Monday, September 30, 2013

Charter School Performance in Perspective

Priscilla Wohlstetter, Joanna Smith, and Caitlin C. Farrell have published In Choices and Challenges: Charter School Performance in Perspective (Harvard Education Press, 2013).  The book analyzes more than 400 journal articles and think-tank papers regarding charter school innovation, student performance, accountability outcomes, competition and more.

Cribbing from the press release:

On student achievement, which Wohlstetter calls the “lightning-rod issue,” she says “the-big finding that continues to hold up in state after state” is that “charter schools are over-represented at both the higher and lower ends of student achievement.”  Which raises the policy question: “Why are we not replicating schools at the high end, and why are authorizers not closing down schools at the low end?”

On the question of how charter schools use their autonomy, the answer seems to be: not much and not terribly well.

The evidence suggests that charter schools do not always use the autonomy they’ve been granted in ways that improve test scores. In fact, the research shows that charters overall are doing very little to tap the potential of innovative strategies such as hybrid classroom/online teaching, which can be effective with at-risk students and other populations. “I’d like charter schools to be bolder and push the envelope beyond a classroom of one teacher and 30 students,” Wohlstetter says.

Their failure to do so may be related to another finding:  As the charter movement scales up, through both for-profit and non-profit school networks --and in some states charter districts, school-level autonomy may wane. Charters are increasingly run by Education Management Organizations (EMOs) and their non-profit counterparts, Charter Management Organizations (CMOs). CMOs in particular have been “fueled by a huge infusion of philanthropic money,” Wohlstetter says. They often perform well  but remain insufficiently studied; the first journal article on the topic, by Wohlstetter and her co-authors, appeared only last year.

In considering the hot-button issue of whether charters are more racially segregated than other schools, the authors say that the great diversity of schools and the immense variance in the state and local rules that govern them make it impossible to generalize. For example, 16 states have rules requiring charters to reflect the diversity of surrounding communities. In other areas, the charters’ admissions policies favoring siblings can perpetuate racial imbalance. . . .

Despite all their flaws and inconsistencies, charter schools are unlikely to go away any time soon, Wohlstetter says. . . . “I don’t think something is out there that is going to replace charters,” Wohlstetter says, “They were created as laboratories for innovation. The question is whether they can offer us lessons to help him improve traditional public schools.”

Charters and Vouchers, Scholarship, Studies and Reports | Permalink


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