Paul Zavitkovsky is a former Chicago Public Schools principal. From 2001 through 2004, he was a senior policy analyst at the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago and currently serves as an assessment specialist and leadership coach at the Center for Urban Education Leadership. In this op-ed, he responds to a Chicago Tribune editorial favoring continued charter school expansion in the city.
Passions run high when it comes to charter schools. For some, charters represent a determined effort to privatize public education and undermine public commitment to neighborhood schools. For others, they represent the best hope public education has to reduce chronic under-achievement in America’s most underserved communities.
In Chicago, these differences take on special significance because Chicago achievement has been rising steadily for the better part of a decade. If charter expansion has played a central role in driving these gains, the policy implications would be profound.
The Chicago Tribune has been a charter advocate for quite some time. So its September 11 editorial favoring continued charter expansion was unsurprising. The surprising thing was that it supported its case by cherry-picking so casually from a high-profile, national study.
In 2015, Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) analyzed charter achievement from 41 urban areas in 22 states. One of the study’s findings was that, on average, low-income black students who attended charter schools learned more than their non-charter counterparts. In a normal school year, they gained the equivalent of 44 additional days of learning in reading and 59 additional days in math compared with low-income black students in non-charter schools.
This was an important finding. But the study didn’t stop with national averages. It also assessed charter performance in each of its 41 urban areas. And the findings for Chicago were quite different than overall averages. In Chicago, the study reported that, on average:
-Black students in charter schools gained the equivalent of 33 fewer days of learning in reading and 30 fewer days in math than their counterparts in non-charter schools
-Latino students in charter schools gained the equivalent of 30 fewer days in reading but 21 more days in math
-Asian students in charter schools gained the equivalent of 75 fewer days in reading and 53 fewer days in math
-White students in charter schools gained the equivalent of 107 fewer days in reading but 9 more days in math
These figures don’t win the argument for neighborhood schools any more than national averages win the argument for charters. 61,000 children and long waiting lists make it clear that 20% or more of Chicago parents believe charters are a better choice for their children. The troubling thing about the Tribune editorial isn’t that it drew the wrong conclusion. It’s how carelessly . . . or selectively . . . it picked its evidence to influence public opinion.