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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 07/15/2010

What does "charterness" mean, exactly?

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is Matthew Di Carlo, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Albert Shanker Institute. This post appeared on the institute’s new Shanker Blog.

By Matthew Di Carlo
Two weeks ago, researchers from Mathematica dropped a bomb on the education policy community. It didn’t go off.

A report on charter schools prepared for the Institute for Education Sciences, a division of the Department of Education, looked at students in 36 charter schools throughout 15 states.

The central conclusion: The vast majority of charter students does no better or worse than their regular public counterparts in math and reading scores (or on most of the other 35 outcomes examined). On the other hand, charter parents and students are more satisfied with their schools, and charters are more effective boosting scores of lower-income students.

The study, of course, is not without caveats (e.g., bias from limiting the sample to middle schools and “oversubscribed” charters only), and there was wide variation in charter performance.

But the thoroughness and sophistication of the methods, the inclusion of charters in multiple locations across the nation, and especially the use random assignment from charter lotteries, make this analysis among the most definitive on the topic to date (see also Zimmer et al. 2009; Hoxby et al. 2009; Abdulkadiroglu et al. 2009; and CREDO 2009).

Nevertheless, given our inability to generalize one analysis to the entire charter population, as well as the polarized nature of the charter debate, it’s hardly surprising that this report has not settled much. What is surprising is that this study got far less attention and discussion than many dozens of reports of decidedly lower quality and importance.

Actually, it got barely any coverage at all.

In part, perhaps this is because it came on the heels of another Mathematica report released the previous week, which (convincingly) shows positive effects of KIPP charter schools.

For some, these two reports’ conflicting findings probably, and paradoxically, reinforced a single conclusion, an empirical impasse that goes something like this: “Some charter schools (like KIPP) work, and some don’t, so we have to replicate the schools that work and close the ones that don’t.”

This notion is misguided. “Charterness” is not a policy. If a particular policy or set of practices seems to help increase student performance, we should replicate those practices, not entire schools that adopted them. Doing the latter is sort of like buying a second home just to have a garage.

Accordingly, as many have pointed out, we need to use good research to identify these policies. And to its great credit, this study does take a rare look at how different charter school characteristics and operations are associated with performance (see Hoxby et al. 2009 and Berends et al. 2010 for other looks).

Here are the broad strokes on what they found: there is compelling evidence that schools with lower enrollment do better, along with positive, though weaker, effects from more per-pupil revenue, more school time (longer days and/or years), higher student-to-teacher ratios, and the use of ability grouping (assigning students at similar achievement levels to work together). The findings suggest a few practical implications.

First the “effects” of these interventions vary greatly by subject (virtually none is associated with reading performance). This speaks to the idea, which is not often discussed, that the changes we make will need to be “customized” for different subjects.

Second, most of the policies and factors receiving at least some support require greater investment – in short, more money. The very tentative evidence in this report supports investing in smaller schools (and not closing them), longer years/days, and perhaps different strategies for different subjects.

Third, almost all of the policies associated with higher performance have been in the mix for a long time, and none is particularly innovative.

While its findings are hardly the final word, the analysis provides no supporting evidence for the factors it includes that are typically advanced by charter supporters, most notably autonomy, accountability, and operation by a private organization (the newer forms of “teacher quality” policies were not examined).

In other words, it may be that truly effective “charterness” relies, perhaps to a large extent, on tools we already knew worked – providing struggling students with time, attention, and resources.

In this sense, a big component of charters’ legacy may be the simple gift of a frame of reference, of intra-district variation in practices and policies that regular public schools had not been providing. Regardless of your stance on charter schools, the opportunity they provide to unpack school effects is quite valuable (and it’s something regular public districts might do more themselves).

That’s part of what makes reports like this so important, and why, if nobody will break ranks in the charter debate, we should still use this research productively. Maybe that is already happening behind closed doors in some accountability-filled room.

But there is a lot of uncertainty out here, and in supporting charters for charters’ sake, some of us are missing the causation forest for the correlation trees.

So, let’s identify the specific policies and practices that are effective, and use them in all schools. We don’t need to destroy our public education system in order to save it.

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By Valerie Strauss  | July 15, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Charter schools, Guest Bloggers, Matthew Di Carlo  | Tags:  al shanker, al shanker institute, charter schools and research  
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Comments

"In other words, it may be that truly effective “charterness” relies, perhaps to a large extent, on tools we already knew worked – providing struggling students with time, attention, and resources."

The very things knowledgeable, committed teachers have been declaring all along. Thanks for this clear, informative column.

Posted by: Incidentally | July 15, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

Charter schools are for the disaster Title 1 poverty public schools like DC.

There is evidence that schools that get rid of problem students that interfere with the education of other students do better.

There is evidence that schools that get rid of violent students do better.

One grows tired in this pretense about public charter schools which are simply a sop of the politicians for parents that know that sending their children to the disaster Title 1 poverty public schools is the kiss of death.

The problems of disaster Title 1 public schools are totally ignored. Any schools for poverty neighborhoods is better than the Title 1 public schools when the school has the ability to dump the problems back into the disaster Title 1 public schools.

The politicians that wants votes from the voters of poverty neighborhoods of Title 1 poverty public schools know that it far easier to get these votes with public charter schools instead of the difficult problems of fixing the disaster of Title 1 poverty public schools.

Any parent of the majority of middle class and affluent public schools in the nation would look at you strange if you proposed a public charter school for their school system. These schools system take care of the problems. The school administrators have policies in place to deal with problems. They do not tell a teacher that reports a student that interferes with the education of other children to do better with their class management skills.

How about some honesty for a change.

Poverty public schools do poorly. Poverty public charter schools do better than poverty public schools.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 15, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

@bsallamack

While I agree with many points you make, I am not against charter schools in general. Where I teach (Philly), there reigns a clear momentum toward charters. However, in a district of about 170,000 students, it is still a drop in the bucket. I believe that our families deserve alternatives, good ones.Our problem in Philadelphia has been that charters have become synonymous with quality and we know that's just not true.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | July 15, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

@bsallamack

While I agree with many points you make, I am not against charter schools in general. Where I teach (Philly), there reigns a clear momentum toward charters. However, in a district of about 170,000 students, it is still a drop in the bucket. I believe that our families deserve alternatives, good ones.Our problem in Philadelphia has been that charters have become synonymous with quality and we know that's just not true.

Posted by: Nikki1231
...................................
Public charter schools would be acceptable if they were used to discover and explore the problems of Title 1 poverty public schools in order to fix these problem.

Instead there is total ignoring of the problems and absolutely no new ideas on how to deal with the problems of Title 1 poverty public schools.

So far the only thing that public charter schools have proved is that a majority of the children that are in Title 1 poverty public schools can do reasonably well if they do not have to deal with the problems that are ignored and plague the Title 1 poverty public schools.

Let us stop this charade about public charter schools. These school succeed only on the basis that they can get rid of quickly the students who create the mayhem in the Title 1 poverty public schools.

The teachers in the public charter schools are not better than the teachers in the Title 1 poverty public schools. Probably in many cases the teachers in the public charter schools are in many cases less qualified and experienced than teachers in the Title 1 poverty public schools. But the public charter teachers are allowed to teach and not devote most of their attention on "class management" of in many cases in the earlier grade a single student who can turn a class room into a zoo.

The reality is that young children in a class room learn as much from other children as they do from the teacher. Have one student who is disruptive and tolerated and in one year you will have two and three. It is no surprise that the number of problem students in the Title 1 poverty public schools increases as they progress from kindergarten to high school.

Please no more charade about public charter schools. Let the politicians fix the problems in the Title 1 poverty public schools instead of ignoring them.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 15, 2010 5:59 PM | Report abuse

If we already know the tools that work, then why haven't they been put to use. The existing system makes it nearly impossible. The fact is that charter schools have unique cultures in which to implement these tools, which may be more a function of being new start-up schools than just being charter schools. If that's the case, then perhaps the strategy of closing failing schools and replacing them with new ones, charter or district, is the right way to go. It creates the opportunity to implement these tools simultaneously with a staff that is invested in using them, rather than trying to change entrenched school cultures.

Posted by: gideon4ed | July 16, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

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