A mantra in contemporary public education is the importance of “evidence-based strategies.” In early June, the evidence came in. Conclusively. Public charter schools work, and they work best for historically disadvantaged students: those who are Black or Hispanic and/or from low-income households.
“The typical charter school student in our national sample had reading and math gains that outpaced their peers in the traditional public schools (TPS) they otherwise would have attended,” states the new report from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). The authors go on: “Black and Hispanic students advance more than their TPS peers by large margins in both math and reading.”
CREDO reports the difference in learning between charter and traditional public students in learning days. Nationally, charter students saw an average of 16 additional days of learning in reading and six days in math, per year (assuming 180 days in a school year).
The bigger news is that brick-and-mortar charter schools in cities delivered even bigger academic gains: 30 additional days of learning in reading and 28 days in math. The biggest effects occurred among Black charter students in poverty: 37 additional days of learning in reading and 36 days in math, or about 20 percent more learning per year than their peers in TPS. Hispanic charter students gained 36 additional days in reading and 30 in math.
“Black and Hispanic students advance more than their TPS peers by large margins in both math and reading.”— CREDO study authors
The CREDO report follows two earlier studies done by the research group, published in 2009 and 2013. The first of these reported no meaningful difference for students in nearly half of charter schools, and, among the rest, found underperforming charters outnumbered highfliers by about two to one. This study was often cited by charter critics, including teachers unions, as evidence that charter schools were an unnecessary or even harmful innovation. The 2013 study showed charters making progress overall, demonstrating a modest learning advantage in reading and mirroring TPS learning in math.
Now, in the latest study, CREDO suggests that charter schools, which first burst on the scene in the late 1990s, have steadily improved with age. What will those critics say now?
Philadelphia charter schools
And what about the Philadelphia Board of Education? Since the current board was formed in 2018, it has denied every new charter application, moved to close several existing charters, and recently revoked four “Renaissance” charters (schools that previously were neighborhood public schools) and moved those schools back under district control. Yet the CREDO report cites seven Philly charter operators as “gap busters,” a label it uses for schools that “have eliminated learning disparities for their students and moved their achievement ahead of their respective state’s average performance.”
In fact, two of the seven gap-busting charter networks, ASPIRA Inc. of Pennsylvania and Universal Education (also known as Universal Companies Family of Schools), operated the four Renaissance charters that had their charters revoked. In all, the seven gap-busting charter organizations operated 45 of the roughly 105 Philly charter campuses during the research period. Today they operate 40 schools in the city, and 90 percent of their students are Black or Hispanic.
|Philadelphia-based charter management organization
|Number of local schools operated 2015-2019
|Gap-busting in reading and/or math
|American Paradigm Schools
|ASPIRA, Inc. of PA
|Freire Charter Schools
|Mastery Charter Schools
The new study listed the performance outcomes for more than 350 charter management organizations but didn’t break out data for smaller networks or single-campus operators. According to CREDO, more than 1,000 charter schools nationwide qualify as gap busters. The significance of that number cannot be understated. “They provide strong empirical proof that high-quality education is possible anywhere,” writes the CREDO research team.
Why charters work better
Although the study was not designed to support claims of causality, the researchers point to the “charter school policy framework” as the “powerful” common denominator. “The ‘flexibility for accountability’ construct is not just a catchphrase,” they write. “It is a distinctly different mode of operation.”
Flexibility means giving charter operators the “discretion to build and deliver curriculum that meets high standards for learning and is responsive to local needs.” Additionally, flexibility gives school leaders the ability to make adjustments in practice, both operationally and academically. Unlike public neighborhood schools, charter schools can use their autonomy to adapt and weed out ineffective practices.
Accountability contributes to the sector’s improved performance over time. A charter agreement is a contract: Schools that perform get renewed, and schools that don’t are subject to revocation or non-renewal. (At least 15 Philly charter schools have closed since 2010.) CREDO attributes improved charter performance nationally in part to stronger authorizer standards and practices.
Notably, CREDO found no evidence that charters’ better outcomes are the result of “cherry picking” better prepared or less disadvantaged students: “In fact, we find the opposite is true: Charter schools enroll students who are disproportionately lower achieving than the students in their former TPS.”
The study’s methodology
CREDO’s methodology is exhaustive. The new study covers the school years from 2015 to 2019, before the pandemic, and is based on a data set that includes 81 percent of all public school students in the United States. Researchers analyze state test data and compare each charter student’s outcomes to a “virtual twin” — a traditional public school student with identical traits and aligned prior test scores — who enrolled in nearby traditional public schools that the charter student likely would have otherwise attended. The matching criteria include demographics, free/reduced lunch status and eligibility for special education. In the end, the measured group of students consisted of 1.8 million charter students and an equal number of virtual twins.
Notably, cyber charter schools delivered dramatically fewer days of learning than traditional public schools: -58 days of learning in reading per year and -124 days in math. If these schools were removed from the national sample, the overall gap between charter schools and TPS would be even bigger. Paradoxically, as the Philly Board of Ed has sought to stop the growth of brick-and-mortar charters, cyber charter enrollment in the city has soared from 6,224 in 2019 to over 11,000 in fiscal year 2022.
A call to action
The CREDO report should serve as a call to action for local education leaders, including likely Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker. Although the School District of Philadelphia’s new strategic plan touts “research-based priorities,” it barely mentions charter schools. The previous strategic plan, enacted shortly after Mayor Kenney replaced the School Reform Commission with the new, local Board of Education, also prominently called for deploying evidence-based strategies while keeping mostly mum about charters.
And while the new CREDO report is the first to show a clear advantage for students in charter schools at the national level, the previous national report, published back in 2013, and a Pennsylvania-specific report published in 2019, made clear that urban charters serving Black and Hispanic students have long delivered outsized learning gains relative to their traditional public peers. Thus, the Board of Ed’s efforts to stop the growth of the city’s charter sector could reasonably be described as the opposite of an evidence-based strategy.
“It has been the case for many years that charter schools produce large learning gains for urban minorities,” observes Jonathan Chait, writing in New York magazine. “The nationwide average was never a good reason to oppose expanding charters in the places where they perform very well, but now the 2009 nationwide result is not only irrelevant but false.”
Consider CREDO’s closing conclusion:
In the year 2023, the importance of strong academic achievement among America’s students has never been greater. The students hit hardest by school closures during the coronavirus pandemic are precisely those whom this research illuminates as being able to benefit the most from charter schools … The current number of students benefiting from these schools is 3.7 million, but the number could drastically increase if more schools agreed to the same arrangement. Whether it be termed “charter school” or something else, the deduction from this data is that when both sides of the equation — flexibility and accountability — are working together for more schools, more students’ academic results will improve.
The embrace of high-performing urban charter schools in Camden and Newark, New Jersey has benefited thousands of minority students while catalyzing improved performance in those cities’ traditional public schools. Now we have fresh evidence of charter schools’ effectiveness right here in Philadelphia, where “embrace” is not a word that would resonate for charter school parents, teachers or leaders. What progress is possible if the city leans on the evidence and elevates the role of charters in its educational strategy?
Mark Gleason is a partner at The Drexel Fund, a nonprofit focused on increasing access to quality private schools for underserved students. Previously, he led the nonprofit Philadelphia School Partnership from 2011-2021 and served as president of a suburban school board in New Jersey.
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