School Choice & Charters

Del. Charter Schools Get Solid Report Card

By Catherine Gewertz — March 29, 2005 3 min read
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Students in the upper grades of Delaware’s charter schools are outperforming their peers in regular public schools, an evaluation has found.

The study, released last week by the state department of education, cautions that the findings represent only a first look at the performance of Delaware’s 13 charter schools, since nearly half have been open three years or less. But many of the findings were positive.

The “Evaluation of the Delaware Charter School Reform” report is available from the Delaware State Board of Education. ()

“The charter schools in Delaware are highly accountable, and their performance—in terms of student achievement—is similar or better than what we find in traditional public schools,” writes the principal researcher, Gary J. Miron.

Mr. Miron is the chief of staff at the Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University, which contracted with the Delaware Department of Education to study the state’s charter schools.

The quasi-independent schools enroll 6,200 students, about 5 percent of the state’s public school population. The report represents the first year’s work on the three-year project.

In grades 8 and 10, the evaluation found, students in charter schools performed significantly better on state tests than those attending regular public schools. In the 3rd and 5th grades, such comparisons yielded a more mixed bag of results.

The researchers urged caution in interpreting the high school results, because many charter school students taking the 10th grade test hadn’t entered charter schools until the 9th grade.

Oversight Varies

Researchers surveyed teachers in Delaware’s charter schools, and found that in general, they are content with their schools.

They are also younger and less experienced, and leave their schools more often, than teachers in regular public schools.

The higher attrition could be attributed to charter schools’ freedom to assemble teaching staffs suited to their missions, the report says.

The report also examines Delaware’s charter school law, which some charter school advocates have characterized as strong because it affords the schools great freedom. Mr. Miron writes that the law is also strong when judged by whether it results in the schools’ accomplishing their anticipated outcomes.

He notes that the performance agreements between the state education department and the 11 schools it has authorized are “exemplary” for their clear and measurable objectives, specific benchmarks, and strict reporting requirements. Charter schools are “doing a rather good job” of living up to those performance agreements, he adds.

Some schools, however, need to improve the way they report their academic progress to the state, he says.

The one Delaware district that has chosen to authorize charter schools exercises relatively little oversight over its two such schools, the study found, except when it’s time to renew the charters.

By contrast, the education department exercises a great deal of oversight over its charter schools, prompting complaints from some of the schools. But Mr. Miron contends that such oversight might well have produced the good results.

“This study confirms that we are on the right track in demanding high quality when reviewing charter school applications and renewals,” Joseph Pika, the chairman of the state board of education, said in a statement.

Pamela Nichols, a spokeswoman for the 11,000-member Delaware State Education Association, said the affiliate of the National Education Association welcomes the evaluation as a learning tool.

But she argued that the performance of the 10th grade charter school students is due in part to the fact that charters enroll higher-performing students at that level than in lower grades, a point made in Mr. Miron’s study.

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