How to Charter Success

Despite a lack of national attention in the media, education reform has been spreading across the country, primarily in the form of charter schools. These publicly funded, privately run schools now educate over two million students with another 610,000 students on wait lists. As a market based solution, the rapid growth of charters suggests the search for effective school reform is over. But are all students benefiting equally? The evidence suggests that despite the widespread use, charter schools only benefit a specific sliver of the population. According to the data, only urban minority students benefit from charter schools.

Those In Need

For many, charter schools seem like the last refuge of the American Dream for the marginalized. The idea of free private schools is ostensibly the answer to so many prayers from inner cities across the country. Charter schools seem to have everything: they are typically close to home, have public funding but are not hampered by local school committees or the vilified teacher unions. Most importantly, charter schools promise superior academic results. That is their product: academic excellence.

The key to it all is what is known as the “No Excuses” method. This educational paradigm focuses on discipline, college preparation, and traditional math and reading score skills. Additionally, No Excuses schools tend to focus less on social awareness. Many No Excuses schools, for example, are more likely to use drills in math class than have group projects. MIT economist Josh Angrist told the HPR that the “No Excuses” paradigm makes “achievement [go] up, students learn more” and the benefits seem to last throughout student’s academic careers. According to a new national study done by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University on charter school performance, poor black students saw a marked improvement equivalent to 29 extra school days in reading and 36 school days in math.

The Knowledge is Power Program schools have been at the forefront of the No Excuses movement. As one of the fastest growing charter school networks in the country, there are 141 KIPP schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia educating a total of 50,000 students. According to Prof. Angrist’s findings, “major elements of this replicable schooling model produce substantial achievement gains overall, and especially large gains for relatively weak students and those with special needs.”

Moreover, the benefits of urban charter schools tend to last. In a recent study on the effects of Boston charter schools, Prof. Angrist found students that are lucky enough to win a seat in one of these schools are roughly twice as likely to take AP exams and significantly improve their probability of passing some AP exams. It is still too soon to determine charter schools’ effect on college enrollment because there are not enough graduates of age yet, but it is probably huge. A culture of excellence in many of these schools simply cannot be matched by local, largely underfunded public schools.

The Suburban Problem

Few can argue against the benefits that minority students in urban settings gain from charter schools. The question then becomes what about everyone else? A study done by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University has an answer. Out of 26 states researched, their 2009 study found that charter schools in 16 states lost some ground in reading and math compared to neighboring public schools. Overall, 25 percent of charter schools outperformed public schools, 19 percent failed to match public school performance, and 56 percent were about equal. The updated study found that charters in only 11 of 27 states managed to outperform traditional public schools in both math and reading attainment over the baseline. In total, eight states underperformed traditional schools in both math and reading.

Location figures prominently in terms of performance. Compared to poorly funded, poor performing urban public schools, students stand a better chance to succeed at charter schools. Prof. Angrist, however, told the HPR, “Non-urban charter schools can even reduce achievement,” in some cases. Many of the eight states that had underperforming charters, including Texas, Utah, Oregon, Nevada, and Arkansas, are largely suburban and rural states, potentially explaining the poor performance. This can be attributed to several factors. First, suburban and rural charter schools do not ascribe to the No Excuses paradigm, the key to urban charters success. Without the more rigorous school environment, suburban students do not see the same gains as urban students.

Second, suburban schools tend to have a much higher baseline of performance. As previously stated, one of the best parts of urban charter schools is their ability to help the academically weakest in a school. In urban areas, this is a true asset. In suburban areas, this is essentially useless. With better public schools and students with higher baselines, suburban charter schools are fighting a much harder battle than urban charters.

Third, many suburban charter schools are, as Prof. Angrist described, “specialized high schools.” These schools often have specific goals not necessarily geared toward classic academic achievement standards, like vocational schools.

Ultimately, suburban, rural, and town charters account for the education of 44 percent of all charter school students. Moreover, many suburban charter schools are over-subscribed despite lackluster performance. Some say parents value something about the school besides improvement in basic skills. Further expansion of suburban charter schools as an answer to failing public schools, though, would be a mistake.

The Last Hope

To be sure, charter schools are responding to a very real problem. According to the 2012 studies, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the Progress in International Reading Literacy, American students have fallen behind their international competition. Fourth and eighth graders in the United States ranked eleventh and ninth respectively in mathematics and seventh and tenth respectively in science. The United States does lead the world in one category: college dropout rates at 54 percent domestically compared to 31 percent internationally. Charter schools can help combat this growing issue. However, charter schools only benefit a very specific group of people. Urban, minority (typically black and Hispanic) students may have found their way out. Unfortunately, that comprises a very small segment of the population. For all the other students with parents franticly looking for the best option for them, relief is nowhere in sight. At best, charter schools can be used as another tool in the toolbox for education reformers. Their proliferation in urban areas will prove effective, but that will not address the national education issue.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Read more here: http://harvardpolitics.com/united-states/charter-success/
Copyright 2014

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