Academic performance is improving at a faster rate in California charter schools that serve mainly poor children than it is in regular public schools serving a similar population, according to a study being released this week by researchers at California State University-Los Angeles.
Read the report, “California Charter Schools Serving Low-SES Students: An Analysis of the Academic Performance Index,” from California State University, Los Angeles. (Note: This file is slow-loading.) (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)
Over a two-year period, test scores increased by 28.1 percent in charter schools in which at least 75 percent of the enrollment was receiving free or reduced-price lunches. Noncharter public schools in the state with the same percentage of children from low-income families saw scores increase by 23.8 percent. California’s regular public schools, however, still had higher average scores.
While not as strong, the difference in growth also showed up in schools in which 50 percent or more of the students came from low-income families.
The researchers focused on growth in the academic performance index— or API—a state measure of school performance that is based on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition. While the state now has roughly 350 operating charter schools, the study focused on 93—the number of schools that had three years of test data and three years of data on the number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches.
“In general, the results showed that charter schools are doing a more effective job of improving academic achievement of California’s most difficult-to-serve students, those from low-income families,” say the authors, Simeon P. Slovacek, an education professor, and Antony J. Kunnan, an associate professor of education.
The study “is groundbreaking in that it is the first that has really looked at demographics and how charter schools are serving low-income students,” said Gary Larson, a spokesman for the California Network of Educational Charters, an advocacy organization based in San Carlos, Calif.
Another education researcher unconnected to the charter study said the review is important because it focuses on a subset of charter schools instead of lumping them together.
“I like the style of trying to push deeper,” said Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University.
But he said because the study points to only “slight” differences between charters and regular public schools, “I don’t think it’s a really strong case for achievement success for charter schools.”
Amy Stuart Wells, an education professor at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City who has conducted studies of California charter schools, added that charter schools can be selective in admitting students and ask students to leave if certain conditions are not met. Because of those factors, she said she was surprised the growth rates were not greater.
The study, she added, “raises more questions than it answers.”
‘Pulling Their Weight’
Until now, most charter school research has described the characteristics of the schools and challenges they face instead of focusing on achievement, Mr. Slovacek said in an interview last week.
Two studies released last year—one by the Colorado Department of Education and another prepared by the Goldwater Institute in Arizona—found positive achievement trends among charter schools. (“Arizona Charters Found to Yield Greater Gains in Reading,” March 28, 2001.
But Jeanne Allen, the president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, an organization that advocates school choice, noted that the assessment data to compare children of similar socioeconomic levels are just now becoming available.
And with other states also creating similar growth indexes, studies like the one in California are bound to be conducted in other states, she said. Ms. Allen wasn’t surprised by the results.
“I think this underscores what our hopes have been and what our expectations have been,” she said, adding that previous studies have pointed to more positives than negatives in charter schools on “nonacademic, but relevant factors,” such as retention and parental involvement.
The new study, titled “California Charter Schools Serving Low-SES Students: An Analysis of the Academic Performance Index,” also finds that charter schools in California are serving a greater proportion of students from low-income families than traditional public schools are.
In 2001, 27.2 percent of the charter schools studied had enrollments in which 75 percent or more of the students were poor. Among noncharter schools, 23 percent fit that demographic description.
“This reinforces and suggests that charter schools are pulling their weight, at least in California,” Mr. Slovacek said.
Among the schools analyzed in the study is Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in the Los Angeles Unified School District, one of the country’s first charter schools. A full 100 percent of its students qualify for subsidized lunches.
Principal Yvonne Chan, who also led the school before it became a charter school, attributes the growth in scores to a change in attitudes among parents and staff, as well as the flexibility the school has to make decisions locally.
“The adults changed. It’s a sense of ownership that makes the difference,” she said. “In two years, you can do more than you can do in 12 years as a principal in L.A. Unified.”
With 1,400 students, Vaughn Next Century Learning Center serves prekindergarten through 5th grade. The school, which has three campuses within a few blocks of each other, is adding middle grades this summer, and Ms. Chan estimates that the enrollment will climb to 2,500 when high school is eventually added.
With so many students, the school defies a trend that the researchers found in the sample of both charter and noncharter schools. Smaller schools are more likely to outperform larger schools, typically losing API points for every 100 additional students. The losses, however, were smaller among charter schools than they were for regular public schools—4.5 points per 100 students, compared with 5.8 points.
The study also gives charter schools credit for doing more with less funding, specifically funds for facilities.
“This means that in most cases (especially startups) charter schools had to spend their operating budgets to cover their facilities costs,” the authors write. “This results in reduced funding levels for teacher salaries, books, and other instructional resources.”
Results Make Sense
Wayne Johnson, the president of the California Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said the results make sense to him.
“If you have a small charter school that is aimed at at-risk students, then they’ll probably be doing a better job than at regular schools,” said Mr. Johnson, a high school social studies teacher in the 723,000-student Los Angeles school system. “The parents are probably more supportive.”
Some observers said they wondered whether the relatively small number of charter schools in the study cast doubt on the strength of the findings.
But Mr. Slovacek noted that because researchers analyzed data from all of the schools that fit the criteria, there is not the margin of error that would normally exist with a survey.
“Think of it as a census report on schools,” he said. “If someone else was to look at the data, they would find the same thing.”
The authors acknowledge in their study, however, that more research needs to be done.
“Given the small number of charter schools for which three years of data existed,” the authors write, “it would be useful to continue to monitor the performance of [socioeconomically] disadvantaged students on the SAT-9 and API scores in California schools.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as California Charters Are Seen To Benefit Children in Poverty