Is competition the key to improving our public schools? If a business doesn't deliver on its promises, shoppers go elsewhere. If they don't return, it closes its doors.
That's how No Child Left Behind was designed. In education's survival of the fittest, schools with chronically low test scores face sanctions ranging from allowing parents to take their children elsewhere to closure.
Our 10-year obsession with test scores has resulted only in glacial-speed improvement. All students were supposed to be at grade-level proficiency in reading and math by 2014. At California's annual rate of test score increases, white students will be fully proficient by 2025, Latinos and blacks by 2030.
Competition among schools has been promoted on this newspaper's opinion page. A recent editorial cartoon depicted an elephant named "Vista School District," emitting a cowardly "Eeek!" as it perches on a chair opposite a teacher pointing to the words "Charter success" written on a Classical Academies blackboard.
If pictures are worth a thousand words, this one needed another three hundred. Its companion editorial criticized Vista school administrators for resisting an Escondido charter school's plan to set up shop in their district.
The cartoon suggests charter schools are better than other public schools. The editorial says students should be allowed to vote with their feet to find better schools. Neither compared the test scores held sacred as quality indicators by the California Department of Education.
Here's what they left out.
Seventy-seven percent of the Escondido charter school's students are white; one is an English Language Learner. In the Vista school district, 30 percent of grade-schoolers are white, 30 percent are English Language Learners.
Here's a small sample of the 2010 California Standards test scores report, comparing the charter school's predominantly white enrollment with the 5,000 white students enrolled in Vista's elementary schools.
In eighth-grade English language arts, 76 percent of charter school students were proficient at or above grade level, compared to 81 percent of the comparable Vista subgroup.
In mathematics, 31 percent of Classical Academy eighth-graders were proficient in Algebra I, compared to 72 percent of white Vista students.
National studies have shown that charter school test scores are generally no better than those of other public schools.
California's academic performance indicator for Escondido's Classical Academy ranks it above 80 percent of other California schools. But it ranks above only 20 percent of schools with similar student populations.
The Classical Academy's ability to attract students is evidently unrelated to competitive test scores, which is the only way we measure a school's success under No Child Left Behind.