School Choice & Charters

Charters’ Path to Success or Failure Set Early, Study Finds

By Sean Cavanagh — January 30, 2013 4 min read
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Charter schools’ academic success or failure during their first year is a strong predictor of whether they will excel or struggle in later years, a new, far-reaching study finds.

The study, released Wednesday by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which has conducted extensive research on charters across the nation, also concludes that significant improvements in charter school performance over time is rare among middle and high schools, though it occurs more often in elementary schools.

The analysis seeks to test a number of the most pressing questions about charter schools. Those include the extent to which they can improve over time, or whether the academic strategies and other policies they put in place out of the gate determine their success as they reach maturity; as well as whether charters can expand beyond their original, flagship schools to form networks of successful charters.

There is currently an assumption within the charter sector that even if “the first few years are rocky” at a school, charters can eventually rise to higher performance over time, the authors say. But the study casts doubt on that assumption.

On the one hand, study authors Margaret E. “Macke” Raymond, James L. Woodworth, and Emily H. Peltason find that many new charters, regardless of the grade levels they serve, succeed from their inception, and that there is no structural “new school” phenomenon that would cause them to struggle at the outset.

At the same time, charter schools’ early academic performance is a strong predictor of how well they perform later, researchers from the center found. The vast majority of schools, 80 percent of them in the lowest quintiles of performance, remained low-performers through their fifth year in operation.

Top-tier charters followed a similar pattern. Ninety-four percent of schools that started in the top quintile of performance remained at that lofty level over time. When the researchers waited until the third year of charters’ operation to make predictions, the patterns for predicting success or failure were even stronger, the authors found.

The study’s findings offer a number of lessons for charter school authorizers, the entities that typically approve and oversee charters, the authors say. Authorizers need to pay close attention to charters’ performance early in their lives, and be willing to close stragglers if they show signs of not improving.

“Poor first-year performance simply cannot be overlooked or excused,” they write. “For the majority of schools, poor first-year performance will give way to poor second-year performance.”

“Once this has happened, the future is predictable and extremely bleak. For the students enrolled in these schools, this is a tragedy that cannot be dismissed.”

The study also seeks to examine the performance of charters overseen by various types of operators, large and small. It finds that charter management organizations, defined as operators of three or more charters, score at about the same level as smaller, independent charters. There is a wide range of performance among management organizations, with some outpacing traditional public schools academically, and others faring much worse, the study concluded.

The Stanford researchers followed student-level performance in schools from the time they open through their fifth year, mapping charters’ academic showing against a “static set of performance thresholds” so that academic trends over time could be evaluated. The analysis of charter management organizations is based on a “virtual control record” method, in which students in those schools are compared to “virtual twins” who attend regular public schools the charter students would otherwise have attended.

The study also examines the performance of students in charter school networks whose member schools have been replicated in local communities—organizations that are dubbed “super-networks” by the authors.

Of four super-networks reviewed in the study, a pair of them, KIPP and Uncommon Schools, generally had a strong academic showing, the authors found, while the other two, Responsive Education Solutions and White Hat Management, did not fare as well.

For example, both KIPP and Uncommon Schools had a large, significant positive effect on the academic growth of students in both reading and math, the study found.

But Responsive Education Solutions had a significant negative impact on student reading and non-significant effects in math. White Hat, meanwhile (whose financial operations have come under scrutiny in Ohio) had a small but significant positive impact on reading progress, but a significant negative effect in math.

"[T]he positive findings for KIPP and Uncommon Schools across their portfolios,” the study concludes, "[suggest] that is possible to simultaneously scale quantity and quality in charter schools.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.