The Irascible ProfessorSM


Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Education is what you get when you read the fine print.  Experience is what you get when you don't."...  ...Pete Seeger.
 

Commentary of the Day - September 20, 2009:  Charter Schools - A Choice but not Necessarily a Great Choice.

For a long time now the American public schools have had their critics.  Test scores could be better.  Our students often fare worse than students from other industrialized countries in subjects like math and science, though they certainly are far from the bottom of the barrel in these international comparisons.  Students in urban public schools often do poorly compared to students in the more wealthy suburbs.  Nevertheless, the vast majority of our public schools do their job adequately, and many actually are as good or better than any private or parochial school in their vicinity.  Still, there are those, mainly on the right, who claim that public school students need more "choice" in where their parents can have them schooled.  In some cases the "choice" mantra takes the form of demands for vouchers that would give tax dollars directly to parents to use to send their children to private or parochial schools.  In other cases "choice" comes in the form of alternative public schools -- schools that are directly funded by tax dollars, but which operate under "charters" from various public agencies that allow them to operate independently from the traditional public school system.

These charter schools often have a wide latitude in choosing their curricula and their teaching staff.  Often they can hire non-union teachers, and they often can set standards for admission and continuation that traditional public schools cannot.  The advocates of school choice often support charter schools as an alternative to traditional public schools.  The argument frequently is made that the competition offered by the charter schools will benefit students in traditional public schools by encouraging them to raise their performance.  But, even if that doesn't happen, at least the children attending the alternative schools will experience better educational outcomes.

These seem like common sense arguments that ought to be true.  Until recently, it has been difficult to determine if charter schools in fact produce better educational outcomes than traditional public schools.  Early studies that showed no significant difference between educational outcomes for charter schools compared to traditional public schools were ambiguous at best.  However, for all its deficiencies, the No Child Left Behind Act has produced a wealth of test data for children in both traditional and charter public schools that can be used for comparison purposes.

The Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University recently released a report (executive summary, full report) that compares educational outcomes for charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia with their corresponding traditional public schools.  The methodology used in the study is quite rigorous.  Students attending the charter schools are paired with "virtual" twins in the corresponding traditional public schools.  In other words, the study compare apples to apples.  Each student in the charter school is paired with a student in a corresponding traditional public school who has essentially the same background and characteristics.  Then educational outcomes are compared.

The results are quite surprising.  When all the charter schools are compared to their corresponding traditional public schools about 17% of the charters have outcomes that are significantly better.  About half the charters produce educational outcomes that are not significantly different statistically from the corresponding traditional public schools.  However, 37% of charters produce educational outcomes that are significantly worse than the corresponding traditional public schools.

When the data were disaggregated by states wide variations were found.  Charter schools in Arkansas, Colorado (Denver), Illinois (Chicago), Louisiana, and Missouri had significantly higher learning gains than the corresponding traditional public schools.  But, charter schools in Arizona, Florida, Minnesota, Ohio, and Texas had significantly lower learning gains than their corresponding traditional public schools.  And, in California, the District of Columbia, Georgia, and North Carolina there was no statistically significant difference in learning gains between the charters and traditional public schools.

Similarly, results vary widely with respect to specific subjects.  For example, charter school students on average have slightly lower learning gains in reading than traditional public school students.  But, in some states such as Louisiana and Missouri charter students have significantly better learning gains in reading than their traditional public school counterparts.  On the other hand charter school students in Texas had significantly worse learning gains in reading than their traditional public school counterparts.

In math overall charter schools students had significantly worse learning outcomes than their traditional public school counterparts.  But again in five states -- Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana and Colorado -- charter school students did significantly better in math than their counterparts in traditional public schools.  But these gains were overshadowed by significantly worse performance in math for charter school students in Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Minnesota, California, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and Ohio.

Other results noted in the study were that charter students in elementary and middle school grades outperformed their counterparts in traditional public schools, but charter students in high school and multi-level schools significantly underperformed compared to their counterparts in traditional public schools.  In addition, overall Black and Hispanic students had lower educational gains in charter schools compared to their counterparts in the traditional public schools.  But at the same time, students who were in poverty or who were English language learners did better in charter schools than their counterparts in traditional public schools.

The bottom line from this study is that charter schools are very much a mixed bag.  They are not in any sense a panacea.  Some charters are better than other charters, and some charters are better than their corresponding traditional public schools.  But, many charters are worse than traditional public schools.  Parents who are considering sending their children to a charter school need to investigate the educational outcomes for the particular charter schools they may be considering; and, they need to follow their children's progress carefully.  If they don't they may find that their children are worse off than they were in traditional public schools.



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