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Please begin with an informative title:

Last week, I wrote a diary sharing my experience with a small charter school in Northern California. I opened a can of worms that, though not completely unexpected, was much larger than I had imagined. I found that we have Kossacks who literally hate all charter schools across the board (and homeschooling, too) and Kossacks who support the growth of charters in a responsible manner. We succeeded in confirming only one fact - self proclaimed progressives are not on the same page when it comes to education. Not at all.

A report by CREDO, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (not the phone company), was referred to by several of the opponents of charter schools. Azezelo kindly offered me the link and I've spent some time reading the report.

I was surprised. The report is not the damning piece of evidence against charter schools. Rather, it reveals both some of the problems and of the benefits of charter school education models. CREDO also makes recommendations on how to improve the charter system rather than getting rid of it all together.

Intro

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Let's begin with the most quoted portion of the CREDO report:

The study reveals that a decent fraction of charter schools, 17 percent, provide superior educaton opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.
Opponents of charter schools have used this quote to claim that the majority of charter schools are either worse or no better than traditional public schools. Fair enough. When you look at this paragraph, that's exactly what it says. You add the numbers for succeeding as well as with failing and you end up with more than 51%. Of course, add superior numbers to succeeding numbers and the number is more than 51% as well. It's that 37% that really stands out.

Let's look at a little more closely to get a better idea of what these numbers really mean. From here on out in the diary, all bolding is mine for emphasis. And we need to explain the term TPS - it stands for 'Twin Public School.' In order to compare charter schools to public schools, the study created virtual public schools - basically the students in real life come from many different public schools. More about this towards the end of the diary.

Here is the worst:

On average, charter school students can expect to see their acadmic growth be somewhat lower than their traditional public school peers, though the absolute differences are small. Charter students trail the academic growth of TPS students by .01 standard deviations in reading, and by .03 standard deviations in math. Though small, these effects are statistically significant. These findings hold for students across the board of inital starting scores, except for students in the lowest and highest starting deciles in reading
And here is the best:
There is some good news as well. Nationally, elementary and middle school charter students exhibited higher learning gains than equivalent students in the traditional public school system. In addition, some subgroups demonstrated greater academic growth than their TPS twins. Specifically, students in poverty and ELL students experience larger learning gains in charter schools. Other subgroups, however, including Black and HIspanic students as a whole, have learning gains that are significantly smaller than those of their TPS twins.
 
Remove high schools from the mix, and the numbers start to look a whole lot better.

The other day, I saw a lot of 'facts' thrown around in the comments of my diary. One of them was:

Charter schools don't help poor kids learn better.

One person actually used the CREDO report to support this 'fact.' Unfortunately, he didn't read the entire report or chose to cherry pick because, according to the report, if charter schools do anything, they help kids in poverty:

In our nationally pooled sample, two subgroups fare better in charters than in the traditional system: students in poverty and ELL students. This is no small feat. In these cases, our numbers indicate that charter students who fall into these categories are outperforming their TPS counterparts in both reading and math. These populations, then, have clearly been well served by the introduction of charters into the education landscape. These findings are particularly heartening for the charter advocates who target the most challenging educational populations or strive to improve education options in the most difficult communities. Charter schools that are organized around a mission to teach the most economically disadvantaged students in particular seem to have developed expertise in serving these communities.
Another 'fact' that was often hinted at but never explicitly stated was that average American middle class families benefit from charters more than any other population, at the detriment to the local public school. Ironically, the CREDO report has  this to say:
Students not in poverty and students who are not English language learners on average do notably worse than the same students who remain in traditional public school systems.
Essentially, many of us on DKos who support charter schools fall into that category - families not in poverty and families that already speak English. We would be the ones least served by the introduction of a charter school in our community yet many of us still support charter schools.

Look at what charter schools are doing in some states:

Black charter school students do better compared to their TPS peers in both math and reading in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Missouri. In addition, Black charter school students to better in California and better in math in Arkansas than their TPS peers.

(snip)

Hispanic charter school students do better compared to their TPS peers in both math and reading in Missouri. In addition, Hispanic charter school students do better in math in Arkansas, Colorado and Louisiana than their TPS peers.

Why do charter schools work for some populations in some places and not in others? This is actually a question a lot of us were asking in the comments of last week's diary. To me, this is the very heart of the matter. This is why charter schools are important. When we see where they succeed and where they fail, we can use those examples to improve the entire public school system.

What is clear from the report is that some state Charter School Systems are doing well while others are not. Again, according to the CREDO report:

The effectiveness of charter schools was found to vary widely by state.

In five states - Arkansas, Colorado (Denver), Illinois (Chicago), Lousiana, and Missouris - charter school students experienced significantly larger growth - ranging from .02 standard deviations to .07 standard deviations - than would have occured in TPS.

In six states - Arizona, Florida, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, and Texas - charter school students experienced lower learning gains - ranging from -.01 to -.06 - than would have occurred in TPS.

In four states - California, District of Columbia, Georgia, and North Carolina - the results were mixed or no different from the gains for TPS.

During the conversations in my last diary, we were beginning to come to similar conclusions. It seemed that some of us had great experiences in some states and horrible experiences in others. Seemed like there was little in between. The hard part that we didn't figure out is why. The CREDO report addresses some of the failures, though not all:
  • The academic success of charter school students was found to be affected by the contours of the charter policies under which their schools operate
  • States that have limits on the number of charter schools permitted to operate, known as caps, realize significantly lower academic growth than states without caps, around .03 standard deviations.
  • States that empower multiple entities to act as charter school authorizers realize significantly lower growth in academic learning in their students, on the order of -.08 standard deviations. While more research is needed into the causal mechanism, it appears that charter school operators are able to identify and choose the more permissive entity to provide them oversight
  • Where state charter legislation provides an avenue for appeals of adverse decision on applications or renewals, students realize a small but signigicant gain in learning, about .02 standard deviations
In other words, we need to have charter contracts that are well written from the start, states should consider making charter growth unlimited while providing only one or two very specific authorizing bodies with clear standards, and states should provide access to appeal the decisions of the authorizing body.

How many of us know what the specific rules are in our state?

The CREDO report, while acknowledging that Charter schools can do well:

Students do better in charter schools over time. First year charter students on average experience a decline in learning, which may reflect a combination of mobility effects and the experience of a charter school in its early years. Second and third years in charter schools see a significant reversal to positive gains.
Gives a very strong warning to those of us who support Charters:
Further, tremendous variation in academic quality among charters is the norm, not the exception. The problem of quality is the most pressing issue that charter schools and their supporters face.
The report especially calls out authorizing bodies in their role. Basically, unless authorizing bodies start taking their job more seriously and weed out more of the failing charter schools, the entire system could fail. We can see that here at DailyKos. People are arguing for the end of all charter schools because of the failures of some. Those who make that argument are on the reverse spectrum of those claiming that the public school system is failing. Neither are right.

My personal conclusions after reading the report:

1. We seriously need to take a look at charters for High School students. If they are failing in such numbers as to bring down the entire percentage for all charter schools, then the models being used are obviously flawed.

2. Because charter schools don't seem to help middle class students near successful public schools but do seem to help students in poverty, we need to find ways to expand the charter model in communities that they can best serve.

3. The problems with charters needs to be tackled on a State by State level, changing laws in those states where Charters Schools are most struggling and improving laws in other states to best optimize the system.

Now, all of this said, we need to remember a couple of things. First, there are people who believe this entire report is flawed. One person in particular, Caroline Hoxby, has written about what she sees as a serious statistical mistake in the report. You can read both her letters and CREDO's responses on the bottom of this page.

The report bases all of its information on standardized test scores. Most of us here at DailyKos have a serious problem with student performance being judged solely by tests. That should make us think twice about some of the findings in this report as well.

I found it interesting that there was never a head to head comparison of schools, only a comparison of charter schools students to public school students through the Virtual Public School model created by the study's designers.

With that said, we in the community need to make a choice about using this report to support our points of view. If you claim part of it, should you claim all of it? I'm not fond of people who cherry pick the good and fail to share the bad. I've done my best to give you an honest assessment of what this report has to offer.

What I hope happens, especially here at DailyKos, is that we stop demonizing Charter Schools and start seeing them as part of a broad system of education alternatives.
If we hope to once again have a vibrant education system in the United States, we need to pull out all the stops and use everything at our disposal, including successful charter schools.

Interested in other conversations about education? Follow us at Education Alternatives.

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