Charter Schools: Cure or Curse?

Charter schools are not a cure-all. In general, their highly variable performance tends to mirror, and in some instance lags, that of public schools.
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This is the second in the series of four blogs that we will post during Connected Educator Month.

In our last blog titled "Education: Making the Connections," we introduced the concept of a triangle with the student at the center and with the family at the top and the school and the community at either tip. We see the tips of the triangle as the pivotal points at which we need to make the proper connections in order to improve the quality of education.

In this blog, we focus on schools and in the next two we will address the community and family connections. And, given the current momentum and closing of so many public schools in urban areas, it is essential to begin by examining the impact of the accelerating trend toward charter schools.

The charter school movement is definitely changing the educational terrain. Is this a change for the better or the worse? The answer appears to be it all depends where and when you look and to whom you are talking.

On February 23, 2013, The New York Times published an editorial talking about the "better charter schools in New York" but referred to the national movement as "disappointing." Nina Rees, President and Chief Executive, of the National Alliance for Public Schools responded to the editorial taking exception and highlighting a number of facts including: the movement has added 1,700 schools and a million students over the past five years with 610,000 on a waiting list; 500 charter schools have closed since the Stanford study of 2009 which gave the movement mixed reviews; and in New Orleans over 75 percent of the students are in charter schools with the number of students attending a failing school down threefold since Hurricane Katrina.

There was a similar point counterpoint to a March 1, 2013 Washington Posteditorial focused on the successes of KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), a fast growing national charter school network. In its editorial, the Post cited a study by the independent firm Mathematica Policy Research (Mathematica) for 43 KIPP middle schools which found that students in these charter schools: showed significantly greater learning gains in math, science, reading and social studies than their peers in traditional public schools; that KIPP was not "creaming" to get the best students and not shedding its lower income students; and that three to four years experience in a KIPP program translated into an 11 month gain in math and science, eight months in reading, and 14 months in science. One of the biggest differences that the Mathematica research discovered between the KIPP program and public schools is that it is an average of nine hours a day for 192 days a year versus 6.6 hours per day for the traditional program.

In a web posting for School Finance 1010 on March 1, Bruce D. Baker provided a rejoinder. He had some quarrels with the Mathematica "analyses and data presentation" but he focused his attention on the "big picture" lessons. They included: This is not about doing "things better" but doing the same things more and longer; the per student cost difference is huge - the average KIPP school depending on where it is located spends about $4,800 to $5,000 more per student than its peers; and the scaling up costs to apply a KIPP approach across an entire city would be substantial: $688 million ($4,300 per student x 160,000 pupils) in New York City and $72 million ($2,000 per student x 36,000 pupils) in Houston.

Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) should be the tiebreaker on the assessment of the performance of charter schools. It has done the definitive research on them. When it presented its original findings in 2009, CREDO stunned the educational community and its observers by reporting that charter school performance varied widely with some schools performing better than public schools, some the same, and some worse.

In January of 2013, CREDO released a new report, Charter School Growth and Replication, which found that charter schools that start strongly are likely to continue to perform strongly and those that start off as low performing schools usually continue that way. CREDO broke the schools into quintiles from high performing to low performing. It reported that, "80 percent of schools in the bottom quintile of performance remain low performers through their fifth year."

CREDO's research presents a wealth of data and insights that can be mined to improve the performance of both charter and public schools. A primary focus of this new research was on charter management organizations (CMOs), a network of three or more schools built by a single operator.

Selected nuggets from
to the new report follow:
  • On average CMOs are pretty average. There was a slight statistically different level in student learning compared to independent charter schools but nothing to brag or write home about.
  • CMOs post superior results with historically disadvantaged student subgroups.
  • The real story of CMOs is in their range of quality. Across 167 CMOs, 43 percent outpace the learning gains of the local TPS (traditional public school) in reading, 37 percent of CMOs do the same in math. This is better for charter schools as a whole, where 17 percent posted better results than the TPS.
  • CMO new schools on average deliver larger learning gains than independent charter schools but both lag the learning gains in the average TPS. These effects were consistent for reading and math.
  • There appears to be no structural "new school" phenomenon for several years. Poor first year performance simply cannot be overlooked or excused.

In June of 2013, CREDO released its National Charter School Study 2013 as the official follow-up to its 2009 study. The press release accompanying the study was titled "Charter Schools Make Gains, According to a 26-State Study."

The best analysis of those "gains" that we have seen was provided by Tom Loveless in an Brown Center Chalkboard July 3 posting for Brookings titled "Charter School Study: Much Ado About Tiny Differences."

In his posting, Mr. Loveless observes at the beginning "The new study showed charters doing better, out-performing TPS by .01 standard deviations in reading and scoring abut the same as TPS in math." He asserts that the main finding of the CREDO studies is that "achievement between charters and TPS are extremely small, so tiny, in fact, that they lack real world significance."

Loveless follows that with an examination of standard deviations and statistical significance which we won't go into here. But, his conclusions are worth noting. There are "negligible charter-TPS sector differences uncovered by the 2009 and 2013 CREDO studies. The two sectors perform about the same."

The message in the bottle here is a simple one. Charter schools are not a cure-all. In general, their highly variable performance tends to mirror, and in some instance lags, that of public schools. In our opinion, what is needed then is not a conversion of the public school system to a charter school system, but rather a collaborative system that produces the best outcomes for students -- especially those who are "disadvantaged" in socio-economic terms.

In December 2012, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Gates Foundation) gave $25 million in grants to seven cities to back public-charter cooperation in constructing approaches to benefit the students. In New York, four district schools and four charter schools will work together to develop a literacy program focused on the common core standards. In Denver, high performing charter and public schools can apply for grants to serve as demonstration sites for teachers and administrators from struggling schools to visit and be paired with as mentors.

The Gates Foundation is to be commended for funding this educational program which puts the kids' interest first. It promotes solving problem solving rather than turf protecting. It shows that what is new is not necessarily good and what is old is not necessarily bad. It shifts the discussion from yours or mine to ours.

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