Public Says Post Office Is Doing a Better Job Than Public Schools

New data from California shows how badly schools are failing African-Americans

An August 2008 poll conducted by Education Next and Harvard University finds that Americans think less of their schools than of their police departments and post offices. When asked to grade the post office, 70 percent of respondents gave an “A” or “B.” In contrast, only 20 percent of Americans said public schools deserve an “A” or a “B.” Twenty-six percent of the country actually gave their public schools a grade of “D” or “F.” And African-Americans are even more down on public schools, 31 percent gave public schools a “D” or an “F.”

Similarly, a 2008 Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) poll that found blacks in California are much less likely than whites, Asians, or Latinos to give a positive assessment of their local schools. In the PPIC poll, almost 50 percent of blacks viewed teacher quality as a “big problem” in their schools compared with 27 percent of whites.

These poll results are not surprising if you look at the performance of California’s African-American children. California is failing its black children. California’s 2008 standardized test scores, just released, show that 46 percent of students statewide scored proficient in English-language-arts and 43 percent scored proficient in math. Unfortunately, only 33 percent of African-Americans score proficient in English and only 28 percent score proficient in math. This problem is even more severe in urban areas like Los Angeles where only 29 percent of blacks scored proficient in English and 25 percent scored proficient in math.

As State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell released the 2008 statewide test scores on August 14, he said, “I am acutely concerned about our African-American students. African-American students as a whole scored in English-language arts just one point above Latino students, a subgroup that includes a significant number of English learners. This, coupled with an alarming dropout rate among African-Americans, indicates a crisis in the education of black children.”

Yet there is one segment of public education where African-American children are not in crisis. They are succeeding in public charter schools. Watts Learning Center, a Los Angeles charter school made up entirely (100 percent) of economically-disadvantaged African-American students, beats statewide test score averages for all California students – for every grade. Watt’s Learning Center’s fifth-graders scored 52 percent proficient in science. The statewide average for all students was 46 percent. The school’s fifth graders also scored 62 percent proficient in English, 14 points better than the state average of 48 percent. Watts scored 72 percent proficient in math, while the state average for all students was 21 percent lower, 51 percent.

Many other Los Angeles charter schools replicate Watts Learning Center’s results with low-income African-American students at the middle school and high school levels. For example, disadvantaged African-American 10th-graders at Gertz-Ressler Academy High School, part of the Alliance for College Ready Public Schools, scored 69 percent proficient in science, 29 points higher than the statewide average of 40 percent for all students.

These cases of higher African-American student performance in charter schools are not cherry-picked. A 2008 analysis by the California Charter Schools Association showed that Los Angeles Unified School District’s charter schools add value to the African-American academic experience. In 2006, charter schools in LA Unified earned higher Academic Performance Index (API) scores (which are based on California’s standardized tests and the state sets 800 as the ideal benchmark for every California school) than traditional public schools. In fact, in elementary charter schools, African-Americans’ median API scores were almost 100 points higher than the traditional district schools-scoring 750 versus 651. In middle schools, African-Americans scored 693 versus 625 in traditional schools. In high schools, African-American’s median scores were 684 versus 602 in traditional schools. Charter schools in LAUSD also did a better job of closing the racial gap between black and white students with smaller score differences than traditional public schools.

The bottom line is that African-American students perform better in charter schools. A June 2008 report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, “The Color of Success: Black Student Achievement in Public Charter Schools,” confirms that higher academic performance by African-American students in charter schools is a national trend. As the report argues, “in numerous communities throughout the nation, these innovative, tuition-free public schools – which provide administrative flexibility to a school’s staff and a rich learning environment with high expectations for its students – are making notable strides in advancing Black student achievement.”

The report reviews several studies showing increases in black achievement in charter schools. For example, a national comparison of student achievement on fourth grade reading and math state tests conducted by Stanford University Professor Caroline Hoxby found that, on average, public charter schools serving a high percentage of black students have more students earning proficient scores than traditional public schools serving a similar student population. Similarly, a Florida Department of Education study shows public charter schools closing the achievement gap between black and white students at a faster rate than traditional public schools in key subjects and grade levels.

Every year in California thousands of African-American families are stuck on waiting lists for schools like Watts Learning Center. Every year more families endure heart-wrenching lotteries hoping that their child will be the one selected for the better-performing school. When the LA Unified school board was voting to give Green Dot public schools permission to operate Locke High School as a charter, African-American parents flooded the school board meetings to express their desire and demand for higher quality educational opportunities for their children. African-American parents want more high-quality charters to run low-performing public schools in their neighborhoods.

Superintendent O’Connell and other California policymakers need to pay attention to the attitudes of African-American parents. These parents have consistently rated their schools as lower-quality in opinion polls and are literally waiting in line for better educational opportunities for their children. It is a tragedy that less than 30 percent of the state’s black children score proficient in reading and math. California policymakers need to create the conditions to let a thousand charters bloom. Perhaps then, African-Americans might rate public schools higher than they do the post office or the police department.