Charter Schools Largely Fail to Improve Student Achievement

Thursday March 26, 2009

A new report published by the RAND Corporation shows that charter schools are not having the positive effect on student achievement claimed by their advocates. The study adds to the growing weight of evidence that competition between schools does not improve student achievement. It serves as yet another warning to the Rudd Government that this is not the path to school improvement.

Charter schools are publicly funded schools within the government education sector in the United States, but which operate independently. They were seen as a way to promote parent choice and to provide a source of competition for traditional public school to improve student achievement.

The RAND study examined charter schools in Chicago, San Diego, Philadelphia, Denver, Milwaukee, and the states of Ohio, Texas and Florida. It found that student achievement in charter schools does not differ substantially from those of traditional public schools.

In five out of seven districts, charter schools are producing achievement gains that are, on average, neither substantially better nor substantially worse than those of local traditional public schools. In Chicago (in reading) and in Texas (in both reading and math), charter middle schools appear to be falling short of traditional public middle schools.

This confirms a key finding of several other studies. For example, a review of major studies published last year in the Handbook of Research in Education Finance and Policy concluded:

“Research to date provides little evidence that the benefits envisioned in the original conception of charter schools – organizational and educational innovation, improved student achievement and efficiency – have materialized….In none of these states have charter schools, on average, had large or unequivocally positive effects on student achievement.”

The RAND study also shows that competition from charter schools does not increase student achievement in nearby traditional public schools. It concluded:

“Our findings support the hypothesis….that charter-school competition is unlikely to create a rising tide of school performance, in the absence of dramatic changes in the structures, incentives, culture, and operation of conventional school districts.

….the near-complete absence of positive competitive effects (excepting small positive effects estimated in Texas) should be a disappointment to charter-school supporters who hope that healthy competition will induce TPSs (traditional public schools) to improve.”

The study shows low performance among two specific groups of charter schools: charter schools in their first year of operation; and, in Ohio, “virtual” charter schools that serve students remotely via technology rather than in a conventional school building.

The only promising results for charter schools relate to the long-term outcomes of high school graduation and college entry. In the two locations with available data (Chicago and Florida), charter high schools appear to have increased the probability of graduating and enrolling in college.

Across seven school districts examined, there was no evidence that charter schools are “skimming the cream” in recruiting high achieving students from traditional public schools. Students entering charter schools generally have prior achievement levels that are comparable to those of their peers in traditional public schools. In a few places, they were slightly higher achieving than their former peers; in other places, they were slightly lower achieving, and, in Ohio and Texas, they were much lower achieving than their former peers.

However, there were differences for white students, who constituted a minority of charter entrants in all locations. White students entering charter schools were, on average, slightly higher achieving than the white students in their previous schools.

Transfers to charter schools did not create dramatic shifts in the sorting of students by race or ethnicity in any of the sites included in the study. In most sites, the racial composition of the charter schools entered by transferring students was similar to that of the public schools from which they transferred.

There was some variation between locations. Transfers to charter schools tend to marginally reduce racial integration in Philadelphia and in Texas while marginally increasing racial integration in Chicago. African-American students are more likely to self-segregate. Those students transferring to charter schools moved to schools with higher concentrations of African-American students in five of seven locales.

The Prime Minister and the Minister for Education have placed faith in the role of competition to improve school performance. The PM has said that the system of reporting individual school results is designed to get parents “to walk with their feet” while the Education Minister looks to the failed New York City model of school competition.

Yet, major research studies, such as the new RAND study, demonstrate that competition and choice do not lead to significant improvements in student achievement. They show that the Rudd Government should abandon its commitment to the Howard/Kemp model of school improvement.

Trevor Cobbold

Link to the RAND study

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