Book Faults Achievement in Charter Schools

By Caroline Hendrie — April 05, 2005 6 min read
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Opening another round in an already-heated political debate, a book released last week argues that charter schools appear to produce lower test scores that cannot be explained by their students’ backgrounds.

Released by the Economic Policy Institute, a left-of-center think tank in Washington, the book seeks to refute arguments put forward by some charter school proponents during last year’s furor over the interpretation of national testing data that found charter school 4th graders to be lagging behind their peers in regular public schools.

Read a summary of “The Charter School Dust-Up: Examining the Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement” or purchase the book online from the Economic Policy Institute.

Contrary to the claims of those it describes as “charter school zealots,” the book argues that in student achievement, “there is no evidence that, on average, charter schools outperform regular public schools. In fact, there is evidence that the average impact of charter schools is negative.”

Moreover, it says, “there is no consistent anecdotal or systematic evidence to support the claim that, on average, charter schools recruit students who are more challenged academically than those in traditional public schools serving the same student pool.”

The book, The Charter School Dust-Up: Examining the Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement, published by Teachers College Press, comes at a time when critics of charter schools are mounting efforts to rein in the growth of the independently run public schools around the country. At the same time, many charter school advocates are calling for bolstering the quality of charter authorizing and oversight.

Some charter school supporters said last week that the book reflects a political bias against charter schools and the Bush administration’s support of them. Several also suggested that the Economic Policy Institute was influenced by the money it receives from the American Federation of Teachers, a leading charter critic and major player in last year’s controversy. (“AFT Charter School Study Sparks Heated National Debate,” Sept. 1, 2004.)

Both the institute and the 1.3 million-member teachers’ union, whose president sits on the institute’s board of directors, hotly disputed such suggestions.

Michael J. Petrilli, the second in command in the U.S. Department of Education’s office of innovation and improvement, referred to the book as a “200-page press release” from what he termed “the union think tank.”

Nelson Smith, the president of the Washington-based Charter School Leadership Council, said “a lot of the book reads like an elaborate defense of the AFT’s position on charter schools, which is not surprising given that the AFT sits on their board.”

Both the EPI and the AFT said the union had provided no “project-specific funding” for the book and had not been involved in its development. The EPI says it gets 29 percent of its money from labor unions, but that its biggest funders are foundations.


“I think our work should be considered based on the quality of our analysis,” said Lawrence Mishel, the EPI’s president and one of the book’s four co-authors.

Besides Mr. Mishel, the book was written by three other scholars affiliated with the EPI: Martin Carnoy, a professor of economics and education at Stanford University in California; Rebecca Jacobsen, a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City; and Richard Rothstein, a visiting professor at Teachers College.


Their volume revisits the firestorm of debate sparked by a front-page article in The New York Times last August. It featured an AFT report examining data from the 2003 administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

In addition to citing test results that the union said showed charter schools were “underperforming,” the AFT alleged that federal officials had tried to bury the data by delaying a report publicizing them.

The Education Department’s report on the results from the 2003 NAEP pilot study, which compared scores of 6,500 students in 150 charter schools with those of 376,000 students in regular public schools, was released in December. Scores for charter 4th graders were lower in both reading and mathematics, but the differences were statistically significant only in math. (“NAEP Study Fuels Debate Over Charter Schools,” Jan. 5, 2005.)

Advocates ‘Inconsistent’

Singling out many prominent charter advocates by name, the new book cites “a blizzard of harsh responses to the AFT report and to the Times’ coverage of it.” It focuses particularly on a full-page advertisement in the newspaper in which 31 researchers protested the AFT report and the paper’s coverage of it as failing to meet “professional standards.”

“Both the AFT and The New York Times invited some of these attacks by over-interpreting the NAEP data,” the book says.

Yet it also concludes that the AFT’s contention that charter school students do worse than their counterparts in regular public schools is supported by evidence from other studies, and it accuses critics of the AFT report of “inconsistency.”

“[T]he zealots’ insistence was appropriate that no definitive inference about relative charter school quality should be drawn from the AFT’s report of NAEP data,” the book says. “However, these advocates’ position is inconsistent with how they have typically commented about regular public schools.”

The book argues that last year’s “dust-up” should yield consensus that evaluations of public school quality, charter or otherwise, should be based not on one-time comparisons of test scores but on results over time that account for differences in students’ backgrounds.

The EPI authors also argue that the uneven track record of charter schools shows that relief from bureaucratic red tape and union rules is no answer to low student achievement.

“Freedom from bureaucratic rules permits some charter schools to be unusually creative and others to be corrupt or inefficient,” the book says.

‘Ethical Dilemma’

That variation raises an “important ethical and policy dilemma,” the book says: “Even if some charter schools are excellent, and do a better job of educating children than do regular public schools, is this benefit worth the harm done by deregulation to children who are enrolled in charter schools that do a poorer job?”

On the question of whether charter schools enroll students with greater disadvantages, the book cites both the NAEP data and studies of various states to bolster its conclusion that they do not. The authors agree that charter schools serve higher percentages of African-American students, who as a group tend to score lower on standardized tests. But they say evidence points to a comparatively lower poverty rate among blacks in charter schools.

Among African-American students who took the NAEP 4th grade math exam in 2003, for example, the authors say that 68 percent of those in charter schools reported being from families with incomes low enough to qualify for the federal subsidized-lunch program, compared with 76 percent in regular public schools.

The authors also cite data from two charter middle schools in the national Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, network to suggest that their mostly minority, low-income students may enter with test scores that are higher than the neighborhood norm.

As for achievement, the book contends that charter schools “have not improved the educational performance of central-city, low-income minority children.” It also says that “charter schools seem to be associated with some increased segregation in schooling.”

The book maintains that charter schools “churn students more frequently than regular public schools, and the achievement of students often suffers when they change schools.”

Saying that “charter schools, through the introduction of competition, are not systematically leading other public schools to be better,” the book concludes that “charter schools are not, and likely will not be, able to play a large role in reforming public education as a whole.”


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