CREDO Report: Are Charter Schools Actually Doing Better?

Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) has released the 2013 National Charter School Study.  The report was previously released in 2009.  Overall, the report found that students in charter schools do slightly better in reading and the same in mathematics as their public school peers.  On average, charter schools students are 8 instructional days ahead of their public school peers in reading (and 0 days ahead in math).

Just to clarify, a charter school is a privately operated, publicly funded school.  The “improvements” the study cites are standardized tests scores in math and reading.  The study interprets these test scores in terms of “instructional days” ahead or behind (in comparison to traditional public school counterparts).

I’ve been reading up on several news sources about this report, and alarmingly, many seem to be exaggerating the improvements the study found.  The The New York Times reports that the situation is improving: in 2009, 37% of charters were performing worse than public schools; now “only” 31% are performing worse.  The Huffington Post cites that for charter schools in math, 29% do better, 40% do the same, and 31% do worse than their public school counterparts.  In reading, 25% do better, 56% do the same, and 19% do worse.  That means that 71% of charter schools are either doing the same or worse in mathematics and 75% are doing the same or worse in reading.  This is actually very interesting – all news outlets are reporting that charter schools show gains in reading and no gains in math, even though the data clearly shows that fewer charter schools are doing better in reading than in math.  Fewer schools do worse in reading than in math, but still, many show no improvement over traditional public schools.  What gives?  The media wants to paint a favorable picture of charter schools.

It’s not exactly a secret that the media and government, on the whole, support charter schools.  Charter schools are appealing for good reason: many are founded in neighborhoods with failing (as determined by standardized tests) public schools.  Charter schools operate a bit differently than public schools; they are able to hire non-unionized teachers and allocate their resources with more freedom than traditional public schools.  The media loves to vilify teacher unions (and unfortunately, teachers as well) for the ills of the education system.  As charter schools are allowed to hire non-unionized workers, they seem like the perfect solution to some.

Now, I acknowledge that teacher unions do protect some bad teachers.  However, the teacher unions are not evil, as the media would have the public believe.  Every union protects bad workers – it’s an unavoidable aspect of a human workforce.  However, the media (and even President Obama) latch on to the negative aspects of the unions to promote their own agenda – a more business-like model of education (which can be accomplished with charter schools competing with public schools for funds).  I don’t think this is the answer to fixing our education system.  Students cannot be looked at as “products” that are either proficient or not (Jonathan Kozol explores this phenomenon of treating students as products in-depth in The Shame of the Nation).

Anyways, I digress – many charter schools are improvements over their local public schools.  However, many are not.  Interestingly, most charters in the Northeast show improvement over public schools, while the West and Midwest charters do significantly worse.  Consider what the Wall Street Journal showcases: charter school students in Rhode Island are 86 and 106 instructional days ahead in reading and math, respectively, than their public school peers.  In Nevada, charter school students are 115 and 137 instructional days behind in reading and math, respectively.  The variability of charter school results indicates the major problem of charter schools: we really don’t know how it’s going to turn out.

Perhaps the most important finding of this study was that minority students do far better than white students within charter schools.  Compared to traditional public school students, English language learning (ELL) Hispanic students were 50 and 43 instructional days ahead in reading and math, respectively.  Impoverished black students were 29 and 36 instructional days ahead in reading and math, respectively.

The point I’m trying to make is that the variability of the student test scores in the charter school sector is cause for concern.  Parents who live in failing districts may think that sending their child to a charter school will put them at an advantage, which may or may not be true.  The experimental nature of charter schools is inspiring when it works, and can be devastating when it does not.  There is some hope: charter schools that are displaying increased student success can become models for other schools (traditional and charter).  However, I worry for the students who end up in charter schools that are worse than their neighborhood public schools.  How can we justify sending some students to underperforming charter schools just because some of them are excelling?

The best parents can do for now is research a charter school thoroughly before sending their child to one.  Each state’s department of education website (find your state here) is required to list the test scores of all publicly-funded schools (this includes both traditional and charter schools).  You may find that the charter school(s) you are interested in perform better than the public school your child would otherwise be attending.  You may not find this.  It’s up to parents to determine what education is best suited for their child, but we need to do more to ensure that all schools are able to provide a meaningful, effective education for all students.

For now, the most promising aspect of charter schools is the ability of some to excel.  We should all take a step back and look at what is working and what isn’t working, regardless of what type of school it is.  Politics have no business in education.

Food for thought I suppose.



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