Performance of charter school students

An American Federation of Teachers study finds charter school students performing below their peers in public schools. The AFT compared fourth-grade scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math tests. Among low-income and inner-city students, charter school students scored about a half year behind regular public school students.

The study has received criticism, however, from Caroline Hoxby, Harvard University. She reports that the proportion of charter students in the NAEP sample is too small to yield meaningful conclusions. In addition, she writes, the study does not compare schools with similar student characteristics.

Hoxby asserts that students in charter schools are more likely to be proficient in both reading and math than peers in public schools with similar racial demographics. According to Robert Rothman, Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, studies of charter schools show mixed results and wide variations within and across states. Rothman points out that we do not know enough to make definitive judgments about why some charter schools succeed while others fail.

Currently, there are almost 3,000 charter schools in 38 states enrolling nearly 800,000 students. The original idea behind the charter school movement was to open up new options for parents and students and to allow educators flexibility to operate innovative programs to overcome chronic poor performance in areas where it exists. These schools were supposed to meet performance targets or lose their charters.

Closing low-performing schools

Rothman believes that one factor that may be depressing the average achievement of charters is that many charter schools are allowed to stay open despite poor performance. Only about nine percent of schools chartered have been closed, almost always because of financial mismanagement. Many states lack good information on student performance and, therefore have difficulty demonstrating that a school is under performing.

In addition, parents frequently oppose closing charter schools even when students are doing poorly. Parents perceive small charter schools as more responsive and safer than the much larger public schools.

Connecticut is one state that has moved quickly to shut down low-performing charter schools. Rothman explains that because the charter movement in Connecticut has bipartisan support, decisions on opening and closing charters are less political. He suggests that one reason some charters may perform more poorly is that teachers in charter schools tend to be less qualified and have less experience than public school teachers. Only 38 percent of math teachers in charter schools have a college major or minor in math compared with 51 percent in public schools. Charter-school teachers also are more than twice as likely to have less than five years of teaching experience. Their student population also changes more often, a factor that tends to depress student performance.

Rothman recommends studying successful charter schools to determine what contributes to their success. He reports that the most effective charters have some important characteristics in common: frequent and thoughtful student assessment; the use of these assessments to plan programs and inform change; effective and stable leadership; and a staff that shares a sense of the school’s mission.

“Telling Tales Out of Charter Schools”, Harvard Education Letter, Volume 20, Number 6, November/December 2004, pp. 1-4.

Published in ERN February 2005 Volume 18 Number 2


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