Editorial in the New York Times, February 1, 2013
The charter school movement gained a foothold in American education two decades ago partly by asserting that independently run, publicly financed schools would outperform traditional public schools if they were exempted from onerous regulations. The charter advocates also promised that unlike traditional schools, which were allowed to fail without consequence, charter schools would be rigorously reviewed and shut down when they failed to perform.
With thousands of charter schools now operating in 40 states, and more coming online every day, neither of these promises has been kept. Despite a growing number of studies showing that charter schools are generally no better — and often are worse — than their traditional counterparts, the state and local agencies and organizations that grant the charters have been increasingly hesitant to shut down schools, even those that continue to perform abysmally for years on end.
If the movement is to maintain its credibility, the charter authorizers must shut down failed schools quickly and limit new charters to the most credible applicants, including operators who have a demonstrated record of success.
That is the clear message of continuing analysis from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, which tracks student performance in 25 states. In 2009, its large-scale study showed that only 17 percent of charter schools provided a better education than traditional schools, and 37 percent actually offered children a worse education.
A study released this week by the center suggests that the standards used by the charter authorizers to judge school performance are terribly weak.
It debunked the common notion that it takes a long time to tell whether a new school can improve student learning. In fact, the study notes, it is pretty clear after just three years which schools are going to be high performers and which of them will be mediocre. By that time, the charter authorizers should be putting troubled schools on notice that they might soon be closed. As the study notes: “For the majority of schools, poor first year performance will give way to poor second year performance. Once this has happened, the future is predictable and extremely bleak. For the students enrolled in these schools, this is a tragedy that must not be dismissed.”
The same principles should apply to decisions to allow charter school operators to expand into charter management organizations, which manage several schools under a single organizational umbrella. Permission to expand should be granted only if the schools can demonstrate that they can actually improve student performance.
The study found that minority students and those from poor families fared better in charter management organizations. For example, the Kipp super-network and the Uncommon Schools, two large, established networks, have seen “strong and positive learning gains” for their students.
The study does not explain why these schools perform so well. But the answer is likely that they closely replicate a successful learning program and they keep the level of teaching uniformly high. In any case, the researchers and policy makers need to pay closer attention to how these schools function. For according to the study, Kipp and the Uncommon Schools have actually managed to eliminate the learning gap between poor and higher-income students.
Currently, only 6 percent of all schools are charter schools, and charter networks account for only about one-fifth of that total. States that are in a hurry to expand charter schools should proceed carefully. The evidence of success is not all that ample.