Education

Charter School Students Outdo Their Peers in Traditional Schools

Students in poverty attending public charter schools have better academic growth results than similar students in traditional public schools, according to Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States, a new report released today from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). In addition, the report finds that English Language learners realize significantly better learning gains in public charter schools than their peers in traditional public schools, and charter students in elementary and middle school grades have significantly higher rates of learning than similar traditional public school students.

The report also finds that the vast majority of charters are performing similar to or better than their district peers, with 17% of charters provide superior education opportunities to their students, while nearly half have similar results to traditional public schools. The report also shows that charter school students are outpacing their district peers in several states and cities, including Denver, Colorado, Chicago, Illinois, and Louisiana. And the report offers support for lifting “caps” on charter school growth, as it finds that charter students in cap-free states realize significantly stronger academic growth than states that limit charter growth.

But CREDO also find unsatisfactory academic achievement among certain groups of charter students as well as in six states, and action must be taken to address these results.

“The CREDO report confirms what several other studies previously indicated: in states and communities where there are high standards for school quality and authorizers are performing their duties well, students in public charter schools are making solid academic progress. Where large numbers of schools have been created without a rigorous application process and adequate authorizer oversight, the results are unsatisfactory,” said Nelson Smith, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The disappointing results for certain students and localities are a call to action for states to improve their charter laws in order to deal with a “subset of poorly performing charter schools,” as the report puts it. More specifically, states should take two critical actions:

*Strengthen School Accountability: State laws should require authorizers and schools to include annual performance targets in their charter contracts and make clear that authorizers may revoke or not renew public charter schools that fail to meet or make sufficient progress toward the performance expectations set forth in the charter contract. Such changes will better ensure that performance expectations are clear at the outset and that authorizers have the legal authority to close underperforming charters.

*Strengthen Authorizer Accountability: State laws should require authorizer accountability systems. Any group that wishes to authorize charter schools – whether it is a local school board or not – should affirm that it wants to be in the authorizing business, and then be held accountable for the performance of the school portfolio it creates. This system should be based on objective data and overseen by some state-level entity with the power to remedy lax authorizer performance. Such changes will both improve authorizer performance and eliminate the current shortcomings in multiple authorizer environments identified by the study (where operators can seek the least demanding authorizer).

Smith also noted that the results should be considered in light of chronically inadequate funding for charter schools: “In most states, public charter schools get sharply lower per-pupil funding than their traditional public school peers, on average about 78 cents on the dollar. In seven of the 16 states surveyed, charters also do not receive facilities aid - which means that they must take money needed for teaching and learning, and apply it to leasing and renovations.”

On June 22, the National Alliance will be releasing A New Model Law for Supporting High-Quality Growth for Public Charter Schools. Designed as a roadmap for state lawmakers and based on the best examples of the movement’s first decade and a half, it will address authorizing, funding, accountability, and other factors that contribute to strong performance in the charter sector. “The model law has been designed to inspire states to improve their laws,” said Smith. “In the coming years, we will work closely with states to amend their laws to achieve this result.”

While welcoming CREDO’s contribution to the growing research literature on public charter school performance, and calling for action to remedy the problems the report identifies, Smith also added several notes of caution in interpreting the findings – both positive and negative – including the following:

*Report Sacrifices an Appropriate Comparison Group for a Larger Sample of Students: Sound studies of academic performance compare students who attend public charter schools with an appropriate control group of students who attend traditional public schools. The method for comparison should minimize the chance that charter attendees are somehow different from non-attendees in ways that influence achievement, such as student motivation, information about school options, or engagement of the family. The “gold standard” in this regard is a random assignment comparison, such as the recent lottery study of public charter schools in Boston that found strongly positive effects for charter-school attendance. CREDO has chosen to do what it calls a “wide-angle view” and analyzes a very large sample of charter students, but matches them to students in traditional public schools through a method that may create less-appropriate comparisons. For example, when matching, the first test scores CREDO uses for half of the students in the charter sample are from tests taken after the decision to attend a charter school has been made and the student has been in a public charter school for one or more years. Consequently, these students are matched with traditional public school students who may or may not have had the same opportunity or motivation to choose a public charter school.

*Effect of Startups: Because the charter movement is one of vigorous growth, any sample of charters is likely to include a number of new schools, whose student bodies by definition would also be new and subject to negative effects of mobility, as CREDO finds. In New Mexico, for example, 55% of charters were less than three years old in the first year of data analyzed here. The same is true for 43% of the schools in Minnesota. Such a large percentage of brand new schools is bound to have a depressive effect on performance that may not accurately reflect longer-term trends.

*Overall Performance Results Skewed to Large States: The national results about overall charter performance are skewed by the over-representation of states that have large numbers of charter students but have had persistent quality problems due to unsound policy and authorizing environments.

*Limited Data About High School Achievement: The report’s findings about high school achievement are constrained by the limited amount of data that was available to the authors. A more comprehensive view of charter high school outcomes, such as that offered in a recent RAND report about charters in eight localities, shows that charter students graduate from high school and enroll in college in significantly larger numbers than their traditional public school peers.

*Important Questions About Black and Hispanic Achievement: The report’s finding that performance among Black and Hispanic charter students lags is perplexing. Since Black and Hispanic students make up 54% of the charter student population, and since several other studies have shown them achieving faster gains in charters than in traditional public schools (such as Witte’s 2007 study in Wisconsin and RAND’s findings in San Diego), we need to know more about the factors that shape this outcome.

*Report Should Be Viewed Within the Larger Universe of Charter Achievement Studies: The report is the latest in an ever growing field of public charter school studies and should be viewed within this larger universe, particularly in relation to the National Charter School Research Project’s recently released meta-analysis of charter school studies. This meta-analysis is the most solid review to date of the empirical research on how public charter schools perform compared to traditional public schools. It found that studies that use the best data and the most sophisticated research techniques show charters outperforming comparable traditional public schools. Moreover, the magnitude of the positive charter school effect sizes is relatively large when compared with other school reform efforts, such as reducing class size.

“We are encouraged by the ground-breaking results being achieved by many public charter schools across the country,” said Smith. “However, if high-quality performance is to become the norm for public charter schools, we need to ramp up our efforts to replicate what’s working as well as enhance our work to ‘remove the barriers to exit’ and make it easier to close chronically low-performing charters.”