The hope and the hype for a few charter schools, so grippingly portrayed in the new documentary, Waiting for Superman, are out of sync with national reports on the lackluster performance of charters overall.
Recent studies across multiple states by Stanford University, the Rand Corporation and the U.S. Department of Education show that, on average, charter school students do no better or worse than their counterparts at traditional public schools in the same communities — unless they're poor.
Low-income students generally learn more at charter schools, and higher-income students learn less, the research shows.
"Within a one-year period, the evidence blew wide open about charter school performance," said Margaret Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford, which has produced the largest charter study to date, covering 70 percent of the charter students in the U.S. "Up until that point, there was a little bit of a collective hypnosis that said charter schools were in fact leading the nation in school improvement strategies.
"I'm unapologetic about tearing off the veil, but I am very optimistic that lots and lots of people are figuring out good strategies for turning around schools. We know how to start good schools."
Charters receive public funding but are more autonomous than traditional public schools. They can experiment with staffing, curriculum and budget, so long as they are accountable for student achievement. Charter founders may be parents, teachers, community leaders or for-profit corporations. Authorizing agencies include public school districts, state universities, state boards of education and independent state-level charter boards.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, about 5,000 charter schools served 1.5 million children in 40 states and the District of Columbia in 2009, representing 3 percent of all public school students in the United States. That was 900 more charters and 300,000 more students than in 2008, a 20 percent increase spurred in part by federal incentives. By some estimates, 65 percent of charters have waiting lists.
"Charters are not going away," said Alex Medler, vice president of public policy and research at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, a Chicago-based nonprofit group representing about 100 school districts, universities, state agencies and independent boards that review applications for charters and write performance contracts.
"We have had ongoing, steady growth of the movement since 1994. The question is how do you replicate the good ones? How do you create accountability systems that allow you to purge the bad ones? The technical challenge is how to try to have a higher success rate."
It won't be easy. Over a period of four years, according to the Stanford study, only 17 percent of 2,400 charters in 16 states posted significantly better math gains than regular public schools. In 46 percent of charter schools, the study found, students made about the same progress in math as their "virtual twins" at regular public schools in the same community. And 37 percent of charters, a "disturbing — and far-reaching — subset of poorly performing charter schools," delivered "significantly worse" results.
"At present, there appears to be an authorizing crisis in the charter school sector," the Stanford report stated. "For a number of reasons — many of them understandable — authorizers find it difficult to close poorly performing schools. Despite low test scores, failing charter schools often have powerful and persuasive supporters in their communities who feel strongly that shutting down this school does not serve the best interests of currently enrolled students."
The Rand report, which was released last year as a paperback, Charter Schools in Eight States: Effects on Achievement, Attainment, Integration and Competition, followed the test scores of thousands of middle- and high school students who transferred in or out of charter schools in Chicago, Denver, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, San Diego, Ohio and Texas, comparing the progress of students in charters to the progress of the same students in regular public schools. It found that charter schools in Ohio and four of the cities produced the same achievement gains in math and reading as regular public schools. In Chicago and Texas, gains in charters fell short of those in regular public schools.
This summer, the U.S. Department of Education released a two-year study of 36 charter middle schools in 15 states, showing that on average, charters that held lotteries for admission did no better or worse than regular public schools in improving student behavior, attendance and achievement in math and reading. The Department of Education study looked at 2,300 students, comparing those who won charter lotteries with those who entered the lotteries but were not picked for admission.
Up to 2009, most of the research on charters focused on a single state, city or school, with conflicting results. The larger studies since then, each using a different methodology, have helped put those findings in perspective, revealing a wide disparity of charter quality from state to state.
The Stanford researchers were able to cast the widest net because they pooled data on race, ethnicity, gender, family income and starting test scores to match charter students with "virtual twins" in regular public schools.
"We wanted to take a wide-angle picture of what is actually happening in the charter sector across the board," Raymond said. "We're telling the story about how it really is."
But it's not the story that the Center for Education Reform, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group for charters and school vouchers, tells. The center has taken up the work of Caroline Hoxby, a Stanford economist who argues that the "virtual twin" methodology used by her colleagues skewed their findings against charters.
On its website, the center deplores the use of what it calls "fake children" in the Stanford study and lists a number of charter successes in single states and cities. Of the 660 charter schools that have closed their doors, the center says, only 14 percent of them did so for academic reasons.
"This means that charters have a significant rate of success despite being held to much higher standards than conventional public schools," the website says.
But it's clear that charter quality varies dramatically from state to state. In the Stanford study, for example, charter school students in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Denver and Chicago showed significantly higher learning gains than their "virtual" counterparts in regular public schools. But the dismal performance of charter students in Arizona, Florida, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio and Texas lowered the average overall.
On the bright side, low-income students, on average, learn more at charters than at regular public schools, according to the Stanford and the Department of Education reports. Stanford also found that charter students who were not proficient in English outperformed their counterparts in regular public schools.
"This is no small feat," the Stanford researchers stated. "Charter schools that are organized around a mission to teach the most economically disadvantaged students in particular seem to have developed expertise in serving these communities."
At the same time, higher-income charter students performed notably worse than their counterparts in regular public schools in both the Stanford and Department of Education studies — a reflection, perhaps, of the higher quality of regular public schools in middle-class communities.
New York City was not part of the national Stanford study, but a separate report by Raymond's group shows that over six years, more than half of 49 charter schools in New York City delivered greater academic gains in math than regular public schools in the same communities. Only 16 percent of the charters performed worse than public schools, and a third showed no difference. Blacks and Hispanics in charters did significantly better in reading and math compared to their counterparts in regular public schools.
In New York State, only the New York State Board of Regents, the Board of Trustees of the State University of New York and local school district boards can authorize the opening and renewal of charter schools.
Raymond believes that charter schools should draw up a national set of performance standards and abide by them.
"Charter school leaders have evolved from a focus on quantity to a focus on quality, and there is a continuing need to specify what performance standards mean quality," she said.
"I think test scores are important, but you have to look at re-enrollment rates, too. If every year the new set of kids flees, that's an indication it's not a good school. And we need to pay attention to fiscal sustainability."
In yet another way to measure quality, the Rand study found that students in Florida and Chicago who transferred from a regular public middle school to a charter high school were 7 to 15 percent more likely to graduate and 8 to 10 percent more likely to go to college.
"We need to start looking beyond test scores," said Ron Zimmer, an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University who was the lead author of the Rand report. "I think parents would care more about their child graduating and going to college than how their child did on a state standardized test. Test scores don’t necessarily have implications for life success."
Finally, there's the happiness factor to consider. According to the Department of Education, getting admitted to a charter school "significantly and consistently" improved both student and parent satisfaction with school, regardless of whether the charter students were learning more than their public school counterparts.
"There may be something about the public schools that they didn't like and they were trying to move away from," said Philip Gleason, a senior fellow at Mathematica Policy Research Inc., the Princeton, N.J.-based firm that performed the government study.