Study Gives Charters an Edge

By Debra Viadero — February 10, 2010 2 min read
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Most studies of charter schools use students’ scores on standardized tests to measure success. But what really matters to most students is whether they graduate and go on to college.

That’s the measure a group of researchers use in a first-of-a-kind study published in Education Next this week. For their study, researchers from Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., Florida State University, Michigan State University and RAND analyzed data on four to five cohorts of 8th graders in Florida and Chicago as they moved to high school and beyond. The students who attended public charter schools were 7 to 15 percentage points more likely than the regular high school students to graduate and 8 to 10 percentage points more likely to attend a two- or four-year college.

That’s not a fair comparison, you might be thinking, because the students who actively choose charter schools might be more academically motivated or have more supportive parents than their traditional high school counterparts. That’s a common complaint about charter school research. These researchers try to address it, though, by focusing only on students who were in charter schools in 8th grade and comparing those who stuck with the charter school model in 9th grade to those who moved to a regular high school that year. Whether this would completely account for differences in motivation, no one can say, but it seems like a reasonable approach.

To chip away at that issue a little more, the researchers also compared students who lived near charter schools, and thus may have chosen them out of convenience, to those who lived too far away to make attending a charter school practical. The pattern of results held.

One possible explanation for the different outcomes may be that charter schools offered different grade configurations than did the traditional public schools in the study. In Florida, for instance, 22 percent of charter schools offering some middle grades at the time also offered at least some high school grades. In Chicago, that percentage was 40 percent, the Ed Next article says. Could it be that schooling was less disruptive for the charter school students because they didn’t have to change schools? The answer from researchers is “no” and “maybe.” They determined that grade configuration was not linked to students’ success in Florida, but they couldn’t say for sure about Chicago.

Likewise, the authors also considered and discarded the possibility that charter students’ success came from attending smaller-than-average schools. But, they conclude, “there is certainly room for future work to explore how differences in curricula, expectations, peer characteristics, and other factors may cause charter schools to diminish the high-school dropout rate and ease the transition to postsecondary schooling.”

Another open question: Are charter schools in Florida and Chicago somehow different from those anywhere else?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.