Charter school students more likely to graduate, but caution needed on start-ups

iStock_000004896500XSmallAttending an established charter school increased the chances of a student graduating from high school and enrolling in college, says a new 8-state study by Rand Corporation, but attending a charter school in its first year of operation or a “virtual charter school” is associated with lower student achievement.

On the question of how charter school students perform in comparison to their public-school counterparts, a perennial question in the research, this study concludes that, on the whole, it found little difference in achievement.

“This study is the first to examine the effects of charter schools on long-term attainment outcomes,” write the authors. “In the two locations with attainment data (Florida and Chicago), attending a charter high school is associated with statistically significant and substantial increases in the probability of graduating and of enrolling in college.”

Among students who attended a charter middle school, those who went on to attend a charter high school were 7 to 15 percentage points more likely to graduate than students who went to a traditional public high school, write the authors. Students attending a charter high school were 8 to 10 percentage points more likely to enroll in college than their counterparts in traditional public schools.

In Chicago, the higher rates of graduation and college admission were most evident in charter high schools that included middle-school grades. One implication for administrators, the researchers write, might be to seriously consider eliminating the school transition between middle school and high school, although the positive results seem to hold up for conventionally configured schools as well.

Start-ups an area of concern

The 8 sites in the study were: Chicago, San Diego, Philadelphia, Denver, Milwaukee, Ohio, Texas and Florida. The study found that 2 groups of charter students– those who attend charter schools in their first year of operation and those who attend “virtual” charter schools that teach students remotely—should be of concern to policymakers because of a pattern of lower achievement.

“Opening a new school is challenging, regardless of whether the school is a charter school,” the researchers write.

To address issues with start-up schools, states might reduce the reliance on new schools by making it easier for existing public and private schools to become charter schools and they might encourage charter operators to open one grade per year. Additionally, they might develop systems to disseminate information about start-ups, require a more rigorous review of plans for the start-up period and provide grants for charter school start-up costs.

In Ohio, which has a significant number of virtual charter schools, researchers found that student achievement was substantially lower in those schools than in traditional charter schools. The researchers expressed caution about this finding, though, because of the “uniqueness” of the students who attend these schools.

The study examined longitudinal data for students that varied by location, from 2-3 years to almost 10 years. The types of data collected also varied by location.

The Rand study weighs in on the perennial issue of whether charter schools have a positive or negative effect on student achievement. The researchers of this study conclude that in general, the effect on student achievement in nonprimary schools seems to be neutral.

“In five out of seven locales, these nonprimary charter schools are producing achievement gains that are, on average, neither substantially better nor substantially worse than those of local TPS (traditional public schools),” they write, although there were local differences.

“In Chicago (in reading) and in Texas (in both reading and math), charter middle schools appear to be falling short of traditional public middle schools.”

 Little difference in performance

The researchers write that the impact on achievement in primary schools is more difficult to determine because of the lack of pre-kindergarten baseline data.

Across the 8 locations, the researchers found little difference between the achievement of students in charter schools and those in traditional public schools.

Supporters of the charter school movement often claim that charter schools improve student achievement not only for their own students but potentially for all students by providing much-needed competition to public schools. Critics of the movement claim that charter schools skim off resources and the highest-achieving students.

Researchers found little evidence from student test scores that public schools are impacted either positively or negatively by competition with a nearby charter school.

“The absence of evidence of substantial effects of charter schools on the achievement of students in nearby TPSs (traditional public schools) might be encouraging to policymakers who were concerned about negative effects and disappointing to policymakers who hoped that competition would induce TPSs to improve,” write the researchers. ”

The researchers also did not find evidence that charter schools attract either higher-achieving students or lower-achieving students. Transferring students did not differ from other students in the public schools that they left, with the exception of white students, who were slightly higher achieving.

In general, transfers to charter schools did not create dramatic shifts in the ethnic composition of the schools students were enrolling in or leaving.

Among the implications of this study is that, in future research, educators should move beyond test scores to broaden the scope of measures (e.g.graduation, college admissions). The authors also point out that the results of their study suggest that the charter school movement hasn’t worked miracles on student achievement or on the education system as a whole.

“Our findings support the hypothesis that charter-school competition is unlikely to create a rising tide of school performance, in the absence of dramatic changes in the structures, incentives, culture, and operation of conventional school districts.”

“Charter Schools in Eight States, Effects on Achievement, Attainment, Integration, and Competition,” by Ron Zimmer, Brian Gill, et al., Rand Corporation, 2009.

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