Improving Research on Charters

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To the Editor:

A new analysis by the Education Week Research Center finds "charter high schools … make up an outsized share of the number of public schools persistently graduating less than half of their students" ("In Many Charter High Schools, Graduation Odds Are Slim," February 27, 2019). The authors question why charter high school graduation rates lag behind other public schools.

Unfortunately, the study represents a big step backwards in the quality of research on charter schools. It compares graduation rates in charter schools, which are concentrated in underserved urban areas, with schools nationwide—including those in more affluent neighborhoods, suburbs, and towns.

Students attending the charter schools in the analysis might actually be more likely to graduate than if they attended an assigned neighborhood school. The analysis can't see this because it does not compare apples with apples.

For a charter school, the valid comparisons are with the district-run schools from which charter students are drawn, with the charter students' own achievement level before entering the school being studied, or best, with students who applied to but lost in charter school admissions lotteries.

A comprehensive review by the University of Arkansas found six studies from the past decade that employed these methods. Three showed charter school students were more likely to graduate high school. Five showed they had greater chances of enrolling in college. The rest showed neutral or mixed effects. None showed negative results for charter schools. These results are very different from what Education Week reported and illustrate the importance of making the right comparison.

That said, one of the new report's conclusions is rock solid. Graduation rates of schools, both charter and district-run, that serve high concentrations of low-income, black, and Hispanic children are far too low. But, studies that falsely paint charter high schools as failures because they serve students most in need point in the wrong direction.

Paul T. Hill
Center on Reinventing Public Education
Research Professor
University of Washington Bothell
Bothell, Wash.

Vol. 38, Issue 28, Page 28

Published in Print: April 10, 2019, as Improving Research on Charters
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