DUELING CHARTER SCHOOL RESEARCH

The charter school movement that began in the 1990s has produced nearly 3,400 charter schools serving nearly one million students across the country. After a dozen or so years of experience with charter schools across the nation, how are charter schools performing?

Even experienced researchers can have trouble summarizing the results of dozens of students attempting to quantify results in this politically charged undertaking.

Gerald W. Bracey, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., has studied charter school evaluations carried out in Arizona, California, Ohio and Texas.“I was amazed at the negative views at the state level coming from people who weren’t necessarily opposed to charters,” he says.

Then again, some states have reported encouraging results. In Connecticut, for example, charter schools may be paying off for kids.

At the beginning of the 2002-03 school year, 13 of the 19 original Connecticut charter schools remained open, according to Gary Miron and Jerry Horn, two researchers from Western Michigan University who specialize in charter school issues. Four schools had closed and two had converted to magnet schools within the public system.

Commissioned by Connecticut to evaluate the state’s charter school initiative, Miron and Horn judged the remaining 13 schools strong and successful.“In terms of performance accountability and regulatory accountability, charter schools in Connecticut are among the very best in the country,” says their report entitled, “Evaluation of Connecticut Charter Schools and the Charter School Initiative.”

Miron and Horn also reported that Connecticut’s charter schools performed lower than the state average and lower then their host districts when starting out. As might be expected, performance improved through time. During the 2002-03 school year, these schools had reached parity with their host districts but still showed results slightly lower than the state average. Charter school performance was improving faster than the performance of host districts.

Not So, Everywhere

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On the other hand, Ohio’s 136 charter schools have frustrated the Legislative Office of Education Oversight (LOEO), the research staff employed by the Ohio General Assembly’s Education Oversight committee.

In a report issued in December of 2003, the LOEO evaluated the performance of the 59 oldest, and presumably best established, charter schools in Ohio. Twenty-three of the 59 charter schools, which Ohio calls community schools, failed to provide enough data to be included in the LOEO’s complete analysis. Of those submitting complete data, neither the community schools nor their matched traditional schools reported acceptable performances on proficiency tests given to fourth and sixth graders. While essentially matching traditional school’s proficiency performances, community schools were not meeting proficiency test goals established by their charters.

In the end, the LOEO recommended that the Ohio General Assembly consider withdrawing support for the community school initiative unless the schools improved their reporting performance and clarified the goals against which community schools will be evaluated in the future. Community school sponsors should base future contract renewals on the specific goals set out in individual community school contracts, instead of common generalized goals.

“That’s a strikingly negative recommendation,” says Bracey. “Within the bounds of bureaucratic language, the LOEO is saying that if things don’t shape up, the legislature should not fund community schools anymore.”

Little Useful Research?

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Useful research has been a long time coming for the charter school industry. In December of 2001, Western Michigan University researchers Miron and Nelson complained about the difficulty of finding valid research into charter school performance. In a report entitled “Student Academic Achievement in Charter Schools: What We Know and Why We know So Little,” Miron and Nelson wrote: “It is striking how little we currently know about charter schools’ impact on student achievement…we found useable independent evaluations of achievement impacts in only eight of the 38 states with charter school laws.”

Of the studies of state results that Miron and Nelson judged useful, Arizona’s charter school proficiency tests showed modest gains in one study and modest declines in another. Three Michigan studies found declines in achievement among charter school students there. In Texas, one study indicated lower achievements by charter school students compared to traditional schools, while another revealed gains by charters classified as “at-risk,” again compared to traditional schools.

Miron and Nelson attributed the inadequate research results to limitations in state testing methods, the failure of charter schools to report data, and the failure of state agencies to collect and assemble data for review and political motivations.

Political Agendas

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Most discussions of charter school performance feature political undercurrents. Advocates of school choice believe charter schools have begun to fulfill their promise. Opponents say charter schools are, at best, matching traditional schools in terms of student performance — so why bother.

Consider, for example, a national pilot study of charter schools commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education in 2003. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) conducted the study, which was to be issued by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). But the results were held back for some reason.

In an odd twist, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) grew impatient and commissioned its own study of the NCES data. The AFT released a report in August of 2004.

The AFT, which opposes charter schools, found that charter school students averaged lower scores on mathematics and reading achievement tests than their public school counterparts in the fourth and eighth grades. In addition, a smaller percentage of charter school students performed at or above “basic,” and at or above “proficient” than students attending traditional schools.

A month later, in September, Caroline M. Hoxby, a Harvard researcher, whose research generally supports charter schools, released a study conducted with the National Bureauof Economic Research. This study covered 99 percent of all charter school students. “Compared to students in the nearest regular public school, charter students are four percent more likely to be proficient in reading and two percent more likely to be proficient in math, on their state exams,” wrote Hoxby. “Compared to students in the nearest regular public school with a similar racial composition, charter students are five percent more likely to be proficient in reading and three percent more likely to be proficient in math. In states where charter schools are re-established, charter school students’ proficiency ‘advantage’ tends to be greater.”

In an interesting aside, the Hoxby report also singled out the AFT study for criticism, saying that the AFT had made a “crude” comparison that fostered incorrect interpretations that charter schools reduced achievement. Hoxby noted that when the AFT compared black students to black students or Hispanic students to Hispanic students, the results failed to confirm the overall comparisons of charter school and public school students in the AFT study. Hoxby also says that the AFT study used a sample that was too small to consider statistically relevant.

Three months later, the U.S. Department of Education, a charter school proponent, released its take on the NAEP results, which had been released earlier by the AFT. The NAEP conclusions differed from the AFT’s. “For students from the same racial/ethnic backgrounds, reading and mathematics performance in charter schools did not differ from that in other public schools,” says NAEP. “However, this study found lower overall mathematics performance in charter schools than in other public schools.

“On the other hand, in reading there was no measurable difference between the overall performance of charter school fourth-grade students as a whole and their counterparts in other public schools. This is true even though, on average, charter schools have higher proportions of students from groups that typically perform lower on NAEP than other pubic schools, such as minority students and students in central cities.”

Speaking to a New York Time reporter about the NAEP reading of the data, Eugene W. Hickok, U.S. undersecretary of Education at the time, says: “In case there’s any doubt, we are big supporters of charter schools. So as I read these studies on charter schools, I read them through that lens.”

Putting Politics Aside

Nearly everyone has a political view about the value of charter schools. And political views appear to be skewing the interpretations of research.

What’s the truth? Are charter schools working or not? For educators attempting to sort through dueling research tracking the achievements or failures of charter schools, Bracey recommends concentrating on research emanating from the states. “I think the most valid research is being reported at the state level,” he says. “In many cases, the people selected by states to research these questions have no particular bias.”

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