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Researchers voice alarm over charter schools 'experiment'

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Professor John O'Neill

Massey University education experts warn that the charter school experiment may cause more harm than good to the students it aims to help.

The Government announced New Zealand will trial charter schools with the first likely to be in South Auckland, Christchurch East and possibly Wellington.

In response the Education Policy Response Group, consisting of 12 College of Education experts, conducted an in-depth examination of research studies from Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States; countries with models on which New Zealand charter schools may be based.

Group convenor Professor Emeritus Ivan Snook says they based their analysis on similar sources of evidence to those used by the government but came to some different conclusions. “The evidence is clear that charter schools have the potential to cause harm to the very groups of students they are supposed to help,” he says.

The report says while it is encouraging that the National-ACT proposal recognises the need to address educational underachievement through wider economic and social policies, the charter school proposal seems to persist with narrow assessments of individual student progress. This is very risky. Even if some charter schools do show gains for disadvantaged students, it is often achieved at the cost of further disadvantaging non-charter school students and the local community as a whole.

“It is, for example, quite common for charter schools to lead to an increase in inequality based on culture, race or socio-economic status,” says Professor of Teacher Education, John O’Neill.

“The evidence overall is that while a few highly motivated individuals and families may benefit, charter schools do not provide more choice for most families,” he says. “Also, they often promote greater inequality of educational outcomes for disadvantaged students, and fail to eliminate the long tail of underachievement that the Government is rightly concerned about.”

Professor O’Neill says the group concluded that if New Zealand is to learn from this experiment the evaluation criteria must be closely defined and the evaluation study conducted independently of the supervising committee and the Ministry of Education.

“To enable this to happen, it is important that transparent data be kept on the home background and prior achievement of students, the nature of the teachers employed and the financial arrangements for the charter schools (including private and corporate contributions),” he says.
 
“At the very least the trial will need to prove that New Zealand charter schools do not ‘cream’ the most motivated or talented students from other schools, ‘cleanse’ their own school of those who are most difficult or expensive to teach, distort the fair distribution of teachers across the system, or siphon money away from existing programmes for the most disadvantaged students.”

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