A Closer Look at the Stanford University Study

Charter School Newsletter, August 1, 2009

Stanford University has released a nationwide charter school analysis comparing charter and traditional public school student performance. The study matches charter students to public school “twins” by all measures possible. Comparisons of 15 states and the District of Columbia over a course of three years found a 17 percent average of charter school students doing academically better than those in traditional public schools. Overall, positive findings were seen in all students’ reading abilities after attending the charter more than one year. Also considered were the correlations between achievement and charter policies.

Math and reading scores demonstrated different results for all students with no significant increases in math; and in some cases, performance decreased. To measure individual student growth, charter students and traditional students were matched one- to-one according to grade level, ethnicity, free and reduced lunch status, English language learning level, special education needs, previous test scores, time attended in that school, and in most states by gender. In instances where there was more than one traditional student to match to the charter, the average scores of traditional students were used.

Today there are 4,700 charter schools educating nearly 1.3 million students nationwide—and there are nearly 70 charter schools in Utah. Only 2,400 charter schools, not including those in Utah, were used to develop the report’s findings. Seventeen percent of students did make noticeable increases in both reading and math performance.

On average, scores showed increase in reading and a slight decrease in math performance compared to traditional schools, based on a student’s first year averages. In a student’s second year, there are increases in reading and most significantly in math. English language learners increased performance after the second year, while special needs students, evaluated with caution, showed little improvement in charters compared to their counterpart.

The report suggests that motivation for developing charter schools aims at improving education outcomes for students in poverty, and is cause for more low-income improvement. However, these results not only bring attention to teacher motivation but also to location differences (even with similar income levels), and implementing practices that work for some but not others.

“Student motivation is unmeasured,” said Dr. Margaret Raymond, but “policy is made on the averages.” In order to find policy implications, the analysis looks at state’s governing charter laws, a schools grade-span, student background, and time in charter.

One claim to some states’ charter success is the contours of the policies they adhere to. The most influential policy correlation found was in states where charter legislation allows for an appeals process. Ten out of the 15 states studied allow for appeals. Of these states, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, and Missouri have the highest charter-achieving rate. Though not in the study, Utah does allow for an appeals process through the State Board of Education.

In response, the California Charter School Association’s chief executive officer, Jed Wallace, has proposed a new method of evaluation. “We have, clearly, some of the most successful schools in the nation,” said Wallace, “but we also have some not measuring up.” The proposal he has put forth would close up to eight schools this year—in order to help fulfill the promise of the charter school movement.

The charter school movement first began in 1992 in Minnesota, and it is growing with enormous support nationwide. Most charters strive and thrive in serving the most difficult communities. They are offering families without means for costly private education another public school option. But unlike traditional school, charter students always have a right of exit—zip code is not the determining factor in charter attendance.

Establishing good charters is one step, but for better quality in all education, every parent needs the freedom to do what is best for their child. There is a need for charter transparency, removing barriers from charter development, and quality control—but when all parents are able to make more choices, then that is when the rubber meets the road for real reform in education.

Evelyn B. Stacey is a policy fellow in education studies at the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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