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Charter Schools: Are They Getting Results?

written by: Mary Beth Adomaitis • edited by: Carly Stockwell • updated: 11/29/2012

The goal of the Charter School movement is to produce better results than traditional public schools. Now that charter schools have been operating for twenty years, how are they faring? The data has proved hard to measure, with both positive and negative results emerging.

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    Students from Northern Lights Charter School In the 1990s when the Charter School Movement started challenging the nation's educators to explore alternative teaching methods, its goal was to produce higher achieving students than what was coming out of the public schools. Twenty years later, 40 states and the District of Columbia have operating school charters, but are they producing the results that were originally anticipated?

    While on the surface it may look like charter schools are the answer to America's troubled public school system, education officials are finding it difficult to track their progress as a whole because there are so many inconsistent factors to consider. For instance, each year, just as a slew of charter schools open on one side of a state, a handful are closing or having their charters revoked. Another difficulty to consider is the diversity among the types of charters. Any given state can have a mix of independent home study and virtual schools, as well as back-to-basic and project learning programs. Because of this, the effectiveness of charter schools varies from state to state, thus making it even more difficult to chart their successes and failures, although several organizations have tried.

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    Wide Range of Results

    One of the big pushes for charter schools was to improve academic performance in students. What and how the teachers taught was supposed to be the perfect alternative to a public school setting. However, most of the studies conducted over the last two decades have the same conclusion: Academic performance in charter schools is hard to chart globally. Researchers have been able to take a look at clusters of schools, but mainly the studies offer a "snapshot," not an evaluation of the school's academic performance.

    For instance, a study conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University compared math and reading state test scores in 15 states and the District of Columbia in both charter schools and their public school counterparts. It shows that only 17 percent of charter schools had math scores that were higher than their public school peers. While reading scores among charter school students had increased, the growth was also less than in the public schools. This report concludes that there's a 2-to-1 margin of bad charter schools to good charter schools, and that the majority of charter school perform the same or worse than traditional public schools1.

    However, while this report supports public school successes, a deeper look into other studies show that students who come from lower-income families or are "English language learners" have higher performance rates in charter schools than in public schools2. Also, the math and reading scores are not the only variables that should be taken into account, especially in those institutions that focus on the arts, technology or music.

    The best way to determine if charter schools are successful is to look at each state individually. Those studies tend to be more specific, but again, the results may vary. In California, for instance, while the charter elementary schools had lower performance score than the public schools, charter middle and high schools overall demonstrated higher performance growth than the traditional public schools3.

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    Why Performance Results Vary

    No two charter schools are exactly the same in terms of enrollment, teaching styles, student population and curriculums, which makes it difficult to get exact performance results especially when comparing them to neighboring public schools. But it's more than that. There are several key differences between the two institutions that make it nearly impossible to draw solid conclusions:

    • Charter schools lack extensive special needs programs
    • Charter programs offer more rigorous challenges and requirements, therefore making it more difficult to succeed
    • Charter schools accept "small percentages" of low-income students, but do not admit extremely high risk or challenging students2.

    Enrollments are driven by self-initiative; school officials cannot mandate what students attend because only parents/guardians can sign up children for a charter school; some parents are unable or unmotivated to seek out this alternative education for their children.

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    Is It Just Too Soon to Tell?

    Because charter schools are fairly new, it may be too soon to really get a solid look and feel of their success or failure rate. More research and education needs to be done so there is a clearer understanding of how charter schools work best and interact with and affect surrounding public schools.

References

  • 3. California's Charter Schools: Measuring Their Performance: http://www.edsource.org/pub_CharterPerf6-07_report.html
  • Photo by Congressman George Miller under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr
  • 1. Charter Schools Might Not be Better: http://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/on-education/2009/06/17/charter-schools-might-not-be-better
  • 2. Charter Schools vs. Traditional Public Schools: Which One is Under-Performing? http://www.publicschoolreview.com/articles/123