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Charter Schools

  • Low-Income Students In The CREDO Charter School Study

    Written on July 10, 2012

    A recent Economist article on charter schools, though slightly more nuanced than most mainstream media treatments of the charter evidence, contains a very common, somewhat misleading argument that I’d like to address quickly. It’s about the findings of the so-called "CREDO study," the important (albeit over-cited) 2009 national comparison of student achievement in charter and regular public schools in 16 states.

    Specifically, the article asserts that the CREDO analysis, which finds a statistically discernible but very small negative impact of charters overall (with wide underlying variation), also finds a significant positive effect among low-income students. This leads the Economist to conclude that the entire CREDO study “has been misinterpreted," because it’s real value is in showing that “the children who most need charters have been served well."

    Whether or not an intervention affects outcomes among subgroups of students is obviously important (though one has hardly "misinterpreted" a study by focusing on its overall results). And CREDO does indeed find a statistically significant, positive test-based impact of charters on low-income students, vis-à-vis their counterparts in regular public schools. However, as discussed here (and in countless textbooks and methods courses), statistical significance only means we can be confident that the difference is non-zero (it cannot be chalked up to random fluctuation). Significant differences are often not large enough to be practically meaningful.

    And this is certainly the case with CREDO and low-income students.

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  • When Push Comes To Pull In The Parent Trigger Debate

    Written on July 2, 2012

    The so-called “parent trigger," the policy by which a majority of a school’s parents can decide to convert it to a charter school, seems to be getting a lot of attention lately.

    Advocates describe the trigger as “parent empowerment," a means by which parents of students stuck in “failing schools” can take direct action to improve the lives of their kids. Opponents, on the other hand, see it as antithetical to the principle of schools as a public good – parents don’t own schools, the public does. And important decisions such as charter conversion, which will have a lasting impact on the community as a whole (including parents of future students), should not be made by a subgroup of voters.

    These are both potentially appealing arguments. In many cases, however, attitudes toward the parent trigger seem more than a little dependent upon attitudes toward charter schools in general. If you strongly support charters, you’ll tend to be pro-trigger, since there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain. If you oppose charter schools, on the other hand, the opposite is likely to be the case. There’s a degree to which it’s not the trigger itself but rather what’s being triggered - opening more charter schools - that’s driving the debate.

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  • Do Charter Schools Serve Fewer Special Education Students?

    Written on June 21, 2012

    A new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) provides one of the first large-scale comparisons of special education enrollment between charter and regular public schools. The report’s primary finding, which, predictably, received a fair amount of attention, is that roughly 11 percent of students enrolled in regular public schools were on special education plans in 2009-10, compared with just 8 percent of charter school students.

    The GAO report’s authors are very careful to note that their findings merely describe what you might call the “service gap” – i.e., the proportion of special education students served by charters versus regular public schools – but that they do not indicate the reasons for this disparity.

    This is an important point, but I would take the warning a step further:  The national- and state-level gaps themselves should be interpreted with the most extreme caution.

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  • Quality Control In Charter School Research

    Written on May 18, 2012

    There's a fairly large body of research showing that charter schools vary widely in test-based performance relative to regular public schools, both by location as well as subgroup. Yet, you'll often hear people point out that the highest-quality evidence suggests otherwise (see here, here and here) - i.e., that there are a handful of studies using experimental methods (randomized controlled trials, or RCTs) and these analyses generally find stronger, more uniform positive charter impacts.

    Sometimes, this argument is used to imply that the evidence, as a whole, clearly favors charters, and, perhaps by extension, that many of the rigorous non-experimental charter studies - those using sophisticated techniques to control for differences between students - would lead to different conclusions were they RCTs.*

    Though these latter assertions are based on a valid point about the power of experimental studies (the few of which we have are often ignored in the debate over charters), they are dubiously overstated for a couple of reasons, discussed below. But a new report from the (indispensable) organization Mathematica addresses the issue head on, by directly comparing estimates of charter school effects that come from an experimental analysis with those from non-experimental analyses of the same group of schools.

    The researchers find that there are differences in the results, but many are not statistically significant and those that are don't usually alter the conclusions. This is an important (and somewhat rare) study, one that does not, of course, settle the issue, but does provide some additional tentative support for the use of strong non-experimental charter research in policy decisions.

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  • The Relatively Unexplored Frontier Of Charter School Finance

    Written on May 3, 2012

    Do charter schools do more – get better results - with less? If you ask this question, you’ll probably get very strong answers, ranging from the affirmative to the negative, often depending on the person’s overall view of charter schools. The reality, however, is that we really don’t know.

    Actually, despite uninformed coverage of insufficient evidence, researchers don’t even have a good handle on how much charter schools spend, to say nothing of whether how and how much they spend leads to better outcomes. Reporting of charter financial data is incomplete, imprecise and inconsistent. It is difficult to disentangle the financial relationships between charter management organizations (CMOs) and the schools they run, as well as that between charter schools and their "host" districts.

    A new report published by the National Education Policy Center, with support from the Shanker Institute and the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, examines spending between 2008 and 2010 among charter schools run by major CMOs in three states – New York, Texas and Ohio. The results suggest that relative charter spending in these states, like test-based charter performance overall, varies widely. In addition, perhaps more importantly, the findings make it clear that there remain significant barriers to accurate spending comparisons between charter and regular public schools, which severely hinder rigorous efforts to examine the cost-effectiveness of these schools.

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  • The Test-Based Evidence On New Orleans Charter Schools

    Written on April 27, 2012

    Charter schools in New Orleans (NOLA) now serve over four out of five students in the city – the largest market share of any big city in the nation. As of the 2011-12 school year, most of the city’s schools (around 80 percent), charter and regular public, are overseen by the Recovery School District (RSD), a statewide agency created in 2003 to take over low-performing schools, which assumed control of most NOLA schools in Katrina’s aftermath.

    Around three-quarters of these RSD schools (50 out of 66) are charters. The remainder of NOLA’s schools are overseen either by the Orleans Parish School Board (which is responsible for 11 charters and six regular public schools, and taxing authority for all parish schools) or by the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (which is directly responsible for three charters, and also supervises the RSD).

    New Orleans is often held up as a model for the rapid expansion of charter schools in other urban districts, based on the argument that charter proliferation since 2005-06 has generated rapid improvements in student outcomes. There are two separate claims potentially embedded in this argument. The first is that the city’s schools perform better that they did pre-Katrina. The second is that NOLA’s charters have outperformed the city’s dwindling supply of traditional public schools since the hurricane.

    Although I tend strongly toward the viewpoint that whether charter schools "work" is far less important than why - e.g., specific policies and practices - it might nevertheless be useful to quickly address both of the claims above, given all the attention paid to charters in New Orleans.

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  • Dispatches From The Nexus Of Bad Research And Bad Journalism

    Written on March 12, 2012

    In a recent story, the New York Daily News uses the recently-released teacher data reports (TDRs) to “prove” that the city’s charter school teachers are better than their counterparts in regular public schools. The headline announces boldly: New York City charter schools have a higher percentage of better teachers than public schools (it has since been changed to: "Charters outshine public schools").

    Taking things even further, within the article itself, the reporters note, “The newly released records indicate charters have higher performing teachers than regular public schools."

    So, not only are they equating words like “better” with value-added scores, but they’re obviously comfortable drawing conclusions about these traits based on the TDR data.

    The article is a pretty remarkable display of both poor journalism and poor research. The reporters not only attempted to do something they couldn’t do, but they did it badly to boot. It’s unfortunate to have to waste one’s time addressing this kind of thing, but, no matter your opinion on charter schools, it's a good example of how not to use the data that the Daily News and other newspapers released to the public.

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  • The Charter School Authorization Theory

    Written on March 8, 2012

    Anyone who wants to start a charter school must of course receive permission, and there are laws and policies governing how such permission is granted. In some states, multiple entities (mostly districts) serve as charter authorizers, whereas in others, there is only one or very few. For example, in California there are almost 300 entities that can authorize schools, almost all of them school districts. In contrast, in Arizona, a state board makes all the decisions.

    The conventional wisdom among many charter advocates is that the performance of charter schools depends a great deal on the “quality” of authorization policies – how those who grant (or don’t renew) charters make their decisions. This is often the response when supporters are confronted with the fact that charter results are varied but tend to be, on average, no better or worse than those of regular public schools. They argue that some authorization policies are better than others, i.e., bad processes allow some poorly-designed schools start, while failing to close others.

    This argument makes sense on the surface, but there seems to be scant evidence on whether and how authorization policies influence charter performance. From that perspective, the authorizer argument might seem a bit like tautology – i.e., there are bad schools because authorizers allow bad schools to open, and fail to close them. As I am not particularly well-versed in this area, I thought I would look into this a little bit.

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  • Schools' Effectiveness Varies By What They Do, Not What They Are

    Written on February 1, 2012

    There may be a mini-trend emerging in certain types of charter school analyses, one that seems a bit trivial but has interesting implications that bear on the debate about charter schools in general. It pertains to how charter effects are presented.

    Usually, when researchers estimate the effect of some intervention, the main finding is the overall impact, perhaps accompanied by a breakdown by subgroups and supplemental analyses. In the case of charter schools, this would be the estimated overall difference in performance (usually testing gains) between students attending charters versus their counterparts in comparable regular public schools.

    Two relatively recent charter school reports, however – both generally well-done given their scope and available data – have taken a somewhat different approach, at least in the “public roll-out” of their results.

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  • New Policy Brief: The Evidence On Charter Schools And Test Scores

    Written on December 14, 2011

    In case you missed it, today we released a new policy brief, which provides an accessible review of the research on charter schools’ testing effects, how their varying impacts might be explained, and what this evidence suggests about the ongoing proliferation of these schools.

    The brief is an adaptation of a three-part series of posts on this blog (here is part one, part two and part three).

    Download the policy brief (PDF)

    The abstract is pasted directly below.

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