Blog: The Educated Reporter

For Charter Schools, Demand for More Success – And Seats

A new report from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) is likely to provide plenty of ammunition for both supporters and critics of the independently operated, public-funded campuses.

The report—an update to the center’s frequently cited 2009 study — looked at charter schools in 25 states, Washington, D.C. and New York City (the nation’s largest school district). Researchers found that overall charter school students posted learning gains in reading that were slightly better than their demographically similar peers at traditional public schools. However, there wasn’t much difference in student learning gains when it came to mathematics. At the same time, outcomes varied significantly among states, with some charter school students making strides while others actually lost academic ground. (For more on the study, check out Sara Mead’s thoughtful take for Education Sector.)

The charter school gains were particularly strong for students who arguably are most in need of an educational intervention – including the historically underserved populations of children of color, English-language learners, and those coming from low-income households. Here’s just one striking example: Black students living in poverty who attended charter schools gained an extra 29 days of learning in reading and 36 additional days of learning in math compared with their peers at traditional public schools.

But critics of charter schools contend that the improvements, while admirable, don’t go far enough. Charter schools were supposed to be incubators of the Next Big Idea in education, allowing teachers and principals to find creative and more effective ways of delivering high-quality instruction. The best ideas would then be replicated, raising the level of academic excellence for the entire community. For many schools and their students, that simply hasn’t become the reality – yet. There are roughly 6,000 charter schools serving about 2 million students nationally, which accounts for just 4.2 percent of the nation’s K-12 enrollment. That’s hasn’t been enough to move the needle very far.

The charter schools experiment is 20 years old, and so far has fallen short of the “leaps and bounds that were promised,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. ‘‘We should use the CREDO findings as an opportunity to pause and ask ourselves why we keep pitting charter schools against neighborhood public schools, a strategy that has created little more than a disruptive churn.”

It’s worth noting that the states that shut down their weakest-performing charter schools showed the most improvement overall, according to the CREDO study, which described the closure option as “the strongest tool available to ensure quality across the sector.”

The CREDO findings appear to reinforce what many educators, researchers and policymakers already knew: Just like with traditional public campuses, there are pockets of excellence in the charter school sphere, and there are programs that should have already been forced to shut their doors.

School boards are typically loathe to shutter a campus – the high-profile closures in Chicago and Philadelphia were triggered by budget crises and declining enrollment, rather than solely because of low performance. (In Philly the opening of more than 80 charter schools in the past 16 years contributed to the excess seats, according to the district’s superintendent.)

Even when there’s federal money on the table, districts prefer to try just about anything before they close a school. Consider the School Improvement Grant program, which has directed more than $3 billion to districts to help districts implement new strategies to turn around their lowest-achieving campuses. Districts could choose from a list of options, including replacing key staff, restarting with a new educational philosophy, or closing a school and using the money to transfer kids into stronger academic settings. Of the 829 schools receiving SIG funding, just 16 were closed outright.

Being at greater risk for closure is part of the bargain for charters, said Nina Rees, president and chief executive of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. And that heightened level of accountability is welcomed, she added. The CREDO report demonstrates what a strong charter school can accomplish, Rees said.

“If charter schools are not meeting the needs of families, they have to close down,” Rees said. “We need to be vigilant and demonstrate that we are taking this seriously. Otherwise we will be no different than a traditional public school system.”

The alliance announced Thursday that the waiting list for charter school seats nationally has reached a new record,  more than 910,000 names. Some of those are likely duplicates as parents often apply to more than one program; the alliance believes a conservative estimate of the number of individual children seeking a charter school spot tops 500,000.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said more charter schools are needed and has incentivized states to lift caps on the numbers of independently operated public schools that are allowed to open. At the same time, researchers have raised serious questions about the fast-moving stream of public dollars flowing to charter management organizations, which step in to take over operations from the local grassroots committees that establish the charter schools.

So what happens next? In the short term, charter school advocates and critics will probably stop fighting over the validity of the 2009 CREDO study and instead fight about the validity of the 2013 study. (CREDO director Margaret Raymond discussed the challenges of dissecting charter school data at EWA’s National Seminar last month.) But in the long run, the question that remains is how to identify what’s working at those stronger charter performers, replicate it, and take it to a scale that it actually begins to influence education outcomes for a wider group of students.