Fighting for Equity in Education

The struggle is long but hope is longer

Charter Schools Do No Better Than Other Public Schools

Monday July 15, 2013

Charter schools are generally doing no better than traditional public schools in the United States according to a new national study. Three-quarters of all charter schools are doing no better than traditional schools in reading and 70 per cent are doing no better in mathematics. The study concludes that the greater school autonomy granted to charter schools had little effect on student achievement over time.

Charter schools are independent public schools with much greater control over decision-making on budgeting, staffing and curriculum than traditional public schools. Charter schools enrol about 4 per cent of the nation’s public school students, with more than 2.3 million students in more than 6,000 schools in 41 states. They are funded with tax dollars but privately run by community groups, non-profit organizations or for-profit companies. They have been operating in the United States for over 20 years.

As such, charter schools are a good test case of school autonomy. They have just about everything pro-market reformers in education want – no unions, right to hire and fire teachers, pay performance bonuses, right to exclude difficult to teach students, run as businesses and for profit, additional funding by billionaire philanthropists, and more. However, after 20 years their student results are little different from that of other public schools.

The new study found that across 26 states and New York City, 56 per cent of charter schools showed no significant difference in gains in reading from 2009-10 to 2010-11 than their traditional school counterparts. Nineteen per cent had significantly weaker learning gains and only 25 per cent had significantly stronger learning gains. In mathematics, 40 per cent were no different from traditional schools and 31 per cent were significantly weaker. Only 29 per cent of charter schools showed student learning gains that were significantly stronger than their traditional public school peers.

The report also analysed the pooled data for all charter students from the 26 states and New York City over the period 2005-06 to 2010-11. It shows that the learning gain in reading in charter schools was slightly higher than in traditional public schools and no different in mathematics. The difference in reading was negligible.

The learning gains by charter students in poverty, black students, Hispanic students in poverty and English language learners were slightly higher in both reading and mathematics compared to their traditional public school peers. However, the differences were very small.

The learning gains by black and Hispanic were significantly lower in most cases than those of white students in traditional public schools. As a result, the prevailing achievement gaps were perpetuated by smaller increases in the learning of disadvantaged students compared to their white and non-poverty peers.

The study was conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University and is an update and expansion of a landmark study published in 2009 which analysed results for 2003-04 to 2007-08. The new study is the most comprehensive study ever conducted of charter school performance, covering charter schools in 26 states and New York City. Together they account for about 95 per cent of all charter students.

The results are similar to those of the 2009 study which covered charter schools in 16 states and found that students were doing slightly worse than those in traditional public schools in both reading and mathematics. The 2013 study found that students in charter schools (including new start ups) in the original 16 states are now doing slightly better in reading than those in traditional public schools, but slightly worse in mathematics. The differences in both studies are very small.

The new study also shows that the relative gain in learning in charters in the original 16 states was slightly higher than in the other schools. The study attributed this relative gain largely to closures of a number of low performing charter schools. It said that had these schools remained open there would have been no improvement in the charters covered in the 2009 study.

The results of the 2009 study and the new study show that there is little difference in performance between charter schools and traditional schools. As the senior fellow at the Brown Center of Education at the Brookings Institute, Tom Loveless, said in his review of the new study: “The two sectors perform about the same” and that “achievement differences between charters and TPS [traditional public schools] are extremely small, so tiny, in fact, that they lack real world significance”.

This is a far cry from what the advocates of charter schools and greater school autonomy promise. The findings suggest that the 20 year experiment with school autonomy in the US has failed to deliver on its promises. It shows that school autonomy is not a major influence on student achievement. The new CREDO report itself concludes:

....while the actual degree of autonomy that charter schools enjoy differs from place to place, they typically have more freedom than local TPS [traditional public schools] to structure their operations and allocate resources to address the needs of their students. Even with this decentralized degree of control, we do not see dramatic improvement among existing charter schools over time. In other words, the charter sector is getting better on average, but not because existing schools are getting dramatically better; it is largely driven by the closure of bad schools. [p.87]

Former US Assistant Secretary of Education under President George Bush Snr, Diane Ravitch, makes the valid point that charter schools have immense advantages over traditional public schools yet have failed to deliver any better results:

The report raises many questions, implicitly, to a critical reader. Why is it that charter schools are not vastly outperforming public schools? They have the ability to skim and exclude. They have the benefit of “peer effects,” since they can expel troublesome students and send them back to their public school. Nearly 90% are non-union. They can fire teachers at any time and offer performance bonuses if they wish. They do everything that “reformers” dream of, yet they are hardly different in test scores overall from public schools, which typically must take all children and do not have the support of the Obama administration, major corporations, big media, big foundations, and hedge fund managers. The fact that charters serve large numbers of black, Hispanic, and poor students does not mean they serve a representative sample of students with disabilities and English language learners (they don’t). To compare a school that can select its student body with one that cannot is inherently unfair. The fact that the public schools do as well as the charter schools, despite their advantages, is remarkable.

The new study adds to the overwhelming evidence that student results in charter schools are not significantly different from those in other public schools in the United States. It mirrors the results of school autonomy in many other countries including New Zealand, Sweden and England and, more broadly, across OECD countries.

More school autonomy has been promoted by the Federal and other Australian governments as part of the push to develop markets and competition between schools, despite the evidence that it has little to offer. However, some chinks are appearing. For example, the previous Federal Minister for Education, Peter Garrett, made a stunning admission in a letter published in the Australian Financial Review earlier this year. He said:

...there is little, if any, evidence to suggest overseas experiments like charter schools or student vouchers would lead to better education results. [30 April 2013]

In May, the Senate Committee on Education conceded in its bi-partisan report on Teaching and Learning that:

...it is unclear whether school autonomy ultimately improves student outcomes….Clearly, further research into school autonomy and its impact on student performance is required. [p.47]

A recent evaluation of independent public schools in Western Australia found that they have not increased student achievement and could be developing a two-tiered public education system.

The new CREDO study on charter schools shows that school autonomy is not the answer for school improvement. The clear alternative to increasing school autonomy is to support greater school collaboration. More school collaboration is vital for system improvement. However, school collaboration is being sacrificed to the altar of school autonomy and competition.

There is a fundamental contradiction between increasing school autonomy and improving school collaboration. More school autonomy means less school collaboration, especially in the presence of school league tables promoting competition between schools. Instead of more school autonomy we should be looking at ways to promote collaboration between schools to ensure the spread of innovations in teaching and learning so that every school is a good school.

Trevor Cobbold

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