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MSPnet Blog: “Success and charters (2): Evidence on Charter impact”

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posted May 19, 2015 – by Brian Drayton

In an earlier post, I laid out three propositions that seem to me important, in reflecting on the controversies around the Success Academies in New York City.   This week I move to the second of the three:

2. The neo-charters have not made a compelling educational case for their own existence, in terms of improvements of the educational system, and there is abundant evidence that their role as the alternative-of-choice for public education has invited many kinds of bad practice.

As mentioned in the first post in this series, the vision for charters first proposed by Roy Budde, Albert Shanker, and others identified three key ways in which innovative, experimental schools could strengthen the public school system:

1. This new type of school should be allowed to experiment with desperately needed new approaches to reach students, approaches from which the traditional public schools could learn.

2. Charter schools would provide an enhanced level of teacher voice and teacher empowerment compared with the public schools, which saw large levels of teacher frustration and turnover.

3. Charters, by severing the tie between residential neighborhood segregation and school segregation, might help reinvent the old idea of the American common school, where students of different races, incomes, and religions could come and learn together under a single schoolhouse  roof.

(from Kahlenberg and Potter, see references there)


As noted in earlier posts, although there are charters which are aimed at one or more of these goals, the rhetoric about charters has shifted focus to more market-focused ideas, so that the purpose of charters would seem to be to provide more “choice” for dissatisfied parents, or “competition” for the unsatisfactory “traditional” public schools.  The metrics most often discussed are those of achievement or student outcomes, and the most widely available (and debated) evidence is mostly in those terms.

On that score, it seems clear that charters have not demonstrated impressive achievements — even studies by pro-charter think-tanks or agencies which show that students in charters score better than students in “traditional” schools show very tiny effects, whether the studies are framed as  “randomized control trials” or use other rigorous methodologies (see Mattew DiCarlo’s incisive review here).

Given the enormous range and variety of charters, one would expect that some might do quite well, some quite abysmally, and most fall somewhere in the middle.  As Di Carlo has argued, there is nothing about “charterness” that tells us anything about what the school is actually like in practice (or in its principles).   When successful schools are examined they share some characteristics that do not seem revelatory (see the Shanker Institute brief):

The available evidence very tentatively indicates that the few consistently effective chains tend to employ policies — most notably large amounts of additional time, tutoring, and high-stakes disciplinary policies — that are both cost-intensive and likely to yield diminishing returns with expansion in a given location. (pg. 9)

I have been able to find no evidence (if you  know some, please let me know!!!) about how charters are doing on the score of teacher empowerment.  There are many studies — and anecdotal accounts — of teacher burnout, high turnover rates, etc. but how common are the true teacher experiments?  Hard to know.

With regard to charters as laboratories for the renewal or strengthening of a pluralistic democracy, the evidence seems to be that if a charter is committed to diversity, it can be achieved or maintained, but if that is not a high priority, or there are no mechanisms in place to attend to this characteristic, then charters can easily become segregated by ethnicity or economic class.  (See an important article by Iris Rotberg from the Kappan, reprinted in Valerie Strauss’s blog the Answer Sheet).

Finally, the change in the nature of charters from an agent for improvement created by some inventive teachers under the aegis and on behalf of their district, to some kind of alternative to the public schools, has made it harder to find out about charters’ finances and other policies.  A report from the Center for Popular Democracy has pulled together evidence from around the country of various kinds of fraud and mismanagement.  Lack of transparency on various scores (even if there is no malfeasance), is a complaint often heard about charters, and seems antithetical to the idea of charters as an agent of improvement of the public education system.

Next post will return to the final of my three propositions:  3. The predominance of market ideology in American society is nevertheless driving an increase in the number of charters (both for-profit and non-profit).