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Charter Schools Are No Better than Public Schools, and Don't Expect Them to Change

Jim Horn

A new analysis of charter schools in the U. S. is out from CREDO, the Stanford-based outfit that found in 2009, when there were 4,700 charters across 40 states, that 17 percent of the nation’s charter schools were scoring better on standardized tests than the public schools they were created to replace:

While the report recognized a robust national demand for more charter schools from parents and local communities, it found that 17 percent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, while 37 percent of charter schools showed gains that were worse than their traditional public school counterparts, with 46 percent of charter schools demonstrating no significant difference.

Thanks to billions poured into the segregated charter effort over the years from the federal treasury and from corporate foundations ($312 million from the Walton Foundation, alone), those peer-reviewed findings in 2009 were summarily ignored, so that now in 2013, there are 6,000+ charters in 42 states.  This may be referred to as the Fill-the-Hole-with-Money Strategy.

This new 2013 research from CREDO differs from the 2009 research piece by focusing primarily on charters that are part of charter management organizations (CMOs), which are corporate chains such as KIPP, Inc. or White Hat Management, Inc. This most recent study examined performance among 1,372 schools that belong to 167 CMOs. So independent charters were not a part of the most recent study.

There are a number of interesting takeaways from this CMO study, but the one that stands out is stated thusly in the Press Release:

In the aggregate, CMOs perform about the same as traditional public schools (TPS), but the aggregate masks the more interesting and important story of the distribution of performance around the average.

So with the exceptions of segregated chains like KIPP and Uncommon Schools, which can attribute their high scores to 1) creaming of top performers, 2) shoving out of low performers and discipline problems, 3) huge $$ advantages, 4) 10 hour school days, 5) laser focused test prep, etc., the rest of the CMOs can only say they are no better than the struggling public schools they were designed to replace. From the Executive Summary (all bolds in original):

Across the 25 states in the study, a sample of 167 operating CMOs were identified for the years 2007 - 2011. CMOs on average are not dramatically better than non-CMO schools in terms of their contributions to student learning. The difference in learning compared to the Traditional Public school alternatives for CMOs is -.005 standard deviations in Math and .005 in reading; both these values are statistically significant, but obviously not materially different from the comparison (p. 6)

But let’s look a little closer. 

The real story of CMOs is found in their range of quality. The measures of aggregate performance, however, mask considerable variation across CMOs in terms of their overall quality and impact. Across the 167 CMOs, 43 percent outpace the learning gains of their local TPS in reading; 37 percent of CMOs do so in math. These proportions are more positive than was seen for charter schools as a whole, where 17 percent posted better results. However, about a third (37%) of CMOs have portfolio average learning gains that are significantly worse in reading, and half lag their TPS counterparts in math (pp. 5-6).

Translation: Over a third of segregated CMOs are doing worse in reading, and 43% are doing better; over a third of CMOs are doing better in math, but 50 percent are doing worse in math.

If these numbers reflected the results of trials for a new drug, would these trials lead to approval by the FDA?  Is this the best we can expect from charters after billions poured into this new hole in the ground that is being mined by ideologues, tax-evaders, corporate welfare schemers, profiteers, sold-out politicians, and hedge fund operators?

In fact, it is the best we may expect, for if there is another big takeaway that should cause Duncan and Gates to look the other way quickly, it is this, from the Press Release, that concludes that, like bad wine, low scoring segregated charters don’t get better with time:

“This report’s findings challenge the conventional wisdom that a young under-performing school will improve if given time. Our research shows that if you start wobbly, chances are you’ll stay wobbly,” said Dr. Margaret Raymond, CREDO’s director and the study’s lead author. “Similarly, if a school is successful in producing strong academic progress from the start, our analysis shows it will remain a strong and successful school.”

“We have solid evidence that high quality is possible from the outset,” Dr. Raymond said. “Since the study also shows that the majority of charter management organizations produce consistent quality through their portfolios – regardless of the actual level of quality – policy makers will want to assure that charter schools that replicate have proven models of success.”

What the study found, however, is that the unproven segregated models are replicating faster than the high flyers like KIPP:

. . .the lowest third of CMOs replicate more rapidly than middling or high-performing CMOs. Of the 245 new schools that were started by CMOs over the course of this study, 121 (or 49 percent) were begun by Organizations whose average performance was in the bottom third of the range. Another 19 percent (47 schools) were started by CMOs in the middle third of the quality distribution. The final 77 new schools (31 percent) were opened by CMOs in the top third of the distribution. This finding highlights the need to be vigilant about which CMOs replicate; CMOs with high average learning gains remain high performers as they grow and CMOs with poor results remain inferior.

The new Report concludes, too, that the RTTT policy of planning miracle turnarounds among the lowest performing schools to be another fanciful bit of public relations from ED.  Wonder how Kevin Huffman will respond to this.  After all, he has set TN with the task of making the state’s worst schools the best in five years!

The lessons of this study also include the notion of authorizer triage. Most authorizers have limited resources, so deploying them where they have the highest impact is desirable. The temptation to focus on the lowest performing schools is not supported by this analysis, but attention to the schools in quintile two (or quintiles 1 and 2 for elementary schools) holds out more promising effects (p. 8).


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Jim Horn

Jim Horn

Jim Horn is Professor of Educational Leadership at Cambridge College, Cambridge, MA. He is also an education blogger at Schools Matter @ the Chalkface and has published widely on issues related to education reform and social justice in education. His book "Work Hard, Be Hard: Journeys Through No Excuses Teaching" was published in 2016. And, with co-author, Denise Wilburn, his book, "The Mismeasure of Education," was published in 2013.

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