You can’t have a conversation about charter schools without someone referencing one of the studies led by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes.
It’s findings are cherry picked by critics and supporters alike, and it is one of those rare studies that receives countless citations in both scholarly journals and traditional media, including this article in today’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Most headlines reporting on the study get the headline right: charter school performance is mixed. But within the study lie several important findings that are relevant for the work of an organization like PennCAN, which is committed to expanding high-quality school options for kids.
First and foremost, the CREDO study confirms an important principle that has driven PennCAN’s work: that with the right policies in place, public charter schools can produce greater student performance gains, especially for low-income students and students of color in urban communities.
Using data from 27 states, which together serve 95 percent of all charter school students, CREDO reports that:
On average, students at charter schools demonstrate greater growth than students at traditional public schools:
- The average charter school student gains eight more days of learning in reading and has the same learning gains in math, as compared to her traditional public school counterparts.
Compared to 2009, a greater proportion of charter schools is performing as well or better than traditional public schools:
- 81 percent of charter schools perform the same or better than their traditional public school counterparts in math, and 69 percent of charter schools perform the same or better than their traditional public schools in reading.
Compared to 2009, a greater proportion of charter schools is outperforming traditional public schools:
- 29 percent of charter schools outperform their traditional public schools in math and 25 percent of charter schools outperform their traditional public schools in reading. This is an improvement from 2009, when just 17 percent of charter schools outperformed traditional public schools.
Key subgroups of students fare better at charter schools:
- In both math and reading, students in poverty and English-language learners post greater gains at charter schools than at traditional public schools.
- In both math and reading, black students in poverty experience more growth at charter schools: an additional 29 days of learning in reading and 36 days of learning in math.
- In both math and reading, Hispanic English-Language Learner students post greater gains at charter schools: an additional 50 days of learning in reading and 43 days of learning in math.
- In math, charter school students receiving special education services have greater growth than their counterparts at traditional public schools.
We at PennCAN are especially interested in this last set of findings. We know that these subgroups of students – students of color, students in poverty, English-language learners, and students with special needs – will succeed in strong educational environments, and we are thrilled to see charter schools serving them well. From CREDO’s data, we are reminded that charter schools continue to be an effective “choice” option for many families lacking the means to exercise choice in other ways.
We are also pleased to see that, on the whole, CREDO’s findings demonstrate that quality in the charter school sector has improved since 2009. The progress is largely due to stronger authorization practices, including closures of underperforming charter schools. CREDO researchers note that 8 percent of the schools included in their 2009 study have been shut down. We applaud effective authorizers for keeping the bar high and closing schools that did not live up to their promise.
But while we’re thrilled to see this progress, we know that we’re not there yet. The report reaffirms that there is profound variation in charter school performance and finds that in Pennsylvania, overall charter school performance is weak – so weak that the average one-year impact of attending a charter school in Pennsylvania is negative for both math and reading.
That’s why we have pushed for the policies that we know make sense. We want to see a statewide performance framework implemented, to hold both authorizers and charter schools accountable for results. And we want to empower multiple authorizers within our state. Of the states that posted the most dramatic learning gains in the charter sector, virtually none rely solely on district authorizers. In Washington D.C., for example – where the average one-year impact of attending a charter school was positive, at a magnitude of 72 additional days of learning in reading and 101 additional days of learning in math – the D.C. Public School Board functions as an independent authorizer. In Louisiana, which posted similarly strong results, the law empowers three authorizers. It is time for Pennsylvania to catch up.
We remain encouraged by the upward trajectory of performance in charter schools nationwide, and by the data confirming that charters continue to produce strong student performance gains, especially for students in poverty.
We are hopeful that with your support, our continued advocacy will drive greater results for students here in Pennsylvania.