Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Charter School Good News, Bad News

A new study of charter schools will vindicate some and disappoint others.

In the last seventeen years since the first charter school opened in 1992, 4000 charter schools educate over one million students. So far most studies have managed to harden preconceived notions.

Supporters argue that charter schools can improve student achievement and attainment, serve as laboratories for innovation, provide choice to families that have few options, and promote healthy competition with traditional public schools (TPSs). Critics worry that charter schools perform no better (and, too often, worse) than TPSs, that they may exacerbate stratification by race and ability, and that they harm the students left in TPSs by skimming away financial resources and motivated families.

The study sought to answer four questions:

(1) What are the characteristics of students transferring to charter schools? (2) What effect do charter schools have on test-score gains for students who transfer between TPSs and charter schools? (3) What is the effect of attending a charter high school on the probability of graduating and of entering college? (4) What effect does the introduction of charter schools have on test scores of students in nearby TPSs?

Characteristics of Charter School Students

Charter schools do NOT skim the cream.
We find no systematic evidence to support the fear that charter schools are skimming off the highest-achieving students. The prior test scores of students transferring into charter schools were near or below local (districtwide or statewide) averages in every geographic location included in the study.


...students entering charter schools often have pretransfer achievement levels lower than those of local public school students who have similar demographic characteristics.

My own experience with charter schools supports the study's finding. Many parents pull their children from the traditional public school and enroll them in a charter school precisely because their children are not doing so great. Far from picking and choosing their students, charter schools will accept every child. In fact, the charter school law of most states requires charter schools to include in their charter document language that explicitly forbids exclusion on all the typical grounds.

Effect on Test-Score Gains

Because the study's authors could not locate baseline scores for kindergarten age children, they hesitate to overgeneralize. They have more confidence in data gathered from charter schools that begin accepting students at later ages.

In five out of seven locales, these nonprimary charter schools are producing achievement gains that are, on average, neither substantially better nor substantially worse than those of local TPSs.

Older studies consistently found superior results for charter school students, but those studies may have been flawed, or the exploding growth of charter schools has been accompanied by that bugaboo, regression toward the mean. Poor performance of charter school students has been associated with virtual delivery of education, but the authors have no confidence in forming any generalizations. More work must be done to identify possible idiosyncratic characteristics of students and or their parents who choose virtual delivery. The educational implications of the technology itself also merit further research.

Likelihood of Attending College

Charter school students are significantly more likely to attend or graduate from college than students from traditional public schools. Given the flat difference in test scores, perhaps parents of charter school students have higher expectations for college attendance. Certainly, charter school parents are more likely to have invested substantial time and effort in their children's education, if only the daily grind to drive the kids to school every day.

Charter schools do not necessarily have to provide the one-stop comprehensive education experience usually expected of a traditional public school. Parents often make the extra effort and pay the extra expense to supplement the charter school program.

Charter School Effect on Neighboring Traditional Public Schools

None, one way or another.

There is no evidence in any of the locations that charter schools are negatively affecting the achievement of students in nearby TPSs. But there is also little evidence of a positive competitive impact on nearby TPSs.

Charter schools receive money on the same basis as traditional public schools—according to enrollment. What may surprise some people is that charter schools are often required to educate their students on 85% of the public funding allowed per child enrolled. The other 15% goes to the sponsoring school district supposedly for infrastructure costs that do not benefit the charter school. An example of an infrastructure benefit the charter school does receive may be payroll services for its employees. An example of an infrastructure benefit the charter school does not receive may be school bus service. The charter school must pay a share of the transportation costs even though none of its students takes the bus.

I know of situation where, at one time, the sponsoring traditional public school had 150 students while its charter school had 600 students. Thus the traditional public school got funding as if they had 240 students without costs of the additional 90 students (6.67 charter school students equals 1 traditional public school student). Mountain Oaks Charter School started out as the independent study department of the Calaveras County Office of Education.

The researchers identified possible shortcomings and recommended further research.

Finally, one of the most important implications of our work for future research on charter schools is the need to move beyond test scores and broaden the scope of measures and questions examined. Our estimates of positive charter-school effects on high-school graduation and
college entry are more encouraging than most of the test score–based studies to date (including our own test-score results). Future studies of charter schools should seek to examine a broad and deep range of
student outcome measures and to provide evidence on the mechanisms producing positive long-term impacts.

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