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A Quick Overview of Recent Research on Charters

Over at the Shanker Institute blog, Matt DiCarlo has done a great job sifting through the latest research on charter schools in a recent three-part series of blog posts. His first post looks at some of the latest data on charter schools’ impact on student achievement, and concludes that:

the endless back-and-forth about whether charter schools “work” — whether there is something about “charterness” that usually leads to fantastic results — has become a massive distraction in our education debates. The evidence makes it abundantly clear that that is not the case, and the goal at this point should be to look at the schools of both types that do well, figure out why, and use that information to improve all schools.

Matt follows his own advice in the second post, which reviews research which looks at what educational policies are implemented at the charter schools which do seem to have positive effects on student achievement. Examining a variety of studies over the past few years, he finds that

An emphasis on discipline seems to have some support, both in direct tests of associations as well as in a surface review of practices in high-profile charters. This might be something to which regular public schools should pay more attention, as the importance of a safe, orderly learning environment is well-established (see here). Needless to say, regular public schools would probably approach the details of these policies in a different way.

The strongest evidence, however, is that for extended time and perhaps tutoring (as well as the funding that enables these practices).

This does not match up particularly well with the rhetoric of “innovation.” If there are any consistent lessons from the charter experiment, at least in terms of test-based effects, they seem to tell us what we already know — that performance can be improved with more resources, more time and more attention. These interventions are not cheap or new, and they’re certainly not “charter-specific” in any way.

Finally, he addresses the question of “scaling up” — how can we apply what happens in charter schools to school improvement policies which serve all students? His conclusions are sobering:

In general, after more than 20 years of fairly rapid expansion, charter schools haven’t yet taught us much we didn’t already know, at least in terms of what influences test-based outcomes (which are of course far from the only relevant kind). Certainly, a small group have accomplished a great deal, but they are outliers, and they are dispersed throughout the nation. The available evidence is nowhere near comprehensive, but it strongly suggests that even these successes cannot be scaled up without, at the very least, large private investments. As a result, their implications for regular public schools remain limited.

What’s truly needed is for charter schools to aggressively pursue their role as “educational laboratories” — accepting high-needs students, and trying new and innovative ways to help them succeed (as well as, perhaps, offering specialized programs such as language immersion). These schools should, like KIPP, open themselves up to high-quality research programs testing the effects of these practices, in an effort to inform and improve all schools. Their test scores and other results might serve as valuable policy evidence instead of judge and jury, and the schools themselves should be seen as partners, not adversaries. None of this is likely to occur so long as both “sides” of this debate — both supporters and opponents — continue to wage test-based trench warfare that is so obviously locked in stalemate.