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More on the Charter School Experiment: Skimming Students?

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I recently had the chance tointerview author and educational psychologist David Berliner, the Regents Professor of Education at Arizona State University, over on EdMedia Commons (find out if you are eligible to join!).It was a wide-ranging conversation, and I didn’t quite have room to run everything in our “Five Questions” series.

In light of last week’s New York Times’ story about public schools copying charter schools, I thought it would be appropriate to share some of Berliner’s remarks on that issue. I asked him what it says about the model that recent studies have found on average charter schools do no better (and in some cases do worse) than their “regular” public school counterparts.

Berliner told me that “charter schools were supposed to be crucibles of innovation that traditional campuses could then follow — that’s how the concept was sold to the public.” But instead, “most charter schools today are no more innovative than traditional public schools.”

He went on to say that it’s understandable why charter schools aren’t more successful, given that teacher turnover at those campuses is significantly higher — sometimes as much as 40 percent higher — than at other public schools.

“Charter school teachers also tend to be less experienced, and we know it takes teachers several years to really hit their stride,” Berliner said. “So students at charter schools aren’t getting the benefit of that more effective instruction.”

But there’s a “more amazing fact” Berliner said doesn’t get enough attention. Berliner said most of the charter schools he’s studied engage in some form of what he called “skimming” when it comes to the student population. Many charter schools don’t have to accept students with behavioral issues, and can require parents to sign a contract promising involvement in order for their child to be enrolled. Traditional public schools have no such luxuries.

“Why are charter schools not doing better than regular schools if they are able to get rid of so-called `problem’ students?” Berliner asked. “That strikes me as the real anomaly.”

Berliner makes a provocative point. Take a look at the top-performing charter schools in your area. How high is the teacher turnover? What are the family involvement requirements for students to stay enrolled, and how many of them are removed because their parents haven’t followed through?