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Study: On average, charter schools do no better than public schools

But the study also found more nuanced evidence that the most effective charter schools are those serving lower-income students, especially in urban areas.

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“It’s not surprising that suburban charter schools don’t do anything, because suburban schools are already pretty good,” says Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School who has studied charter schools in Chicago. “At this point,” she adds, “the literature is still trying to figure out, are charter schools better or not? And arguably, that’s the wrong question to even be asking.” More interesting, Professor Schanzenbach suggests, would be research on what makes some charters more effective.

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The Mathematica study began to explore some of those questions, and it found some correlation between better performance and smaller charters and those that used ability grouping in classrooms more than surrounding schools did.

The study looked at the performance of students after they had been at a charter school for a year or two.

Such national studies only highlight the broad differences in what is ultimately a state-driven policy, says Robin Lake, associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“We’ve learned a lot about how to make charter schools work,” she says, adding that a lot of attention now is focusing on how to fine-tune the authorizing process so that states select the best schools, monitor them well, and then shut down those that aren’t performing sufficiently.

But others believe that, while there still may be a place for some charters, research like this study doesn’t justify the massive public-policy push to create more charters quickly.

“The worry is that President Obama and others are getting seduced by the movement because they’re looking at the results from boutique charters [like KIPP and Aspire] rather than at the wide array of charters that don’t outperform regular schools,” says Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Professor Fuller remains “cautiously optimistic” about charters and says they seem to do some things well, such as attracting energetic young teachers. But, he adds, “It’s irresponsible that President Obama would [push] all 50 states to create more charter schools in light of such sketchy evidence.”