School & District Management

New Data Fuel Current Charter School Debate

By Debra Viadero — September 21, 2004 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Debate over whether students do better or worse in charter schools raged on last week as a Harvard University researcher released new data suggesting that 4th graders in charter schools across the nation score higher on state exams than their counterparts at regular public schools nearby.

The new findings run counter to those put forward last month by the American Federation of Teachers. Analyzing unpublicized data from the National Assessment on Educational Progress, the teachers’ union found that charter school students lag behind their peers in other kinds of public schools on the national reading and mathematics exams.

That study drew heated criticism from policymakers, researchers, and charter school proponents, who called the findings misleading. (See “AFT Charter School Study Sparks Heated National Debate,” Sept.1, 2004.) The controversy also prompted Caroline M. Hoxby, the author of the new study, to make public data that paint a very different picture of charter school achievement.

“I thought if you’re going to do a simple comparison, that’s not the way to do it,” she said. “We should not prematurely judge these schools.”

Numbering 3,000 nationwide, charter schools are publicly funded schools that operate free of many school district rules. Favored by the Bush administration, they are also one of the options that failing schools face under the No Child Left Behind Act.

For her study, Ms. Hoxby, an economist, compared 4th grade scores on state-mandated reading and math exams in two sets of schools—charter schools and the closest regular public schools. The latter group, Ms. Hoxby reasoned, were the schools that charter school students would have most likely attended. When more than one such school was nearby, Ms. Hoxby chose the one with the most similar demographic makeup.

Methods Differ

Nationwide, she found, charter school students were 3 percent more likely than noncharter pupils to be proficient on their state’s reading exam and 2 percent more likely to reach proficient levels in mathematics. She said the results, though small, are statistically significant.

Caroline M. Hoxby

Ms. Hoxby said her method was better than the AFT’s because she included scores for almost every charter school in the country. The NAEP data, in comparison, were based on a nationally representative sample of students and included 167 charter schools.

But other researchers poked holes in Ms. Hoxby’s study.

“She’s right in raising the criticisms of the NAEP results, but it’s not at all clear that her study improves much on them,” said Helen F. Ladd, a public policy professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

Part of the problem, Ms. Ladd said, was that the nearest school may not always be the right comparison. She also faulted the study for relying on proficiency levels, which may be less exact than actual test scores.

Also, Ms. Ladd said, both studies suffer from the same flaw: They look at academic achievement at one point in time, rather than tracking students’ academic progress.

Change to U.S. Survey

Experts said the ongoing controversy points up the need for more and better data on charter schools.

Yet news also leaked out last week that the U.S. Department of Education has cut back on some of the information that it collects on charter schools.

The last round of data collection for the periodic federal report known as the Schools and Staffing Survey included information on only 300 schools. In comparison, the 2002 study surveyed all 1,010 such schools existing at the time.

“The Bush administration says their reforms are based on what science is saying—yet, in fact, they’re making it more difficult to do good work on charter schools,” said Bruce Fuller, the University of California, Berkeley, researcher who alerted the media to the cutback.

But Michael J. Petrilli, the department’s associate deputy undersecretary for innovation and improvement, said cost concerns drove the change, which was decided in 2001 or 2002.

He said federal officials also expect to get more definitive data on charter schools from a $5 million study that began this year. Looking at 50 such schools nationwide, the randomized study will compare charter students’ achievement over time with that of other public school pupils who failed to win charter school seats in the same lotteries.

Related Tags:

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management 10 Ways to Tackle Education's Urgent Challenges
As the school year gets underway, we ask hard questions about education’s biggest challenges and offer some solutions.
2 min read
Conceptual Image of schools preparing for the pandemic
Pep Montserrat for Education Week
School & District Management Reported Essay Principals Need Social-Emotional Support, Too
By overlooking the well-being of their school leaders, districts could limit how much their schools can flourish.
7 min read
Conceptual Illustration
Pep Montserrat for Education Week
School & District Management From Our Research Center Educator Stress, Anti-Racism, and Pandemic Response: How You're Feeling
A new nationally representative survey offers key takeaways from teachers, principals, and district leaders.
EdWeek Research Center
1 min read
2021 BI COVER no text DATA crop
Pep Montserrat for Education Week
School & District Management Download 8 Tips for Building a Digital Learning Plan That Conquers Chaos
Craft flexible strategies, encourage experimentation with new instructional models, and regularly solicit feedback.
1 min read
onsr edtech tips