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Better schools - make sure of what you measure

LAUSD added more charter schools in fall via Cato-at-liberty » It’s Not Fair, Your Schools Are Designed to Work Better!

District officials, as well as the president of the teachers union, bristle at assertions by the Charter Schools Association that middle and high school charters are significantly outperforming their district counterparts.

A fairer comparison would be with the district's magnet schools, which outperform charters, school board member Jon Lauritzen said.

"I think it's basically unfair to compare an entity that is able to take their entire budget and focus it entirely on their own schools," he said. "They have some real advantages over our schools in the flexibility of actually providing the type of education that a particular community wants, whereas we are trying to provide a curriculum that works for everyone all across the school district."

Lauritzen is right about the comparison. Probably the strongest factor is a school's success is the attitude of the parents. Motivated students usually come from motivated parents. Motivated parents will make an extra effort to place their kids in better schools. So both "magnet" and "charter" schools are getting the best students. The ordinary public schools are getting the average students (and worse). Comparing student performance between the different schools tells you much more about the students than the schools.

For one dramatic example - in Orange County I have met public school teachers who took a substantial pay cut to come the Irvine school district from Los Angeles. In the LA school district teaching was very difficult, due to unmotivated students and disinterested parents. In Irvine - as at my local public school - parents are very interested, and the kids reflect their parent's interest.

As another example, I went to one classroom activity where the teacher ended up with more(!) parent volunteers that students. One of the parents mentioned that at her kid's old school (in Santa Ana?) the teacher would be lucky to get more than one or two volunteers. When I see a request for parent volunteers, the teacher usually specifies the maximum number of volunteers she can use. (Come to think of it, I do not remember a teacher ever specifying a minimum...) Public schools can do well when the parents (and students) are motivated.

I like the idea of both "charter" and "magnet" schools, as it gives motivated parents the chance to place their kids in a better learning environment - with other motivated students. But you cannot compare schools when the student populations are very different.