School & District Management

Researchers Say Pa. Charter Schools Raising Scores

By Robert C. Johnston — April 04, 2001 3 min read
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Pennsylvania’s charter schools show signs of raising student test scores at faster rates than traditional public schools in their host districts, a recently released report concludes.

For More Information

Read results of the “Initial Study of Pennsylvania Charter Schools.”

The 17-month study conducted by Western Michigan University’s Evaluation Center also found that the Keystone State’s charter schools have become particularly popular among low-income and minority parents.

While the researchers cautioned against jumping to conclusions about Pennsylvania’s 4-year-old charter school effort, they added that the findings, overall, were more positive than the results they have come up with in studies of charter school programs in other states, including Michigan.

The findings “suggest that those charter schools that have had some time to work with their students can produce measurable gains in achievement,” said Christopher D. Nelson, a co- author of the report and a senior research associate at the center.

Most of the report’s analysis—which includes teacher and student surveys, spending patterns, and student performance—came from the 31 charter schools operating during the 1998-99 and 1999-2000 academic years.

Comparable, two-year trend data were available for just four schools. At those schools, however, students as a group posted gains of 105 points on state exams in mathematics, reading, and writing, outpacing their peers in the host districts on the tests by 86 points over the same period.

The information compiled for the study “provides the most positive picture of Pennsylvania charter schools,” the report says.

Less Flattering

Other results of the study paint a less flattering total picture of charter schools in the state. As a group, charter schools were outscored by schools statewide during the period studied.

Moreover, the charter schools scored about 50 points below their noncharter counterparts in the same district on a scale of 1,000 to 1,600. The researchers were quick to point out, however, that such gaps likely “measure the differences in the types of students who choose to attend charter schools more than any impact the charters have on their students.”

According to the report, 79.6 percent of the students in the charter schools studied were members of minority groups, compared with 57 percent of the enrollment in the host districts.

Surveys conducted as part of the research found that parents were most likely to choose charter schools for their children because they perceived that the quality of instruction would be better. They also cited safety, teacher quality, smaller classes, and dissatisfaction with their previous schools.

Charter school teachers were more likely to be younger—50 percent under age 30, compared with 11 percent in other schools—than their noncharter peers. They averaged an annual salary of $30,000, compared with an average of $48,000 statewide.

About 75 percent of charter school teachers said that they would return the following year, though most also reported that they had expected student achievement “would have improved more than it has.”

State education officials, who released the state-commissioned report late last month, highlighted the report’s positive findings.

Some 21,000 students attend the 65 publicly financed but largely independent charter schools currently operating in Pennsylvania. According to state estimates, another 1,100 students are on waiting lists for the schools. Another 15 charter schools are slated to open next fall.

“Charter schools give parents choice,” Eugene W. Hickok, Pennsylvania’s former secretary of education said in releasing the report shortly before leaving that post to become the undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education. “These numbers suggest to me that parents are taking advantage of the opportunity to select the schools where they think their children will learn the best.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2001 edition of Education Week as Researchers Say Pa. Charter Schools Raising Scores


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