School & District Management

Panelists Call for More Data to Evaluate Charter Schools

By Caroline Hendrie — November 02, 2004 4 min read
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Better data are needed to answer critical and controversial questions about the nation’s experiment with charter schooling, researchers agreed at a forum here last week. But they didn’t see eye to eye on what studies have shown to date, or what are the most important topics that scholars should address in the future.

Defending her recent report on charter school students’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a researcher from the American Federation of Teachers said the numbers showed that claims of “miracles” by charter supporters were off base.

The report, which ignited a late-summer skirmish between pro- and anti-charter forces, found that 4th and 8th graders in charter schools lagged behind their peers in regular public schools on the 2003 NAEP. (“AFT Charter School Study Sparks Heated National Debate,” Sept. 1, 2004.)

“Charter schools are not the magic bullets that a lot of the zealots claimed,” said Bella Rosenberg, a special assistant to the president of the AFT, which has called for a moratorium on charter schools.

Bella Rosenberg

Ms. Rosenberg and two others appeared on a panel convened by the Century Foundation, a New York City-based think tank formerly known as the Twentieth Century Fund that supports scholarship in a wide range of public-policy areas.

Another panelist noted that previous research he conducted had also found students in charter schools scoring lower on average on state tests. Tom Loveless, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, cautioned against drawing broad conclusions from that disparity, though, in part because charter schools attract many children who have fared poorly in regular public schools.

Tom Loveless

“We can’t conclude that charter schools underperform public schools because somehow the charter schools are doing something wrong,” Mr. Loveless said.

A third panelist, Amy Stuart Wells, said her reading of test-score data on charter schools was that it is “very inconclusive.” But Ms. Wells, a professor of education and sociology at Teachers College, Columbia University, called it “surprising” that charter schools in the aggregate have not produced major gains in student achievement, “given the claims around the charter school movement if we go back to the early 1990s.”

“Charter schools were not only supposed to improve achievement for the kids enrolled in them,” Ms. Wells said, “but they were also supposed to improve achievement for kids in neighboring public schools, because they were infusing this competitive force into the system.”

Unpacking the Box

Although she acknowledged that the NAEP numbers offered a “limited” look at charter school performance, Ms. Rosenberg said she viewed charter school students’ showing on the NAEP tests in reading and mathematics as “troubling.”

Of particular concern, she said, were findings that charter school students did worse even after researchers took into account their higher levels of family poverty and the fact that most charter schools are in inner cities. In a finding that she contended “our attackers like best,” Ms. Rosenberg said the AFT analysis found that students in charter schools and regular public schools scored about the same after researchers controlled for differences in the racial makeups of the schools.

That critics of her study take comfort in that finding, she argued, suggests “the soft bigotry of low expectations” about minority students’ achievement: “Socioeconomic status has a lot more to do with performance than race.”

Mr. Loveless said that it was “hinted” throughout the AFT report that the union “would like you to draw” the conclusion that charter schools are “underperforming regular public schools simply because they’re not really very good schools.”

“However, it is equally plausible that charter schools are underperforming regular public schools because they are drawing initially, from the get-go, kids who are underperforming the average child in a regular public school,” he said. “And if that’s true, charter schools could actually be doing a better job than regular public schools.”

Mr. Loveless also pointed to studies, which he called “methodologically superior” to the AFT analysis, that have found students in charter schools to be progressing faster on standardized tests than their counterparts in regular public schools.

During the forum’s question period, another researcher who has studied charter schools said “help is on the way” for those trying to sort out how they are doing.

Mark Schneider, a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, said the U.S. Department of Education has earmarked $5 million for a randomized study of 50 charter schools and $10 million over five years for a new research center on school choice at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Results from those research efforts will take three to five years, he said, “but these are the best studies we could imagine.”

“What we really need to do is unpack the black box,” Mr. Schneider said. “Charter schools are not homogeneous, and neither are traditional public schools. What we really should be doing is looking at and identifying the kinds of things that make for good education, whether they are found in charter schools or whether they’re found in traditional public schools.”

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