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Charters Score in Cities

U.S. News and World Report
March 19, 2015

By Sara Mead

A new study of charter schools shows that they are making a meaningful difference for underserved kids in many of our nation’s cities, but it also highlights new challenges for the movement.

Researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO, released the new report yesterday, which looks at the impact of charter schools in 41 urban areas. The researchers used a rigorous research design that compares learning gains for students enrolled in charter schools to those of similar students in traditional public schools in their districts.

On net, the findings are good news for charter schools: Across the 41 cities studied, students in charter schools learned significantly more than their peers attending traditional public schools – 40 more days worth of learning in math, and 28 more in reading.

What can we take from these results? First, a caution: The results of this new CREDO study can’t be simply compared to studies of charter school performance that CREDO conducted in 2009 and 2013. While those reports looked at charter student learning gains at the school and state level, and included charter students in urban, rural and suburban communities, the new study focuses only on charters in urban areas, and analyzes results at the school and urban area level – not for states.

That said, this study does offer some important lessons:

Charter performance varies across urban areas: In 26 of the cities, charter students learned more than their traditional school peers in math, and in 23 they learned more than their peers in reading. But in 11 of the urban areas, charter school students learned less than their peers in math while in 10 of them charter school students learned less in reading. (There’s a lot of overlap between the cities where charter students learned more in reading and math, and conversely those where they learned less in each subject). The magnitude of charter student learning gains also varies considerably: While the typical charter student in the sample gained about 40 days more learning in math, charter students in Boston ended up with over 200 days more learning than their district peers.

Some urban charter sectors are producing phenomenal results for kids: Charter schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston, the District of Columbia, Detroit and Newark, New Jersey produced particularly strong results for students.

Urban charter schools are producing learning gains for nearly all student subgroups: Black, Hispanic and Asian charter students, as well as students in poverty and special education programs, all made significant learning gains compared to similar peers in district schools. Only two student subgroups – white students and Native American students – appeared to do less well in charters than in traditional district schools.

Charter performance in these urban areas has improved over time: Researchers didn’t just look at recent learning gains for charter students. They compared learning gains for students in charter and traditional schools over four separate time periods, from 2008-09 through 2011-12. They found that charter schools’ student learning impacts increased over time – suggesting that charter quality is also getting better in urban areas.

These results are encouraging. But they also raise a couple of important questions for the charter school movement.

What does it mean to outperform the local district? Historically, research on charter school performance has focused on whether students in charter schools learn more than comparable students in traditional schools. That’s a reasonable question to ask about charter performance. And it clearly matters to students and families choosing among school options. But it’s not the only bar that matters.

Many cities with large numbers of charter schools also have a history of poor district school performance – that’s what motivated educators in these communities to create charter schools and why families choose them. But when traditional districts are low-performing, is it enough for charter schools to outperform them?

It’s complicated. In several cities where traditional districts perform below state averages – Boston, Detroit, Indianapolis, Memphis and Nashville – charters appear to be producing strong enough learning growth to close the gap for children who remain in them for several years. But in Cleveland, Miami and Milwaukee charter schools are producing greater learning gains than district schools but aren’t closing the gap. As the charter movement continues to mature, we need to ask both whether charters are outperforming district schools and whether they’re meeting our ultimate goals for children’s learning.

What about suburban and rural charter schools? While the charter movement was not originally conceived as an answer to urban school failures, over time charters have become a largely urban phenomenon. Urban students comprise only a quarter of students nationally, but 56 percent of those enrolled in charters. This study appears to suggest that charters do particularly well in some urban areas, and best when they focus on disadvantaged and historically underserved student subgroups. But, while suburban and rural communities may not experience the kind of demographic challenges and systemic school failure found in the most troubled urban districts, plenty of suburban and rural kids also need different kinds of educational options. Does the charter sector have a role to play in meeting these needs? If so, how can we foster high-quality charters in non-urban communities?

The answers to these questions will help measure the charter movement’s success going forward.