Comprehensive National Study Deflates Knee-Jerk Anti-Charter Mythology

In the past couple years some national critics have made a living off distorting the findings of a major national study on public charter schools. If someone has a knee-jerk reaction against charter schools, it’s not surprising they would run with part of the findings that seem to support their conclusion and make sweeping generalizations that don’t stand up so well under the light of scrutiny.

Onto the scene this month comes the most comprehensive analysis of studies on public charter school impacts on student achievement. The Effect of Charter Schools on Student Achievement: A Meta-Analysis of the Literature, created by Julian Betts and Y. Emily Tang for the Center on Reinventing Public Education, reminds us that the big picture is more nuanced (and positive) than some cranky critics would like us to believe. As quoted in the accompanying press release:

Despite considerable variation among charter schools, there is ample evidence that charter elementary schools on average outperform traditional public schools in both reading and math, and that charter middle schools outperform in math.

Elsewhere in the report it is noted:

At the high school level, there is no overall significant effect of charter schools, but there is considerable heterogeneity, suggesting that in some locations charter high schools are outperforming, while in others they are underperforming.

There are a couple main reasons it’s hard to make a sweeping answer in response to the question, “Are charter schools better than traditional public schools?” First, the policies behind charter school creation, governance, management and accountability vary from state to state. So within some states you might be able to answer that question with a good deal of generalized confidence. Like in New York. But not so much in some other states.

Still, there’s a second problem, more prevalent in some states than others. What individual charter school operators choose to do regarding leadership, academic program and human resource development (among other important things) simply assures that parents looking for a different public school option need to do their homework to find expectations of success that best match their own.

It’s almost silly to have to say it, but there’s obviously nothing magical about the “charter” label. What the charter school law has done here in Colorado and elsewhere is to provide parents and students with challenging curricula and previously unavailable or highly limited alternatives (including some high-quality ones) on the education menu.

The bad charter schools are much more likely to be shuttered than other bad public schools. Depending on the attitude of the local school board, the good charters sometimes have a hard time replicating and expanding their reach.

Taken all together, these are facts that help to account for the mixed and modestly positive “big picture” findings about charter schools vs. traditional schools. Maybe then, just maybe, this new CRPE report will help stop, or at least slow down, some of those knees out there from excessive jerking.