What matters for charter performance

ByScott Sargrad (op-ed)

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Last week, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO, released its most recent study of charter school performance. There were two big pieces of news from this study that garnered some headlines.

First, for-profit charters fared significantly worse than nonprofit charters in both math and reading – and for-profits actually had a negative impact on students’ math performance compared to traditional public schools. Second, schools run by charter management organizations, or CMOs – networks of schools like KIPP or Achievement First – showed better performance than independent, one-off charter schools.

But in both cases, the differences – while statistically significant – aren’t large. The study’s authors translate the gap between nonprofit and for-profit charters as 23 additional days of learning in math and six days of learning in reading. And between charter management organizations and independent charter schools, the difference was similar – 17 additional days in math and 11 additional days in reading.

Of course, even one day of additional learning is important for students, particularly disadvantaged students who already start further behind. And the finding about for-profit schools should give policymakers serious pause when considering who should be allowed to operate charter schools.

Still, these broad headlines obscure a number of other important findings from the study:

Extraordinary results for some charter management organizations. Some organizations, including large organizations like Achievement First, BASIS Schools, Denver School of Science and Technology, IDEA Public Schools, KIPP and Uncommon Schools that serve thousands – sometimes tens of thousands – of students, are getting simply extraordinary results for their students. The study estimates that Achievement First, for example, helps its students gain an additional 125 days of learning in math and 57 days in reading.

Significant variation across sector types. Even within networks that span multiple states or cities, some charter management organizations are remarkably effective, while others seem to be remarkably ineffective. According to the study, Responsive Education Solutions, an organization that serves over 9,000 students, had an impact equivalent to 182 fewer days of learning in math than a traditional public school.

And because the study looked at the different regions of some of the largest charter management organizations – KIPP, Uncommon – separately, there’s evidence that these networks have different impacts in different places. For instance, KIPP Bay Area and KIPP DC had some of the largest positive impacts of any networks in the study, while KIPP Chicago and KIPP Memphis had no impact on math or reading.

Low effectiveness in new charter schools. Just like new teachers are generally not as effective as their more experienced colleagues, newly opened schools are, on average, not particularly effective – particularly new independent schools that are not affiliated with a charter management organization. New schools run by independent operators had a negative impact on both math and reading scores, while new schools run by these organizations had no impact on math scores and a positive impact on reading scores.

These three findings, while not getting as much attention as the nonprofit versus for-profit comparison, are incredibly important for policymakers. The fact that some charter management organizations are far, far outpacing their counterparts, combined with the fact that new independent schools are generally not effective, means that states and charter authorizers should focus much more on growing successful networks – not encouraging massive startup of brand new schools.

Similarly, authorizers should have a high bar for new schools and should move quickly to shutter failing charter schools. And finally, authorizers should take a hard look at the expansion plans for successful schools and networks. If even the most successful charter management organizations like KIPP can have wide variation across regions, it’s critically important for networks to have a clear, compelling, evidence-based strategy for successful expansion – and for authorizers to closely monitor that expansion.

Of course, this study isn’t the final word on charter schools, and there is more to school quality than just reading and math scores. But when debates about charter schools sometimes seem to be driven more by ideology than evidence, it’s more important than ever that federal, state and local leaders take a careful look at rigorous research and use it to inform their decisions.

Scott Sargrad is the managing director for K-12 education policy at the Center for American Progress.