Charter Schools Succeed in Improving Test Scores, Study Says
July 20, 2003
By Greg Winter
Despite consistent financial shortcomings and hefty reliance on inexperienced teachers, charter school students often do better academically than their traditional counterparts, a national study has found.
In comparing charter schools with traditional public schools, the authors of the study noted that charter schools tended to serve a disproportionate number of poor, struggling students at risk of dropping out. The authors said, therefore, that it might not be fair to expect charter schools to perform as well on standardized tests as traditional public schools.
But when measured against those public schools with similar demographic and geographic characteristics, charter schools produced slightly higher gains in math and reading over a one-year period, according to the study, which was conducted by the Manhattan Institute, a national policy research organization.
For students with test scores that fall in the middle of the pack, for example, going to a charter school appeared to add an extra two percentile points in reading and three percentile points in math on standardized tests. These gains were relatively modest, the study found, but were large enough to challenge the notion that charter schools suffer academically because they tend to employ so many uncredentialed teachers, as some critics have suggested.
"Why do they make greater gains?" said Jay Greene, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. "Charter schools enjoy greater freedom from regulation, and that may give them greater flexibility to meet the needs of their students."
The study, released on Wednesday, evaluated test scores from 2000 to 2002.
About 700,000 students attend almost 2,700 charter schools across the nation, and the institute's study focused on roughly 600 in 11 states. Although they are financed with public money, charter schools typically have more autonomy over their teachers, curriculums, resources and even their educational philosophies than traditional public schools.
As a result, Mr. Greene said, charter schools typically spend less time meeting the demands of state and federal bureaucracies and more energy on classwork. They are also voluntary. That means that parents of students at charter schools may be taking a more active role in their children's education, another factor that may help explain their apparent success, the authors said.
The study, which the institute called the first national portrait of charter-school performance, is consistent with other research depicting a similar phenomenon at the state level. Last month, for example, a study of California's public education system found that, although they relied on double the percentage of teachers with emergency credentials and received significantly less money in eight out of nine categories, charter schools did as well as others, taking demographics into account.
Nonetheless, charter schools also appear to be highly segregated. In a study released last week by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard, researchers found that 70 percent of black students in charter schools were enrolled at institutions where more than 90 percent of the students were minorities. Only 34 percent of black students go to traditional public schools with that level of minority attendance, the Harvard study found.
Though the Harvard researchers said that this racial isolation might not necessarily have direct bearing on academic performance, they said it did not bode well for the ability of charter schools to prepare their students for life in a multiracial society.
"It was disappointing for us to see such high levels of segregation in charter schools, because they have the opportunity to transcend traditional school district boundaries and create a more integrated school environment," said Chungmei Lee, a Harvard researcher. "It is a lost opportunity."
Because the charter school movement is relatively new, most of the schools included in the institute's study were started only within the last three to four years. As such, the authors of the study said, one of the reasons their students did not surpass their counterparts at traditional schools by an even greater margin may be the fledgling nature of many charter schools.
"At this point, the most important limitation that they face is their newness," Mr. Greene said.
©2003 The New York Times