Give partnership schools a chance to make a difference
Ever since National and ACT announced charter schools would be introduced to New Zealand there has been a lot of heated debate about whether or not the model is a good idea.
Teacher unions have been extremely outspoken, claiming charter schools, named Partnership Schools in New Zealand, have failed overseas.
Just this week, the PPTA had anti-charter schools campaigner Karran Harper Royal, of New Orleans, criticise charter schools at its annual conference.
In April, academics from Massey University wrote a scathing analysis of charter schools, claiming they would harm disadvantaged children’s education.
But the public debate has been frustratingly one-sided against charter schools and sometimes argued more on the basis of hyperbole than hard evidence.
Few seem to have approached the issue with an open mind and even fewer have talked about the potential for charter schools to make a difference. If this opposition continues it could mean a lost opportunity for New Zealand education.
Impact on four different groups
Maxim Institute has examined the impact of such schools on four different groups of disadvantaged pupils: low-income pupils, pupils for whom English is a second language, ethnic minority group pupils and special education pupils.
We have found that the emerging body of charter schools research is more optimistic about their potential to make a difference than what the New Zealand critics have suggested.
The results are mixed regarding the impact on the achievement of disadvantaged pupils, but they certainly are not the disaster some are claiming. The pilot partnership schools should be given a good chance to succeed before they are judged.
According to the findings from the highest quality studies of United States charter schools, there is evidence to suggest that some have had significant impacts on disadvantaged pupils’ educational outcomes.
Low-income pupils and English language students are two groups, in particular, who have made small- to medium-sized achievement gains in standardised tests in reading and mathematics, compared to what they would have achieved had attended a regular state school.
If the gains were accumulated over a period of years, often they would be enough to help those pupils to close much of the gap between them and the highest-performing pupils by enabling them to make up to the equivalent of several months or, in rare cases, a year’s worth of learning.
As is well known, the gap between the lowest- and highest-performing pupils is the one of the biggest educational problems facing the New Zealand school system.
Study confirms this finding
The CREDO study – one charter school critics have used to claim charters do not work – actually confirms this finding. Low-income students and English language pupils made more progress at charter schools than their peers at matched regular state schools.
The evidence for ethnic minority group pupils is less clear.
In some areas charter schools seem to have produced moderate positive outcomes for these pupils, particularly in New York and Chicago, where some sustained good results have been seen. But in other places they have been less successful and seem to set back the achievement of ethnic minority group pupils.
The picture for special education pupils is the only one that gives pause for concern.
From what little research exists, special education pupils tend to achieve worse at charter schools than they would have at regular state schools.
The reasons for this are not clear.
It could be that charter schools have not had effective teaching programmes or resources for special education pupils. Or it could also be that the schools have been more effective at working with pupils who have learning or behavioural problems, but that analyses of test scores have not detected these benefits.
More research is needed.
Careful work is needed
These results are not a reason to dismiss charter schools out of hand when there are many other positive indications. But, certainly, careful work should be done to examine why the results are poorer for special education pupils, and to ensure charter schools can accommodate this particular group.
Our findings are not evidence that charter schools will always have a positive impact on the achievement of all kinds of disadvantaged pupils. But they do paint a very different picture to some of the alarmist views that have been loudly campaigned since the trial was first announced.
Instead of fighting over the idea, New Zealand should be looking at how to make the most of the opportunity and ask what regulatory structure will give them the best chance of success? And what sorts of evaluations can be done to keep track of how they are progressing when the trial begins?
These sorts of questions should be getting New Zealanders’ attention.
It seems from research into why some charter schools are more successful than others, that high-performing schools are run by leaders with a strong vision and a clear mission, who are supported by laws and funding arrangements that enable them to get on with what they want to do.
Operators with a vision
The model proposed for partnership schools here should support operators with a vision for educating the least advantaged pupils in the school system.
And it will give those who run the schools – community groups, iwi, entrepreneurial educators and education management organisations, for example – the opportunity to start schools that can better target disadvantaged pupils’ educational needs in a more deliberate and focused way than regular state schools can.
The reality is that the experience of charter schools in the United States has been mixed.
They are not an easy fix to our schooling challenges.
At times, some have been worse than regular state schools, but on other occasions they have seen break-throughs with pupils who are continually lagging behind.
The potential is exciting, as long as the trials are well set up, evaluation is thorough from the outset and the highest quality operators are issued licences.
We need to stop arguing about the idea and instead work on giving partnership schools the best chance of success.
Steve Thomas is a senior researcher with the Maxim Institute, an independent public policy think tank, based in Auckland.