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Times Observer: Charter Performance: Conflicting Reports

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Article discusses Stanford University studies that have met extensive opposition from individuals and institutions throughout the educational community. CER notes that charter schools are not comparable to similar public schools for many reasons, but studies show positive achievement and that charter schools do work.

By Josh Cotton
The Times Observer
October 7, 2011

The bottom line in education is student achievement. In that area, does it matter whether a child goes to a charter school or a public school?

Research that has been done in the area of charter schools has focused on the issue of performance, particularly in comparison to public schools, and yields a mixed result.

The first national study on this issue was conducted by Stanford University. The final determination of the study was that “more than half of the charters have less growth in learning than what their students would have realized if they had remained in traditional public schools in their community.”

However, the study also indicates that “students do much better in charter schools over time. First-year charter students on average experience a decline in learning, which may reflect a combination of effects and the experience of a charter school in its early years. Second- and third-year charter schools see a significant reversal to positive gains” of academic achievement.
The study also indicates that “charter students in elementary and middle school grades have significantly higher rates of learning than their peers in traditional public schools, but students in charter high school and charter multi-level schools have significantly worse results.” While the outcomes are mixed, the study also notes that “tremendous variation in academic quality is the norm, not the exception. The problem of quality is the most pressing issues that charter schools and their supporters face.”

Stanford has conducted a study that looks specifically at Pennsylvania charter schools and determined that “overall, charter schools in Pennsylvania on average perform worse than traditional public schools, and charter school students grow at lower rates compared to their traditional public school peers in their first three years in charters schools, although the gap shrinks considerably in math and disappears entirely in reading by the third year of attendance,” a trend suggested in the national study as well.

These Stanford University studies have met extensive opposition from individuals and institutions throughout the educational community. The Center for Education Reform noted that “many charter schools are not comparable to similar public schools because of the time in which children have spent there and the benchmarks are not always the same among all schools…research is building in states that administer objective tests based on proficiency in key standards (like the PSSA)” and “studies show positive achievement and gains among charter schools which, while preliminary and not comprehensive, in fact does show that there is evidence that many (charter schools) work.”

Further research by the Pennsylvania School Board Association: Education, Research & Policy Center indicated that there are “minimal statistical differences between the distribution of charter school performance overall to that of traditional public school performance overall” but also said that “individual student performance by grade level of charter school students is significantly below that of traditional public school students.” The study does mention that “reading and math proficiency have improved” since 2003 for charter school students.

Overall, while the research indicates that students in charter schools do not, on average, make the educational progress of students in public schools, the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University noted that the body of research on this subject “suggests that charter schools are neither the unqualified failure that detractors claim, nor that there is something inherent in the independent structure of charter school organization that promotes greater student achievement, as choice enthusiasts would have us believe.”