School Choice & Charters

More on Charters: Debates and New Findings

By Debra Viadero — October 14, 2009 3 min read

Chances are you know all about the dueling studies on charter schools by now.

The saga began over the summer, when Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO, issued the results of a study comparing charter schools with regular public schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia. It found wide variation in student achievement among charter schools and determined that, more often than not, students in traditional public schools were outperforming their charter school peers.

Earlier this month, though, another Stanford researcher issued results from a randomized experiment in New York City that found the opposite. In that study, researcher Caroline M. Hoxby and her colleagues reported that charter school pupils were learning at a faster rate than their counterparts in regular public schools and nearly catching up with their better-off suburban peers.

What stirred things up was that, in tandem with her own results, Hoxby provided a separate analysis on why the CREDO study had got it wrong. That, in turn, prompted the CREDO researchers to defend their findings with their own analysis last week. You can read all about the back-and-forth that ensued in this article in EdWeek.

Now comes a slightly different take on the results from Eric Hanushek in the Education Next blog. You should know upfront that Hanushek, a well-known economist, is the husband of Margaret E. Raymond, the lead researcher in the CREDO study, and he readily discloses that fact in his analysis. His main point, however, is that it makes no sense to expect both studies to yield the same results. He writes:

The CREDO study asks how well a typical charter school student across the 16 separate state policy environments does compared to the counterfactual of attending a traditional public school. The HMK [Hoxby, Murarka,and Kang] study investigates how well charter school students do when attending schools popular enough with parents to be oversubscribed compared to attending a traditional NYC public school....While we have learned a lot from both studies, we still remain in a situation with an unresolved key question about what policies, laws, and incentives lead some charters to flourish and others not."

You can find other bloggers weighing in on the debate at Eduwonk and GothamSchools.

In the meantime, allow me to throw results from yet another new charter school study into this volatile mix. This study, posted this month by Policy Matters Ohio, an economics-oriented think tank, analyzes results from kindergarten-readiness exams taken by students entering magnet schools, charter schools, and traditional public schools in seven urban districts across that state. They are Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown.

They found that children entering charters scored nearly 8 percent higher than the district average, and 10 percent higher than children entering the neighborhood “default” schools. The average score for beginning magnet school students was 18 percent higher than that for the “default” schools. Lead author Piet Van Lier writes:

Our findings indicate that charters and magnets get a head start in terms of student preparedness."

And that, he said, may be something that all those who study charter schools ought to consider. Families who are motivated enough to seek out and apply to charter schools may also tend to be more engaged in their children’s education from the very beginning. The difficulty for researchers is finding a way to take those invisible, hard-to-measure factors into account. (Hoxby would say, by the way, that the lottery-based design of her study does just that, because it compares achievement for students who attended charter schools with that of pupils who also applied but failed to land a seat.)

That kind of head start, however, didn’t do charter school students much good in Ohio, according to the researchers. Because some recent research shows “Ohio charter students performing at or below the levels of students enrolled in district schools,” they say, “policymakers need to take another look at their reliance on charters as the solution to the challenges we face in educating children in struggling communities.” You can read all of the study, titled “Ready to Learn: Ohio Assessment Shows Charters, Magnets Get Head Start” at the organization’s Web site.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.