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Charter schools inconsistent but improving, national study finds

An update of a landmark 2009 study showed charter schools on the whole have turned their performance around and are serving poor and minority students especially well.

By Staff writer / June 25, 2013

Charter schools are improving, according to a new national study, though there is still a wide quality range between the best and the worst.

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The study, conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University, is an update of the center’s landmark 2009 study, which compared students’ performance at charter schools in 16 states with that of their traditional public school counterparts and found that, in many instances, charter schools fell short or made no difference in students’ learning.

This time, the news for charters was much better: Overall, in reading, charter students in the 26 states studied had the equivalent of eight extra days of learning each year beyond their peers in traditional public schools, compared with a seven-day loss in learning that the 2009 study found.

In mathematics, the 2013 study found no significant difference in learning, whereas the 2009 study found that charter school students had the equivalent of 22 fewer days of learning. The gains for poor and minority students and English language learners were even greater.

“The general reaction to the 2009 study was shock and disbelief,” says Margaret Raymond, the director of CREDO. “It was the first time we as researchers could provide enough of a wide-angle view for people to understand they’d gotten their doctors’ report back and the news wasn’t all that great.

“The real drive here was to see if in fact the attention to quality that appeared to have followed … had actually paid off,” she says. “We were intrigued to find out that in fact in both reading and math there has been an increase in performance.”

The CREDO study, the most comprehensive study done of charter school performance, uses what it calls “virtual twins” to gauge student learning – a methodology in which researchers compare students with students, rather than schools with schools, while controlling for as many demographics as possible.

The virtual “twin” students are composites of students that go to a traditional public school that the charter school student might otherwise have attended, and that in all other respects look like the charter student.

While the charter schools, on average, performed better in this study than in the 2009 one – and fared particularly well against traditional public schools among the most disadvantaged learners – there was still a wide variety in quality, and disparity from state to state. All of which, say some charter school advocates, underlines why it’s so important to create stronger charter-school laws, with clear expectations for academic performance and clear mechanisms in place for shutting down poorly performing schools.

In this study, 19 percent of charter schools posted gains in reading that were significantly weaker than their traditional public counterparts, and 31 percent were weaker in math. Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, notes that these are similar to his organization’s finding last fall that between 900 and 1300 charter schools were performing in the bottom 15 percent of their state’s accountability system.


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