Like many parents, I have concerns about my children's education. This isn't an indictment of their teachers or school district. However, as an educator, I am astutely aware of the fact that people have different learning styles. What works for one of my students doesn't always work for another.
In college, students can choose majors, classes and professors that match their learning styles. As an adviser, I often redirect students toward a field of study that better matches their individual strengths. Even then, some students need extra help and get private instruction from professors or tutors. Students often choose Elizabethtown College over state universities because they thrive in an environment that emphasizes personalized attention and real-world learning experiences. It simply isn't possible to provide these opportunities with 200 students in a course.
This flexibility and adaptation isn't available for students in kindergarten-through-12 education, where a one-size-fits-all model of instruction is forced on a captive audience. The state-run system is simply not designed to tailor to individual student needs. Government regulations and testing are making schools even less flexible. As a result, many parents and students are growing frustrated with their public schools.
A colleague of mine, Robert Maranto, is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership at the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. He has authored numerous books and articles on charter schools. In these, he makes a number of compelling points, which he has helped me to summarize.
First, parents and teachers love charters. Surveys find that charter school students and teachers like their schools more than their public counterparts like theirs. Parents are choosing schools that fit their children's individual learning styles, based on specific programs (Montessori, Core Knowledge), characteristics (small size, teacher governance) or results (safety, academic achievement), which are unavailable in their public schools.
Second, test scores in charter schools do fall behind those in traditional public schools. Critics point to this as evidence that charter schools are failing, but they neglect to account for the fact that charter schools are often the last resort for struggling students. When these students opt out of public school, the effect is lower charter school achievement and higher averages for the schools they fled. As a result, it is important to look at gains rather than at overall scores. Bryan C. Hassel and Michelle Terrell report that 80 percent of the studies of value added (how much a student learns in a year of school) find that charter schools do better.
Third, charters are safer. Chester Finn and co-authors find that 59.5 percent of charter parents view their school as safer than nearby public schools, as compared to only 3.5 percent seeing the charters as less safe. According to the University of Washington's Center on Public School Change, surveys of school staff show charter schools have fewer problems with bullying. This increase in safety is due, in part, to the smaller size of charter schools.
Fourth, charter schools do not harm district schools. As Scott Milliman and Robert Maranto show in their 2009 article, charter schools tend to serve at-risk students who are floundering or gifted students who are bored. Charter schools, therefore, attract higher-cost students, leaving the public schools with more to spend per student. More importantly, educational reform isn't really about saving schools. Rather, it's about serving students. If districts fail to provide, perhaps they should adapt or fail. This leads to the fifth point.
Traditional public schools improve to compete with charters. In one study, Maranto and his co-authors find that Arizona school districts that lost a tenth or more of their students to charter competition reacted with "previously unimaginable changes in leadership and curricula." Similarly, Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby's analysis suggests that competition from vouchers in Milwaukee and from charters in Michigan and Arizona has improved the test scores of all students, even those "left behind" in district schools.
Sixth, charters spend less. Bryan Hassel finds that on average, charters get about 20 percent less public funding per pupil than traditional public schools. When you consider that there is evidence of better "value added" for struggling students, this means that charter schools get more bang for the buck.
Public schools have become highly bureaucratized and are not capable of adapting to individual children's needs. While teachers are knowledgeable about learning, they often find that their hands are tied when it comes to making adaptations for a struggling student. Some children are diagnosed with a learning disability and qualify for "accommodations." Within the public school, this individualized instruction can be expensive and school districts may be reluctant to provide it. Many students who would benefit from adaptations simply don't qualify. Why not allow options and diversity? Let schools specialize in a particular approach and allow parents to determine which is best for their own child.
In higher education, we allow competition. Sometimes colleges fail. Yet, no one would argue that students should be forced to attend these universities to keep them afloat. We wouldn't sacrifice the student to save the school. Why would we inflict that punishment on those in their more formative years?
April Kelly-Woessner is an associate professor and chairwoman of the political science department at Elizabethtown College. She is also a correspondent for Lancaster Newspapers Inc. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.