Closing The Achievement Gap Won’t Be Easy; And Charter Schools Will Not Be The Answer

The U.S. is becoming an increasingly diverse society. Nowhere is this more evident than in the nation's public schools. According to a new report, The Condition in Education 2010, by the U.S. Department of Education National Center for Educational Statistics, between 1988 and 2008, the percentage of white students in the nation's public schools dropped from 68 to 55 percent.

During the time period covered in the report, white enrollment decreased in every region of the country, while Hispanic enrollment increased. In fact, Hispanic students experienced the most growth. Between 1988 and 2008, the percentage of students who are Hispanic increased from 11 to 22 percent. Black student enrollment remained stable, while Asian student enrollment increased in the Northeast and Midwest and remained stable in other regions of the country.

Even though the nation's student population is becoming increasingly diverse, racial and ethnic isolation in the schools is nearly as bad as it was more than 40 years ago.

According to research conducted by The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, white, black and Hispanic students typically attend schools in which less than half the students are from races other than their own. Although white students tend to be the most racially isolated (they attend schools, on average, where only 20 percent of students are from a different racial or ethnic group), a growing percentage of black and Hispanic students attend schools with a high percentage of students of color. Nearly three of four black and Hispanic students attend schools where more than half of students are students of color. Almost four of ten black and Hispanic students attend racially isolated schools in which less than ten percent of students are white.

The problem with these schools is that they are not only segregated by race and ethnicity, they also tend to be segregated by class.

Students who attend racially and ethnically isolated and socioeconomically segregated schools also tend to do worse on measures of academic achievement than their white peers. Black and Hispanic students currently score lower than white students on vocabulary, reading, and math tests, as well as on tests designed to measure scholastic aptitude and intelligence. Not surprisingly, the achievement gap also shows up in grades, course selection, and college completion rates.

How do you close this achievement gap? Many people believe that the answer is to open up a charter school – usually, in a predominantly black or Hispanic neighborhood – and let the school work its magic.

I think that they are wrong.

A charter schools is a school that provides free public education to students under a specific charter granted by the state legislature or other appropriate authority. Even though they are only a fraction of all schools, the charter school movement is growing. Between 1999 and 2008, the number of charter schools in the U.S. increased from 1,500 to 4,400. They are being enthusiastically embraced in many central cities where public schools are more likely to be failing. In 2008, more than half (55 percent) of all charter schools were in cities.

According to Susan Eaton (research director at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute at Harvard Law School) in an article recently published in The Nation, since President Obama took office, "charter schools have enjoyed enthusiastic rhetorical support… and increasing monetary support." She quotes from a March 2009 speech given by the President before the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in which he said: "I call on states to reform their charter rules and lift caps on the number of allowable charter schools wherever such caps are in place."

Don't believe the hype.

Eaton writes that charter schools "demonstrate no evidence of sustained, large-scale success and tend to compound racial and economic segregation." As an example, she cites a recent report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA which shows that 70 percent of black students enrolled in charter schools attend schools that have student of color populations between 90 and 100 percent.

Other research shows that a higher percentage of charter schools are high-poverty schools than low-poverty schools. Between 1999 and 2008, the percentage of charter schools that were high-poverty increased from 13 to 23 percent, while the percentage of charter schools that were low-poverty declined from 37 to 21 percent.

Although, according to Eaton, charter schools reinforce rather than "upset the stratified structure of public education," they have boisterous and energetic supporters of all ideological persuasions. But, she writes, "the notion that high poverty racially segregated schools are equal to middle-class school has been consistently disproved by a half-century of research."

Closing the achievement gap will not be easy. It starts before children enter kindergarten and continues into adulthood. It has persisted despite decades of school reform efforts and the investment of billions of dollars into K-12 public education across the nation.

While a few widely-publicized and wildly-celebrated all-black or all-Latino charter schools "beat the odds" and succeed, that is the exception not than the rule. Let us not be fooled. "Loudly heralding the relative few that 'beat the odds' (typically not for more than two years) obscures the harsh reality of the odds themselves, which remain low for kids who attend high-poverty segregated schools," writes Eaton.

The "real" way to close the achievement gap is to combat concentrated poverty and reduce racial and ethnic isolation and socioeconomic segregation in the schools. Charter schools do neither particularly well.

It's time to move on.


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