Charter Schools: Up or Down?

From the NYTimes editorial:

The charter school movement gained a foothold in American education two decades ago partly by asserting that independently run, publicly financed schools would outperform traditional public schools if they were exempted from onerous regulations. The charter advocates also promised that unlike traditional schools, which were allowed to fail without consequence, charter schools would be rigorously reviewed and shut down when they failed to perform.

With thousands of charter schools now operating in 40 states, and more coming online every day, neither of these promises has been kept. Despite a growing number of studies showing that charter schools are generally no better — and often are worse — than their traditional counterparts, the state and local agencies and organizations that grant the charters have been increasingly hesitant to shut down schools, even those that continue to perform abysmally for years on end.

If the movement is to maintain its credibility, the charter authorizers must shut down failed schools quickly and limit new charters to the most credible applicants, including operators who have a demonstrated record of success.

That is the clear message of continuing analysis from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, which tracks student performance in 25 states. In 2009, its large-scale study showed that only 17 percent of charter schools provided a better education than traditional schools, and 37 percent actually offered children a worse education.

study released this week by the center suggests that the standards used by the charter authorizers to judge school performance are terribly weak.

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  • Kyle J

    Here’s the best report I’ve seen on education policy lately. No silver bullets.

    Competition has a place–I think it’s helped push public systems in innovate in some places–but you can only push so far in a market-based direction. In a true market, some providers go out of business and some customers go without the service. That’s not how our education system works, quite rightly.

  • Scot, interesting statistics! Thanks for sharing!

  • Chad Gibbons

    This is anecdotal of course, but the charter school my children attend uses the same testing metrics as the other public schools in my area and consistently comes out ahead of them.
    Of more importance to me was the atmosphere. I am father to two intelligent children, who will succeed in whatever school I put them in. But during our time at the public school, my kids came home miserable and worn-out every single day. Large class sizes made it difficult for even the best teachers to keep an eye on everything and my son especially was subject to some pretty harsh bullying on a daily basis. At the Charter School they attend now, the class sizes are smaller and they require some form of participation from the parents. At any given time there are around 2 – 4 adults in a classroom. The difference in my children’s disposition was immediately noticeable. I’m happy that the grades of our Charter School are better than their rivals, but I’m more happy that my kids don’t hate school anymore and aren’t subject to what they were at their old public school.

  • It is all about the leadership. Good charter school leadership will end up with good results. Good public school leadership will end up with good results.

    Of course the students matter a great deal. And even with similar looking imputs (the students) there is often better students going to charter schools than the average public school. Even if for no other reason than many charter schools are hard to get into. So it is only the motivated parents that get their students in.

  • Jeff

    All charter schools are not the same. They can have completely opposite approaches. School choice of which charters are a part is essential. Close the ineffective whether charter or traditional.

  • John I.

    That may be so for charter schools, but the point of charter schools is parental choice. Research on parental choice indicates that it improves education for children, even in the public schools that must compete with various kinds of private schools for students.

  • Joe Canner

    John #6: Can you provide some cites for that research? I am skeptical as to how much public school systems can do to improve, given that they *don’t* have a choice as to what kinds of students they have to accept.

  • Matt K

    I hear mixed things.
    Some teachers who I greatly respect who work in charter schools swear up and down by their superiority– administrators are invested in the education, innovation is rewarded, etc. My friends who teach in public school have observed that charter schools inherently draw in students and families who are already dedicated to education, children who would succeed similarly in the traditional classroom or the charter school, and that the natural selectivity of charter schools (most require an involved admission process even if the admission screenings aren’t discriminatory). Thus, charter school scores are inflated by having a student body with more involved parents while public school scores drop because dedicated students are leaving them.

  • PJ Condit

    Funny that the article recommends quick action against poor performance at the charter school…and mentions nothing about poorly performing public schools, which have more tax payer funding.

    My kids attend a charter school, and my wife teaches there as well. Our charter school offers no transportation, so the only students there have parents with the time, ability, and commitment to bring their kids and pick them up each day.

    The culture of the organization behind the charter will determine it’s success. Like Adam said, the leadership is different and substantive at all charter schools.

  • Three real problems with the whole article:
    1) While the performance might be roughly the same, when you ask parents about satisfaction, the charter satisfaction is much higher. ( here is a link, yes it’s heritage, but they are reporting a DOE study )

    2) The real crock in the article is the demand to “limit new charters to the most credible”. The point of charters is to try new things and free things up. This is more regulate and strangulate and represents more of the creeping credentialism that is killing many sectors.

    3) A subset of that “limit” argument is the biggest one. Open charters to religiously guided institutions. If instead of continuing to feed the home schooling movement, say that religious parents could have a charter school that actually addressed the fundamentals of what they would like to teach. The Catholic schools have long proved that a curriculum based on virtue produces better results. But that is the one thing most charters limit.

  • Robin

    The whole point of the school reform movement, to me, is that the status quo is quite obviously failing in some areas, so any experimentation, within reason, should be welcomed. Saying “we can’t try anything new in education until we are 100% sure it will succeed” doesn’t make sense in districts where graduation rates are below 60%.

    One thing often overlooked in the research as well is that most charter schools are working with around 50% of the resources as the traditional public schools. Funding systems in most states is based on average daily attendance and the only way to get charter schools as a legal option is to promise to limit the fund reductions the traditional schools will face. So when a student leaves the traditional public school and moves to the charters only 50% or 60% of that students funding will follow the student. So the charter school gets half of the money, and the traditional school, which now has an empty seat, gets to keep half the money. This varies by district and state, but keep it in mind when reading the results.

  • Robin

    Joe Canner,

    I don’t have the cite in front of me but Carol Hoxby (Stanford) had some really interesting pieces comparing public schools who faced geographical competition. She looked at two Metropolitan areas…one had 1 “superdistrict” that encompassed the entire MSA (think New York Public Schools, in fact it might have been NY) and the other MSA still had dozens of smaller districts.

    The line of thinking was that when there are dozens of districts within an MSA, those district essentially represent competition at the district level. Your district wants families to locate within it so they can get the ADA dollars, whereas in the super-district it doesn’t matter where the kids live. Every kid in the MSA is captured by the district and no competition exists from other public school districts.

    That research showed competition between districts was highly correlated with better outcomes.

  • Robin

    Found it…

    Does Competition Among Public Schools Benefit Students and Taxpayers? Carol Hoxby, American Economic Review.

  • Janet

    I teach in a charter K-8 school. Our funding depends on our enrollment on one particular day each fall semester. Our per student funding is exactly the same as the other public schools in our district. Where we seem to lose advantage is that we cannot use other district resources unless we pay the district for those resources and some come at a very high price.

    The observations some have made re dedication and leadership in charter schools holds true in my school. W/re to parents those who are more involved in the school are more involved with their children and hence those children do better. W/re to teachers about half of our faculty,maybe more, are believers – yes,unusual in a public setting. They are the most dedicated groyp of individuals I have ever worked with. I’ve been teaching for 3 and a half years – in another life I was in the business realm.

  • Tom

    I think it is very important that we don’t miss this in the report.

    “The report found several key positive findings regarding the academic performance of students attending charter schools. For students that are low income, charter schools had a larger and more positive effect than for similar students in traditional public schools. English Language Learner students also reported significantly better gains in charter schools, while special education students showed similar results to their traditional public school peers.”

  • John I.

    Quick comment on the stanford study: The Stanford study is flawed in many ways, and the flaws undermine its conclusions to the extent that one cannot have confidence in them. For example, the study aggregated student achievement scores even though the states in the study had and still have incommensurable ways of assessing student performance, making the aggregate comparisons invalid and meaningless.

  • John I.

    School Choice and School Productivity (or Could School Choice be a Tide that Lifts All Boats?)
    Caroline M. Hoxby
    NBER Working Paper No. 8873
    Issued in April 2002