Charter Schools Uncovered: What We Learned Through Our Own Analysis About the Skewed Comparisons Between Our Schools and the Local Charters
In this era of unforgiving accountability and test scores with high-stakes implications, important lessons can be learned from charter school marketing.
Scrutiny of the regular public schools has never been more sharp-edged. Charter school proponents are becoming increasingly aggressive in promoting themselves as a viable alternative for students--just as a mounting body of research provides little evidence that charter schools, as a whole, are more effective or provide a better education.
Charter school advocates often point to single charter schools, often small ones, to compare to an entire school district. This strategy has been used in my area, Cambridge, Mass., and I've spent considerable time researching the charters' claims and the comparisons.
Several lessons have been learned from the analysis. These findings are generalizable and reveal the highly focused, if not clever marketing strategies of charter schools and their proponents.
At the top of the list of charter school marketing techniques is a focus on isolated statistics or variables such as test scores, often applied out of context, as the selling point for choosing a school. In the charter school's struggles to draw enough students to stay solvent and/or prosper, the narrower the focus on a single program or outcome, the greater the economic return.
Once the charter school's program focus is chosen and pursued, little money and scant facility space are devoted to other areas such as the arts, physical well-being and development, wider course options and extracurricular opportunities. Neither do most charters invest in retaining educators over the long term or in facilities to support a comprehensive education.
A charter school may advertise extensively about student test scores only, an unusual mentoring program or focus on a singular aspect of the school. When the school does this, it often serves as a telling sign that it offers little else and doesn't want to talk about it.
Not one charter school I've seen comes close to the comprehensive intellectual stimulation and programming offered by strong public school systems. The public often does not realize this. For example, the course offerings and extracurriculars at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, the public high school in Cambridge, Mass., are incomparable and marketable. They include courses in world languages and culture, the arts, advanced academic course options, and extracurriculars and varsity sports. In fact, we only recently realized the significant advantage we had in promoting the quality of our facilities. We had taken for granted the value to parents and the public of our dance studio, TV studio, gymnasium, playing fields, cafeterias, auditoriums, art rooms, music rooms and biotech lab. A community survey revealed the pulling power of our facilities today, a surprise to us until we recognized the lack of such facilities in charter schools.
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