Context matters

21:38, Nov 25 2012

Place anything in a hostile environment and it is unlikely to survive, let alone contribute to that environment.

Most things in life require a certain set of conditions, or a specific context, to thrive.

This logic also applies to charter schools, known as Partnership Schools in New Zealand. The context in which they are established can make a difference to how well they do, and how well the state schools around them adapt.

We know this because Maxim Institute has just released a research note looking at overseas examples to see what happens to pupils at regular state schools, when charter schools set up nearby. Overall, the impact on pupils' achievement is mixed, and the research is not conclusive, but in the best-case scenarios, there are a couple of common factors.

In the best cases, it seems that charter schools have been given lots of opportunity to grow, so that their presence can be felt by regular state schools and school districts.

In Texas, the presence of charter schools was associated with a rise in test scores for state schools nearby. A reason why this occurred has been called "reverse creaming." Charter schools had absorbed a share of the more difficult pupils from the state system, freeing up state schools to focus on education rather than behaviour management. The charter schools, targeted at difficult pupils, were able to focus on improving the behaviour and ultimately the education of a particularly difficult set of students.

Positive impacts have also been found in Sweden and England. A study of Sweden's Free Schools showed that that a 10 percent increase in the share of Free School pupils was associated with improvements in regular state school pupils' academic achievement and longer-term attainment. In England, the Academies programme, in which failing state schools are placed in the hands of private providers, was associated with an improvement in educational achievement for state schools that neighboured Academy-conversion schools. Each of these examples of success had several contextual factors in common.

Where the regulatory environment promoted charter school's success and growth, they thrived. This led to high quality charter schools operating that had ideas and critiques to offer state schools. Also, where there was an environment of collaboration charter schools worked with state schools to fill gaps in the system.

New Zealand has the opportunity to enable its Partnership Schools to have a positive impact on regular state schools and the broader state school system. This stands the best chance of happening when everyone sees Partnership Schools as having a valuable role. This means New Zealand needs legislation and regulation to provide a level playing field that allows operators to achieve this mission.


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