Stanford University’s 2009 study of charter schools—the most comprehensive ever done—concluded that 83 percent of them perform either worse or no better than traditional public schools; a 2010 Vanderbilt University study showed definitively that merit pay for teachers does not produce higher test scores for students; a National Research Council report confirmed multiple studies that show standardized test scores do not measure student learning adequately. Gates and Broad helped to shape and fund two of the nation’s most extensive and aggressive school reform programs—in Chicago and New York City—but neither has produced credible improvement in student performance after years of experimentation.
To justify their campaign, ed reformers repeat, mantra-like, that U.S. students are trailing far behind their peers in other nations, that U.S. public schools are failing. The claims are specious. Two of the three major international tests—the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study and the Trends in International Math and Science Study—break down student scores according to the poverty rate in each school. The tests are given every five years. The most recent results (2006) showed the following: students in U.S. schools where the poverty rate was less than 10 percent ranked first in reading, first in science, and third in math. When the poverty rate was 10 percent to 25 percent, U.S. students still ranked first in reading and science. But as the poverty rate rose still higher, students ranked lower and lower. Twenty percent of all U.S. schools have poverty rates over 75 percent. The average ranking of American students reflects this. The problem is not public schools; it is poverty. And as dozens of studies have shown, the gap in cognitive, physical, and social development between children in poverty and middle-class children is set by age three.
Drilling students on sample questions for weeks before a state test will not improve their education. The truly excellent charter schools depend on foundation money and their prerogative to send low-performing students back to traditional public schools. They cannot be replicated to serve millions of low-income children. Yet the reform movement, led by Gates, Broad, and Walton, has convinced most Americans who have an opinion about education (including most liberals) that their agenda deserves support.
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