In 1999 New York began an educational experiment. New schools, not run by the city but still funded by taxpayers, opened across the five boroughs. Set up in the main by groups of parents, charities or not-for-profit educational outfits (although a few were set up by for-profit organisations) some of these new schools replaced pre-existing public schools. Most though, offered totally new provision. This alone was welcome - New York's public schools system is notoriously overstretched. What really distinguished these new schools however, was their independence, their freedom to operate and teach in the ways they themselves considered best. In return, these new 'charter' schools agreed to deliver a certain level of educational improvement. Children would do better at these new schools, or the school would lose its charter.
For the 78 charter schools now operating in New York - and the 26 others set to open this autumn - those 'charters' look secure. The independent 'New York City Charter Schools Evaluation Project' - an academic research project to monitor the work and results of the charter schools - reported last week, and their findings were overwhelmingly positive:
- Compared to their counterparts in the traditional public school system, a student who attends a charter high school has examination scores that are about 3 points higher for each year they spent in the charter school before taking the test. For instance a student who took the English comprehensive exam after three years in charter school would score about 9 points higher.
- On average, a student who attended a charter school for all of grades of kindergarten through eight, would close about 86 per cent of the standard New York "achievement gap" in maths, and 66 per cent in English.
- A student who attends a charter high school is about 7 percent more likely to earn a 'Regents' diploma (a qualification which demands a pass in all key subjects) for each year that they spent in that school.
Academically, New York's charter schools have been an indisputable success. Children simply do better at 'charter' (for which one can read 'independent') state schools, than the traditional 'dependent' kind. Their life chances are significantly improved.
"Ahhh", some will say, "but of course the Charter schools in New York do better than the real, traditional public schools. Being 'independent' must mean they they only take the best kids that apply."
Fortunately not. Admissions in fact, are as unselective as they could possibly be: any student who lives in one of the five boroughs can apply to any of its charter schools. Typical application asks simply for 'name', 'date of birth', parent or guardian's contact details, and the grade to which they are applying. No school asks for a school transcript, for an applicant to sit a test, write an essay or in anyway demonstrate academic performance.
"That means nothing", the standard riposte will go, "because middle class parents simply game the system, getting applications in at one minute past midnight on the first day. Poor people are shoved to the side."
Again, not the case. Although there is absolutely nothing wrong in itself with committed parents doing everything they can to get their children into the best schools, New York's charters simply avoid the issue by running 'pure lotteries'. If the number of applicants exceeds the number of school places by one pupil, the whole entrance is selected randomly. As charter schools are some of the best in New York, applications consistently run above available places, and therefore 94 per cent of charter students have been chosen out of a lottery.
Who applies to charter schools? They're much more likely to be poor. They're also much more likely to be black. In part this will be because traditional state schools in white or Asian areas of the city are not beleaguered by some of the problems schools in predominately poor black areas suffer under. But it also goes to show that parents, whatever their economic status, will leap at opportunities to get their children the best education possible. Choice has not been monopolised by those with the means. It's been seized upon by those for which it was intended; the people who need an excellent state education system the most.
So what is it about charter schools that sets them apart and above the traditional state/city school? The independent evaluation is keen to stress that no direct causal variables have been identified that link the schools approach to their superior achievement, but the following policies are common to all charter schools:
- a long school year; on average a charter school pupil attends school for two and half weeks longer than their non-charter counterpart. The day is also longer, by an average of 90 min;
- A greater number of minutes devoted to English each day;
- a small rewards/small penalties disciplinary policy;
- teacher pay based somewhat on performance or duties, as opposed to a traditional pay scale based strictly on seniority and credentials;
- a mission statement that emphasises academic performance.
If common sense directed thinking on education, none of these would seem in any way controversial. Focus on work, reward success, punish misbehaviour, put in the hours and pay for class-room skill, not on-paper experience. It's a mark though of the schools debate, in both America and the UK, that such 'values' embodied by charter schools, are deemed to be 'radical'. It took years to get New York's charter schools off the ground, as parents' efforts were consistently frustrated by teachers unions.
The clear success of charter schools has not only vindicated parents efforts, it has once again revealed that teachers, quite understandably, are not always putting children or education first. Many still object to the fact that teachers get paid on performance in charter schools. They feel it lures the best away from the state system, leaving pupils with less able teachers. In this they are right. But the solution is not to ban performance pay, but instead to make all pay performance based. Not only will it stop the exodus to charter schools (for teachers - voting with their feet - are keen to join Charter schools, enjoying as they do not only better pay, but the freedom to actually teach), it will also reinvigorate teaching, enticing people towards the profession who till now thought otherwise.
What has any of this got to do with the UK? Everything and nothing really. Experiments in America and Sweden cannot show us exactly how similiar arrangements will work in the UK. At best they can inform our decisions. But state education in the UK is at a critical point, where it can embrace the lessons from abroad - such as those coming from New York - or it can ignore them and continue to wilt. School independence does not have to mean selection and exclusion. It can mean just the opposite. Most importantly though, state schools that are independent to set their own course, their own hours, their own pay, are also those that give children some of the best education. That is surely what we all want our state education system to provide.