Federal

Study of Charters in 8 States Finds Mixed Effects

By Debra Viadero — March 18, 2009 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Includes updates and/or revisions.

A new study of hundreds of charter schools in eight states contains both good news and bad news for supporters of the nation’s roughly 4,600 public charter schools.

Contrary to critics’ fears, charter schools are not more racially segregated on average than nearby public schools in their communities, according to the study being released today by the RAND Corp., a research group based in Santa Monica, Calif. The study also says that the publicly funded but independently run schools don’t appear to be skimming the best students from local public systems. And in Florida and Chicago, at least, the research finds that charter school students seem to be more likely than public school students to graduate from high school and enroll in college.

But the researchers still found it difficult to determine whether charter school students on the whole were learning more, as measured by their test scores, than they would have in their regular public schools. That’s because most of the elementary schools lacked any base-line data for the kindergarten students they enrolled. When researchers looked at charter secondary schools, they found few differences in learning gains between students in charters and regular public schools.

“In some sense, it suggests we know less than we thought we did about charter schools,” said Brian Gill, a primary author of the RAND study who is now a senior social scientist at Mathematica Policy Research Inc. in Princeton, N.J.

The reason for that, he added, is that “it’s much harder to assess elementary school impacts, and the results on educational attainment suggest that, by focusing exclusively on test scores, we may have been underestimating” the benefit of going to a charter school.

College-Going Rates

Charter schools are public schools that are given more autonomy than most public schools to make decisions about curriculum, instruction, budgeting, and, in some cases, staffing. Studies to date of this relatively new breed of schools—the first of which opened in Minnesota in 1992— have yielded mixed results on their effectiveness.

For the new study, researchers based their findings on years of student-achievement data from five districts—Chicago, Denver, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and San Diego—and the states of Florida, Ohio, and Texas. They only had data on high school graduation and college enrollment for Chicago and Florida, and in those jurisdictions, the results for charters were particularly promising.

Students attending a charter high school in Chicago and Florida were found to be 8 to 10 percentage points more likely to enroll in college than were their counterparts in regular public schools.

In Chicago, the study also found, the odds of graduating and going on to college were especially good among students who had been in charter schools from middle through high school, thus eliminating the sometimes-rocky transition that students make from middle to high school.

Robin Lake, a nationally known charter school researcher who was not connected with the RAND study, pointed to the findings on graduation rates and college attainment in Florida and Chicago as particularly noteworthy.

“This is really the first time we’ve gotten a good look at charters on this measure,” said Ms. Lake, who is the executive director of the National Charter School Research Project, based at the University of Washington at Bothell. “The results are exciting, and I hope they compel more states to track the information.”

She added that many charter high schools “are entirely oriented” around getting students into college, “and in the long run, it’s probably a better measure of student outcomes than test scores.”

Age of School Matters

As for students’ learning gains, they tended to vary, depending on where schools were located and how new the schools were. The researchers found, for instance, that learning gains in first-year charter schools tended to fall short of the gains in surrounding public schools for most of the jurisdictions studied.

Also, while average student performance in Ohio charters was comparable to that in the state’s regular public schools, the charter school average dipped when charter elementary schools were added to the mix. The researchers said the substantial number of virtual schools among Ohio’s elementary charters may explain the low test scores, because students in that state’s virtual schools tend to score lower on average than their counterparts in traditional public schools.

The researchers also removed elementary schools from the overall study sample in order to get a clearer picture of how charter schools were influencing student achievement, without the handicap of missing kindergarten base-line data.

“In five out of seven locales,” the report says, “these nonprimary charter schools are producing achievement gains that are, on average, neither substantially better nor substantially worse than those of traditional public schools.”

The study was financed by the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Joyce Foundation in Chicago, and the William Penn Foundation in Philadelphia.

Assistant editor Erik W. Robelen also contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 2009 edition of Education Week

Events

English-Language Learners Webinar Helping English-Learners Through Improved Parent Outreach: Strategies That Work
Communicating with families is key to helping students thrive – and that’s become even more apparent during a pandemic that’s upended student well-being and forced constant logistical changes in schools. Educators should pay particular attention
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal Schools Could Count Nonbinary Students Under Biden Proposal
The Civil Rights Data Collection for this school year could also revive questions about inexperienced teachers and preschool discipline.
6 min read
Image of a form with male and female checkboxes.
iStock/Getty
Federal 'Parents' Bill of Rights' Underscores Furor Over Curriculum and Transparency in Schools
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley's bill highlights how education issues like critical race theory will likely stay in the national political spotlight.
7 min read
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counterterrorism operations, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., says "it's time to give control back to parents, not woke bureaucrats."
Patrick Semansky/AP
Federal Opinion It’s Not Just the NSBA That’s Out of Touch. There’s a Bigger Problem
Those who influence educational policy or practice would do well to care about what parents and the public actually want.
4 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Federal Dept. of Ed., Florida Continue to Battle Over Ban on School Mask Mandates
Federal officials say they’ll intervene if the Florida Dept. of Ed. goes ahead with sanctions on districts with mask mandates.
Ana Ceballos, Miami Herald
2 min read
Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran speaks alongside Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, rear right, Fla. Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., left, state legislators, parents and educators, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla.
Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran speaks alongside Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, rear right, Fla. Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., left, state legislators, parents and educators, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee/AP