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Mediocre Report Card for Charter Schools

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Do students attending charter schools outperform their peers? The highly charged issue is the subject of intense debate this week in both Chicago and Los Angeles.

But for the most up-to-date answer to that question, one must turn to New York, where one researcher finds their impact on students to be extremely limited.

“Although exposés in the media argue that a small group of high-profile charter schools is making waves and transforming the public school system, this analysis suggests that more charter schools are treading water,” concludes the University of Buffalo’s Robert Mark Silverman. His report was published June 27 in the journal Urban Education.

“With the exception of the performance of 6th and 8th graders on statewide math exams, charter schools do not seem to be making much of a difference.”

His findings take on new urgency in the light of current controversies. In Los Angeles on Tuesday, 400 people demonstrated at school district headquarters to protest a proposed moratorium on new charter schools.

Meanwhile, the highly publicized strike by public school teachers in Chicago is driven, in part, by the fear that the drive to increase the number of charter schools—which are privately run, and generally do not employ union instructors—is occurring in spite of a lack of clear evidence that students enrolled in such institutions perform better than their peers.

As we reported in 2010, a large-scale study painted a mixed picture of charter schools, noting that while low-income students generally learn more at these institutions, higher-income students often learn less.

“Charters receive public funding, but are more autonomous than traditional public funds,” reporter Melinda Burns explained. “They can experiment with staffing, curriculum and budget, so long as they are accountable for student achievement.”

That last item is a sticking point in L.A. The Los Angeles Times reports one school board member has proposed suspending the authorization of new charter schools—the district has 186, the highest number in the nation—until new “accountability measures” are established.

One obvious way of measuring success is report-card data, which Silverman used for his New York state study. He looked at the 16 urban school districts in the state that employ both regular public schools and charter schools—a total of 140 charter schools and 1,547 standard public schools. Data was from the 2009-10 school year.

“The findings suggest that there are more similarities in student outcomes between charter schools and other public schools than differences,” Silverman writes. “Although charter schools had higher sixth- and eighth-grade math scores, outcomes were comparable along other measures.”

Of course, by their nature, charter schools can and do experiment with educational methods. This means they can, at least in theory, adjust more quickly when they find a technique is, or isn’t, working. But Silverman’s report is a reminder that creative pedagogy can’t override more fundamental problems.

“Systemic issues, such as poverty, suspensions, and poor attendance had relatively stronger effects on student performance,” he notes, “regardless of school type.”