The Center for Research on Education Outcomes [CREDO] at Stanford University today published a report, Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States, which will create a bit of a stir in educational circles.
Multiple Choice sets a new benchmark for national research studying the academic performance of charter schools and district schools: it compares “virtual twins” [charter and district students with the same demographics]; it employs a significant NAEP data set; it looks at longitudinal growth; and it covers a broad cross-section of states, including many which had not been included in previous studies . Moreover, CREDO is a think tank which has collaborated with national charter organizations such as the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers in the past [see this study, for example], and Multiple Choice was financed in part by the Walton [Wal-Mart] Foundation, so its findings can not be easily dismissed as the work of charter school critics. [Although none of this stopped an effort by Nelson Smith of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools to spin away its most important conclusions.]
Here are the reports’ main conclusions, word for word, a set of findings which the authors describe as “sobering” [p. 6]:
- Charter school students on average see a decrease in their academic growth in reading of .01 standard deviations compared to their traditional school peers. In math, their learning lags by .03 standard deviations on average. While the magnitude of these effects is small, they are both statistically significant.
- The effects for charter school students are consistent across the spectrum of starting positions. In reading, charter school learning gains are smaller for all students but those whose starting scores are in the lowest or highest deciles. For math, the effect is consistent across the entire range.
- Charter students in elementary and middle school grades have significantly higher rates of learning than their peers in traditional public schools, but students in charter high schools and charter multi-level schools have significantly worse results.
- Charter schools have different impacts on students based on their family backgrounds. For Blacks and Hispanics, their learning gains are significantly worse than that of their traditional school twins. However, charter schools are found to have better academic growth results for students in poverty. English Language Learners realize significantly better learning gains in charter schools. Students in Special Education programs have about the same outcomes.
- Students do better in charter schools over time. First year charter students on average experience a decline in learning, which may reflect a combination of mobility effects and the experience of a charter school in its early years. Second and third years in charter schools see a significant reversal to positive gains.
These patterns vary considerably by state.
|States With Lower Average Academic Performance By Charters||States With Higher Average Academic Performance By Charters||States With Academic Performance By Charters Which Is Mixed Or Not Different|
Colorado [limited to Denver]
Illinois [limited to Chicago]
District of Columbia
Looking at all 2403 charter schools studied in Multiple Choice, the authors found that 17% had a “positive and significant effect” on student achievement gains, 37% had a “negative and significant effect” on student achievement gains, and 46% had a “no significant effect” on student gains. [p. 44]
There is one counter-intuitive finding in the report that is not convincing to this reader. The report finds that “the presence of charter caps puts significant downward pressure on student results.” [p. 40] Yet the states which are best known for having either no cap or no meaningful limit on the numbers of charter schools and little or no regulation fall either into the under-performing [Arizona, Ohio and Texas] or no significant effect [California] categories. It is not at all clear from the report how the various factors were weighted to produce such a result.
This last point is important, especially in the current political climate. If one should carry from this report any lesson, it has to be that the simple creation of new charter schools does not improve educational performance: they are clearly no magic bullet to what ails American public education. Rather than create a system of unlimited mass production of charter schools, in which their sheer quantity becomes the prime directive, it is essential to develop a system to craft quality charter schools which enhance public education. It is hard to see how that is happening on scale in the “wild, wild west” of Arizona charter schools, for example. Charter school advocates who ignore the findings of this report and turn away from its imperative to focus on quality charter schooling do so at the peril of the movement’s long-term health.