Charter schools were in the headlines this past week with the release of a CREDO study which found that New Jersey students that attend charters outperform those who attend traditional public schools. On its face, the results are a boon to charter advocates and education reformers in general. As NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf put it, the study “reflects the work we have undertaken . . . to increase our accountability standards, strengthen the rigor of our authorizing process, and, when necessary, close schools that are underperforming.”
It is certainly exciting to see evidence of student achievement improving, particularly in struggling districts like Newark. But education reformers should resist the temptation to use this study as proof that charter schools are inherently “better” than other types; this only perpetuates a useless, damaging competition between charters and traditional public schools. Instead, we should emphasize that school effectiveness, not labels, is what matters in education.
We all know that some schools are better than others. This goes for traditional public schools, charters, parochial schools, or anything else. That is why it is so baffling to me that people point to average performance among a particular group of schools as evidence that one school label is inherently superior. To put it bluntly, if a school is effective, who cares what we call it? All too often, discussion about charter schools devolves into a horse race: whether charter schools or traditional public schools are “winning” over the other becomes important. And what sometimes follows that is the despicable and disturbing reality that a failing school is a “victory” for the other side.
Conspicuously absent from that type of rhetoric, of course, is actual concern about student learning. Instead, we should be trying to figure out why some schools–whether charter or traditional public–do better than others so we can spread their best practices. Is the day structured differently? How are teachers trained and supported? What instructional strategies are they using? Let’s stop treating education like a competition and realize that when kids are successful, everyone wins.