Today's Oz has a front page report that the Gillard government is planning to give schools more autonomy, particularly in regard to appointment and management of staff.
I've read elsewhere that Gillard herself developed an interest in the Charter School movement in the USA, and there is a body of opinion that she is influenced by this.
The model of Charter Schools used in the United States is based on primary or secondary schools that are publicly funded but are different from other public schools in that they are not subject to many of the rules, regulations, and statutes that usually apply in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results, set forth in each school's Charter. This freedom is primarily applied to recruitment and selection of staff.
They are an alternative to other public schools, are part of the public education system, and are not allowed to charge tuition. In the USA, enrolment in a charter school is allocated by lottery-based admissions are there are usually fewer places available than students wishing to attend.
The idea is that if schools are given more autonomy, they can improve the quality of staff and curriculum, and adapt better to local needs.
Sounds good - but I've always believed as an ex-principal that any fundamental change to the way schools are run needs to be based on sound research, rather that political whimsy.
So I decided to have a quick look at how the Charter School experiment in the USA has fared in regard to the results.
The most comprehensive review of performance of North American Charter Schools is contained in a study released in June 2009 by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University.
CREDO partnered with 15 states and the District of Columbia to consolidate longitudinal student‐level achievement data for the purposes of creating a national pooled analysis of the impact of charter schooling on student learning gains. For each charter school student, a virtual twin was created based on students who matched the charter student’s demographics, English language proficiency and participation in special education or subsidized lunch programs. Virtual twins were developed for 84 percent of all the students in charter schools. The resulting matched longitudinal comparison was used to test whether students who attend charter schools fared better than if they had instead attended traditional public schools in their community. The outcome of interest is academic learning gains in reading and math, measured in standard deviation units.
The conclusions are interesting. To quote from the executive summary -
For what the Yanks call "Math" -
The Quality Curve results are sobering:
• Of the 2403 charter schools reflected on the curve, 46 percent of charter schools have math gains that are statistically indistinguishable from the average growth among their TPS comparisons.
• Charters whose math growth exceeded their TPS equivalent growth by a significant
amount account for 17 percent of the total.
• The remaining group, 37 percent of charter schools, posted math gains that were
significantly below what their students would have seen if they enrolled in local
traditional public schools instead.
In other words, Charter schools generally perform about the same in this area as other public schools. Most are the same, some are better, and a large proportion (37%) are worse.
That went well, didn't it?
When Maths and Reading are considered together -
• Charter school students on average see a decrease in their academic growth in reading of .01 standard deviations compared to their traditional school peers. In math, their learning lags by .03 standard deviations on average. While the magnitude of these effects is small, they are both statistically significant.
• The effects for charter school students are consistent across the spectrum of starting positions. In reading, charter school learning gains are smaller for all students but those whose starting scores are in the lowest or highest deciles. For math, the effect is consistent across the entire range.
• Charter students in elementary and middle school grades have significantly higher rates of learning than their peers in traditional public schools, but students in charter high schools and charter multi‐level schools have significantly worse results.
• Charter schools have different impacts on students based on their family backgrounds. For Blacks and Hispanics, their learning gains are significantly worse than that of their traditional school twins.
Again, the gains are patchy, and tend to be balanced by losses. Hardly a ringing endorsement - and this is to be the magic bullet that improves school performance?
The funny thing is, none of this is new, at least in Queensland.
In 1996 - 97, the Leading Schools program to implement school based management was announced. The idea was essentially the same as that applying to Charter Schools. The initiative (introduced by a Coalition Government) asked schools to bid to enter the program. Being a consensus-based school leader at the time, I allowed my community (staff and Parents & Citizens) to vote on whether we joined the scheme. They rejected it by a small majority (60% against/40% in favour, as I remember). They told me that they were happy with the school the way it was managed.
My colleague in the other special school in town gave his community no choice, and volunteered his school without any debate.
In the wash-up, his school received some seeding money, but very little changed. When Labor was elected in June 1998, the scheme was dropped.
A few years later, a study commissioned by the Coalition when it was still in power and conducted by the University of Queensland (which was supposed to prove that school based management improved student outcomes) was quietly released.
It showed no statistically significant relationship between school management and results for kids - but a strong relationship between teacher competence and results. What a surprise!
Apart from the fact that the research shows that there is no connection between autonomy and results in schools, the unintended consequences of removing some of the checks and balances need to be considered.
I worked in Mt Isa in a regional management job in the mid nineties. One of the major challenges in that part of the world (including schools as isolated as Birdsville, Bedourie, Dajarra, Urandangie, etc) was recruiting teachers to work in these remote locations.
Imagine the principals of these schools competing with their colleagues in metropolitan areas to attract talented teachers without the backup of the regional infrastructure. It doesn't bear thinking about.
Believe me, this scenario will be one of many unintended consequences if we follow blindly down this track.