Big charter school news today as the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO*) releases an update of its much-cited 2009 study of charter school performance. That study, which compared performance of charter and traditional public schools across 16 states, found that charters, on average, produced student learning gains slightly worse than those for comparable students attending district-run public schools. Today’s study, which expands the analysis to include 26 states (including the District of Columbia) and New York City, reaches a different conclusion: In the aggregate charter schools are producing slightly larger learning gains for their students than traditional public schools in reading, but there is no difference in math. Thus, the new study adds to a growing body of recent research showing that charter elementary and middle schools, on average, perform slightly better than traditional public schools.
The top-line findings will generate the greatest attention, in part because the 2009 CREDO analysis has long been a major talking point for charter school critics. But the really important stuff is actually not in the top-line findings, but the details that underlie them. As in 2009, the most important finding in this study is not the findings for average charter school performance, but the tremendous variation in school performance that underlie those averages—and, just as important for policymakers, the large variations in charter performance between states.
Of the 27 states included in this study, charter students experienced greater learning gains than their traditional district peers in 16 states. And variations in charter performance between states are large: Charter students in the District of Columbia gain a whopping 72 more days of learning in reading and 101 days in math relative to their traditional district peers, while charter students in Nevada lose 115 days in reading and 137 days in math comparatively. Charter students in Tennessee, Rhode Island, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey also posted impressive gains relative to their traditional school peers, while charter students in Arizona, Arkansas, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas all lost more than two weeks of learning in both subjects relative to their peers.
A close look at charter school performance across the 27 states in this study drives home the argument Andy Rotherham and I made in this 2007 Education Sector paper: State policy context matters for charter school quality—a lot! It’s no surprise that some of the states with the weakest performance in this study (Ohio, Arizona, and Texas) are also states with charter policies and authorizer quality that we sounded an alarm about in that report. States that have shown the most improvement over the past four years, including the District of Columbia and Minnesota, are those that have taken steps to address authorizing weaknesses we saw in the mid-2000s.
A look at the 16 states that were included in both the 2009 and 2013 CREDO studies further underscores the importance of quality authorizing. Charters in most of those states improved their performance relative to traditional schools between 2009 and 2013. But in the aggregate those apparent gains reflected declines in learning gains for the comparison group of traditional district school students, rather than improvements in charter performance. On average charters across these 16 states are performing about the same as they did in 2009. More troubling, charter schools that were opened between 2009 and 2013 in these states appear to be performing worse, on average, than charters that were included in both the 2009 and 2013 reports. Four states appear to deviate from this trend, however: Charter schools in the District of Columbia, Colorado (Denver), Massachusetts, and Minnesota had significantly better results in 2013 than in 2009. Equally important, new charter schools opened in three of these states (District of Columbia, Massachusetts, and Minnesota) between 2009 and 2013 are performing much stronger than the average performance of these states’ charter sectors in 2009. This result again underscores the importance of state policy context and authorizer quality in shaping charter school performance. Massachusetts has long been known for its quality charter school authorizing and (with the exception of its cap on charter schools) strong charter law. Minnesota has taken significant policy steps in recent years to improve authorizer quality. Denver Public Schools and the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board (DCPCSB, on which I serve) are also widely regarded as among the nation’s strongest charter school authorizers, and both have implemented new common performance metrics for their charters (and in the case of Denver, district schools as well) since 2009, as part of an effort to raise performance of schools in their portfolios.
Charter school closure is also an important part of the story here, albeit a more complicated one. Across all 16 states that participated in both years of the CREDO study, 8 percent of charter schools closed between 2009 and 2013, and those closures—which affected the states’ weakest performing schools—had a clear positive impact on overall charter performance across the 16 states. But the relationship between charter closures and sector performance at a state level is much murkier. Some of the states with improved charter performance from 2009 to 2013—District of Columbia and Colorado—did close a significant percentage of charters, but Massachusetts and Minnesota both had very low closure rates; and some of the states with the worst-performing charter sectors also had very high closure rates. But this mixed relationship between closure and performance isn’t necessarily confusing: Some strong charter school authorizers may well close more schools than weaker authorizers, but other strong authorizers may not need to close as many schools, because they have stronger quality controls on the front end. In contrast, states’ weak charter policies may actually have more closures because weak authorizers allow more lousy schools to be created in the first place. The key takeaway from all of this: Each of the core functions of authorizers—charter approval, performance management, replication, and closure—is critical to ensuring the overall quality of the charter sector. Effective authorizers need to do all of these things well, and state policies need to provide the support and conditions that allow them to do so. Policies that focus on one component of authorizing, such as closure or replication, at the exclusion of the others are unlikely to dramatically improve charter performance.
That’s clear from my own experience in the District of Columbia over the past four years. The DCPCSB has always been regarded as a strong charter school authorizer, but, as an early entrant into the authorizing field, DCPCSB had to build the plane while it was flying in the late 1990s. In 2007 we also inherited a large portfolio of schools from the D.C. Board of Education, which had been a very poor authorizer. As a result, our portfolio, when I joined the board in 2009, was highly mixed in performance, including some of the District of Columbia’s best performing schools along with some real clunkers. Over the past four years, DCPCSB has done the difficult work of closing a number of very low-performing schools—through both formal revocation processes and by negotiating with charter boards to close weak programs or campuses. At the same time, we’ve set high standards for new schools we authorize and have encouraged both replication and growth of our strongest schools and applications from high-performing models that originated elsewhere. Undergirding all these efforts is our Performance Management Framework (PMF), a common measure of school performance across elementary and secondary schools that incorporates data on student proficiency, growth, high school graduation, and other key indicators of school performance and health to produce comparable school performance ratings that are easily understood by parents and the public. These PMF scores are the basis for our decisions on school closures and growth, and they also help shift parent demand away from low-performing and toward higher-performing schools. It is as a result of these efforts—as well as our strong charter school law and the phenomenal work done by dedicated educators in our public charter schools—that District of Columbia charters have stronger learning gains, relative to traditional district schools, than charters in virtually any other state included in the CREDO report. If more states and authorizers can learn from the District of Columbia’s example over the next four years, the gains for charters in the 2017 CREDO report will be truly impressive.
*CREDO Director Macke Raymond also chairs Education Sector’s board of directors.
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