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A Question of Quality
Charter schools continue to be a hot topic in K-12 education. The Obama administration loves them, but many educators fear that they're taking valuable resources - both in terms of finance and educational innovation - away from the public school system and handing them over to the semi-private sector. These concerns have been heightened by recent charter school controversies, such as the use of the Bible for instruction in Idaho's Nampa Classical Academy (NCA). Charter schools use public money and are therefore required to be nonsectarian, but schools like NCA highlight fears that a privately run 'public' institution can easily cross boundaries that are crucial to the philosophy of American public education. Religious schools are private because public schools should be open to students of any ethnic, social or religious background, but the charter system makes it easy to ignore those principles.
Even when we set aside philosophical issues like equal access and religious freedom, many concerns remain about the unchecked growth of charter schools. At the heart of this debate is the question of quality. In a system with little centralized oversight, how do we ensure that students are getting equal access to a good education? Many charter school advocates counter that the same question could be asked about traditional public schools, which are infamous for offering a dramatically different quality of education from district to district. In an attempt at determining whether charter schools are offering students a better - or worse - alternative to traditional public education, Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) released a study last summer on student performance in charter schools. 'Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States' was the first charter school survey that took a longitudinal approach to evaluating student performance, and quickly became the benchmark study on the subject.
You can read more about CREDO's results - and the history of the charter school debate - in this E-P article, Making Charter Schools Work, from last month. The summary is that the results were mixed. Certain demographic groups performed better over time in reading and math in charter schools, but the overall national quality curve showed charter schools slightly underperforming traditional public schools.
In spite of their weak national average in CREDO's June 2009 report, charter schools in some states did perform significantly better than schools in other states. Charter advocates pointed out that these results suggest that, under the right conditions, charter schools may be the educational panacea that this country is looking for. In response, New York City's Department of Education commissioned CREDO in July of 2009 to perform a more focused study on NYC's charter schools using the same methodologies as the first study. CREDO released ''Charter School Performance in New York City this week, and this time the results were much more clear: students in NYC charter schools consistently perform better in reading and math than students in New York's traditional public schools.
One of the things that makes the CREDO studies so powerful is that they focus on academic gains, rather than a snapshot of student performance. By looking at improvements (or lack thereof) in student performance over time, controlling for demographics and other confounding factors, the CREDO reports sidestep the concern that charter schools are 'culling' for better students and get to the heart of the matter: Are students at charter schools, regardless of their previous abilities, getting a better education?
Figure 1 from 'Charter School Performance in New York City'. page 4.
In New York City, the answer appears to be yes. After doing a school-by-school comparison, the CREDO researchers found that 51% of NYC charter schools show significantly larger academic gains in math than traditional public schools. Thirty-three percent showed no difference, and only 16% showed significantly fewer gains. In reading the numbers weren't as dramatic, but they still show charter schools coming out on top. Twenty-nine percent of charter schools showed stronger gains in reading, with 59% showing no difference and only 12% doing worse than traditional public schools.
Several of the more specific findings were remarkably similar to the first CREDO study. Students tend to lag behind in their first year at charter schools, particularly in reading (in the NYC study, they showed immediate first-year gains in math), but pull ahead by the second year, supporting the idea that charter schools are better at promoting long term academic improvement. The demographics in the second study also mirrored the first. Ethnic minorities, specifically black and Hispanic students, perform significantly better in reading and math in charter schools than in traditional public schools. Students in a lower economic bracket did significantly better in reading in charter schools, but performed about the same in math as did their peers in traditional public schools. Finally, while all types of students showed better academic gains in charter schools, students who had performed poorly in traditional public schools showed exceptional growth in the charter environment.
Dr. Margaret Raymond, CREDO's director, notes that not only do NYC charter schools perform better on average, but the performance spread between highest- and lowest-performing schools is 'consistently smaller than is found in other communities.' New York City's Department of Education appears to have done a lot of work to fine tune its charters, from supporting successful models to culling unsuccessful ones. One of the key conclusions of the first CREDO study was that for the charter movement to be successful, it needs to get better at closing failing schools and replicating successful ones. This follow-up study suggests that charter schools across the country should be taking a closer look at New York City.