Yet More on Charter Schools

| Tue Jun. 16, 2009 12:11 PM EDT

A new Stanford University study on charter schools was released yesterday.  The LA Times summarizes:

The study of charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia found that, nationally, only 17% of charter schools do better academically than their traditional counterparts, and more than a third "deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student[s] would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools."

That's accurate as far as it goes.  The overall results showed charter schools nationwide delivering slightly poorer results than public schools.  However, there were a couple of significant caveats in the report itself:

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 schools and charter multi‐level schools have significantly worse results.

....Students do better in charter schools over time. First year charter students on average experience a decline in learning, which may reflect a combination of mobility effects and the experience of a charter school in its early years. Second and third years in charter schools see a significant reversal to positive gains.

The pair of charts below shows the size of the effect: compared to public schools, charters are moderately better in elementary and middle schools but fall off a cliff in high school.  Likewise, kids tend to do a lot worse in their first year in a charter school — possibly the result of adjusting to a new environment — but are doing considerably better by their third year.

Overall, then, the results are mixed.  And once again we see that the biggest problems are in high school.  Improving test performance in elementary school appears to be quite doable, but the effects usually wash out by the time kids are 17.  It's unclear how to fix this.

However, if the Stanford report is correct, at least it provides a strategy for confused parents: put your kids in a good charter school in first grade so they get past the first year jitters early and then get seven years of higher performance than they'd get in public schools.  Then, after eighth grade, switch them to a public high school, where they'll get higher performance than they would in a charter school.  It's as good a plan as any.

The full report, including state-by-state results, is here.  Note that the methodology employed by the study isn't perfect, but appears to be pretty good.  Their results are probably worth paying attention to.

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