NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


August 19, 2004

A recent report from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) concludes charter schools are underperforming. Big deal. These results could easily indicate nothing other than the simple fact that charter schools are typically asked to serve problematic students in low-performing districts with many poor, minority children, say William G. Howell, Paul E. Peterson and Martin R. West, researchers in the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University.

Indeed, if the AFT believes these findings, it must also concede that religious schools excel, say the researchers:

  • According to the same National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data from which the AFT study is taken, religious schools outperformed the public schools nationwide by nine points, a gap that is as large as the public school-charter school difference AFT is trumpeting.
  • On other occasions, the AFT has objected to interpreting such findings as evidence that religious schools are superior, on the grounds that they attract an especially able group of students; but for charter schools, apparently, similar student differences are less important.
  • The AFT study makes comparisons among students eligible for free lunch and in various kinds of communities, which again shows public school students doing better than those in charter schools; but if these simple comparisons prove the AFT case, then they also prove that religious schools are better than public ones -- for within these same categories, religious schools outperform public ones.

Indeed, the AFT's most telling comparisons -- the ones within ethnic groups -- cut against the case it is trying to make. This comparison is vital, precisely because prior research has found ethnic differences to be large. Yet when the authors look just at African-American or Hispanic children, they find no statistically significant difference between public school students and those in charter schools.

Source: William G. Howell, Paul E. Peterson, and Martin R. West, "Dog Eats AFT Homework." Wall Street Journal, August 18, 2004, and F. Howard Nelson, Bella Rosenberg and Nancy Van Meter, "Charter School Achievement on the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress," American Federation of Teachers, August 2004.

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