There is good news about the progress of the nation's schools, though the secretary of education's opponents may not want to see it. The results deliver a deep blow to their unfounded arguments but affirm the choices many families have made.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often described as the nation's report card, provides the best way to compare academic achievement over time and across different states. Every other year, representative samples of fourth- and eighth-graders across the country take the tests in math and reading to gauge the effectiveness of our education systems.
The initial take on this year's NAEP results has hardly been enthusiastic. During the eight-year period covering the Obama administration's term in office, the nation's math scores stayed flat while reading scores improved slightly. For Michigan, which lags the nation, the changes were no less disappointing. The state as a whole is still below average, and its largest city, Detroit, was rated the worst-performing urban district for the fifth time running. But charter schools in the state, and in the nation as a whole, are on a major upswing.
Charter schools are tuition-free public schools governed by independent boards that are given extra flexibility to meet state accountability standards and the terms of the contracts they make with an authorizer, such as a state university. Students are not assigned to charters. Instead, they depend on families actively choosing to enroll.
The stagnant achievement of the nation's schools is cause for some concern, but charters nationwide have made progress and closed the gap in recent years. They now match other public schools in reading and are only slightly behind in math, despite being more likely to serve students in poverty. That they still only serve about 6 percent of U.S. public school students may help explain why their impressive gains don't clearly show in the overall data.
Among the states whose charter schools are leading the improvement are those in Michigan. Hailing from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos's home state, they have become a major target of some prominent critics of the current administration. These opponents of educational choice have used Michigan's academic struggles as an excuse to take a swing at charter schools. The new NAEP results show just how wildly one famous critic missed.
Last month, “60 Minutes” journalist Lesley Stahl famously grilled U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos over her home state's poor showing on national tests. Stahl ascribed Michigan's woes to policies supported by DeVos, policies that give families access to options like public charter schools. Michigan charter schools have been maligned not only by “60 Minutes” but also by The New York Times and by a number of Democrats on Capitol Hill.
As wrong as these critics have been, they are even more clearly wrong now. Michigan’s poor NAEP scores have given the state a bad rap. But this same evidence shows the state's charter schools are bucking the trend.
One in 10 public school students in Michigan attends a charter school, a number that has grown since the Legislature lifted the state's cap in 2011. The state's typical charter student is much more likely than her district counterpart to be African-American, from a poor family and living in an urban community.
So it's not too surprising that in 2009, Michigan charter students trailed their district school peers on the nation's report card. More eye-catching is the fact that, in the eight years since, the state's charters closed the fourth-grade reading gap and made up most of the difference on the other three NAEP tests.
Some who otherwise claim to support charter schools have singled out Michigan's sector as the polite exception they don't like. That’s because charters here are more likely than elsewhere to contract with for-profit management companies to deliver instruction. That only matters as a talking point for some groups, but it discounts the bottom line: educational achievement.
A rigorous study of the state's largest for-profit charter management network, National Heritage Academies, found that its schools help their students each year learn significantly more math, and to a lesser extent, more in reading.
But the Michigan experience is no outlier. During the same eight-year period, charter school students in Arizona and Georgia have gained a full grade-level or more of learning, especially at the eighth-grade level.
Today, fourth-graders in Florida's charter schools, which serve more students than several states' total public school populations, rival the best achievement scores of any state in the nation. Yet even that outstanding distinction highlights how far we have to go, as roughly half of Florida charter school fourth-graders fall short of proficiency.
Still, the good news is clear that a growing number of charter schools are leading the way at boosting student achievement. It's time to stop attacking them and start learning from their success.