National Study Points to Charter Sector Gains

Charter schools are making gains in their overall performance, including the performance of minority and low-income students, compared to traditional public schools, according to the National Charter School Study 2013 from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University. The independent national study of charters and matched traditional public schools in 26 states updates data and comparisons of charter and traditional public schools’ performance in CREDO’s landmark 2009 study that involved 16 states.

The average charter school student in the 26 states gained an additional eight days of learning each year in reading beyond their local peers in traditional public schools, according to the latest study. This compares with a loss of seven days each year in reading for the average charter school student in the 2009 study. In mathematics, charter students went from a 22-day deficit in learning compared to their traditional public school counterparts in 2009 to being on an even par with them in the 2013 study.

The latest study also points to discernible improvements in the charter school sector with respect to the enrollment of low-income, black, and Hispanic students and also their performance compared to peers in traditional public schools. What's more, the latest study found that "… black students in poverty who attend charter schools gain an additional 29 days of learning in reading and 36 days in math over their TPS (traditional public schools) counterparts." Similarly, for Hispanic students who are English language learners (ELL), "the difference in reading amounts to 50 additional days of learning … compared to Hispanic ELL students in TPS," and a similar gain of 43 added days of learning in math for Hispanic ELL students in charters.

What contributed to the recent gains? The latest study cites a combination of closures of poorly performing charters in the original 16 states since the 2009 report and declining performance in the comparison traditional public schools in the four-year period between studies. "The charter school sector is getting better on average," the report notes, "but not because existing schools are getting dramatically better." The opening of higher-performing schools combined with the closure of the underperforming ones is the main driver of the improvements.  

What’s needed to continue the upward trend?  While the study points out many positive changes, "… more work remains to be done to ensure that all charter schools provide their students high-quality education," noted CREDO director Dr. Margaret Raymond. And the report offers several implications of the latest study to help guide the improvement efforts. Among them is to "get smart from the start" by front-loading the approval process of new charters with the creation of an evidence base about "what plans, what models, what personnel attributes, and what internal systems provide the appropriate signals that lead to high-performing schools." Continuing the trend of closing underperforming charters, but doing so smartly as well, is "the insurance policy the (charter) sector possesses," to avoid the criticism that comes "when underperforming schools are allowed to continue," the report concluded.