General Satisfaction With Minn. Charters Documented

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Students, parents, and teachers are generally satisfied with Minnesota's charter schools, but most of the schools have yet to write the accountability plans that would make them truly "results oriented," a new study says.

The interim report by researchers at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, released last week, looks at the 16 Minnesota charter schools that have been open for at least a year. Minnesota was the first state in the nation to allow charter schools, the first of which opened its doors in 1992. There are now 19.

There are few measures of how charter students are performing, the researchers found, but those that exist suggest the schools are doing at least as good a job as conventional public schools. Often, they do so with students who have traditionally lagged behind in academic achievement.

Though such findings came as good news for proponents of the charter school movement, the researchers also cast doubt on the hope that charter schools can spark wholesale public school improvement.

The work of starting schools is so hard that not all new ones will succeed, they conclude. The study cites severe obstacles to success, including a lack of resources; difficulty in finding enough time for planning, reflection, and professional development; and the challenge of building a school culture from scratch.

Among the study's central findings are that in charter schools:

  • The attendance rate was about the same as at other public schools in the same district.
  • The suspension rate was lower than the estimated rate for other Minnesota public schools.
  • Fifty percent or more of parents report that, since enrolling in a charter school, their children have improved in a host of areas, including motivation for learning, academic performance, relationships with friends, and time spent studying.

The researchers examined the 11 charter schools for which results on national achievement tests were available.

In six, they found that 50 percent or more of the students were performing below average. But the researchers note that those results stemmed from the differences in the student populations at those schools.

Higher Satisfaction

In general, the authors write, charter schools tend to enroll greater concentrations of nonwhite, disabled, poor, and students with limited English proficiency than other public schools in their districts. Schools with such populations tend to score lower on achievement tests.

The researchers conducted surveys and interviews of parents in the 16 schools they studied.

They found that parents show greater satisfaction with Minnesota charter schools than do parents nationally with the schools their children attend.

Ninety percent of Minnesota parents gave their children's charter schools an A or a B, while only 65 percent of parents in a recent national survey gave their children's schools such high marks.

Small Size

Minnesota charter schools are small, averaging 119 students, with smaller class sizes and lower student-teacher ratios than conventional public schools.

From the perspective of charter school parents and teachers, small size alone expands learning opportunities, the report says.

Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and a backer of charter schools nationwide, called the report both "encouraging and challenging."

Mr. Nathan, who did not participate in the study, said it helped debunk the notion that charter schools would serve only an elite few.

At the same time, he noted, "the report is a clear challenge" to the state, the districts that approve charters, and the schools themselves that the evaluation processes need to be improved.

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