Kolderie. The concept of a charter—a renewable license to innovate, free of most school district rules—was built on a simple idea: Educators would be free to carry out their dream, but would be held responsible for results.

I ran that meeting, and remember well the overriding spirit of optimism: Chartering would be embraced by school districts, which would use them to “incubate” best practices.

That has rarely happened, unfortunately. Most districts have resisted the idea of weakening their central control. And because charter teachers would no longer have an obligation to belong to a union, Shanker came to see them as a threat to union power.

Still, the idea had legs, in part because people could read into the term “charter” what they wished. Some on the political right supported charter schools as a wedge to break up the public school monopoly, while others on the left thought charters would be the equivalent of their own private schools. Allowing profit-making firms to create charter schools, encouraged by state laws, produced more support.
The first charter school opened in Minnesota in 1992, with fewer than 100 students; today, 4,000 charter schools in 40 states and the District of Columbia enroll over 1.3 million students—and counting. Many of the charters have been granted by entities other than the local school district (the State University of New York grants charters in New York state, for example), effectively ending district monopolies.

Leading the way have been nontraditional educators like New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, Superintendent Paul Vallas of the Recovery School District in New Orleans, and Chancellor Michelle Rhee in Washington. In the latter city, over 35 percent of students are in charters, and well over half of Vallas’ schools are charters. These three leaders encourage charters not as “incubators,” but as challenges to the rest of their schools.

Still, as Joe Nathan, a founder of the movement, says, “Some terrific charters are doing great things for kids, but charlatans have entered the field and have ripped off kids and taxpayers.” He says charter school organizations must develop better ways of screening out crooks and incompetents before they get to start schools.

Ted Kolderie, another founder, believes unions are coming to terms with the idea. He cites a United Federation of Teachers initiative in New York City, teacher cooperative schools in Milwaukee, and the charter organization Green Dot in Los Angeles as evidence that “when teachers play significant professional roles, the massive contracts generated by a boss-worker model are no longer required.”

Just as the waters of Lake Itasca flow into the Mississippi and down to the Gulf of Mexico, expect the movement that began there to continue to grow. However, just as the Mississippi is a dangerous and at times unpredictable river, the charter movement should not expect smooth sailing.

Because the recent New York City study will—quite properly—produce more enthusiasm for charters, it’s important to remember that 14 percent negative effect on math cited above. A buyer-beware attitude is more important than ever. Never forget that the name “charter” on a schoolhouse door reveals no more about a school’s quality than the word “restaurant” tells you about the food. There’s no substitute for transparency, high standards, and direct observation of the sort reported in this remarkable study.

John Merrow is the education correspondent for “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” on PBS, and the president of Learning Matters Inc., in New York City.