A new federal study of charter schools shows that most had higher numbers of low-achieving minority students from poor families, making them “less likely to meet state performance standards” than regular public schools.
Charter schools for many years have faced serious financing difficulties, strong opposition from school unions and other challenges that the study says put them at a disadvantage when compared to regular public schools.
The school data from the five states in the study, conducted for the U.S. Education Department, was collected before passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB).
“These findings do not indicate that charter schools were less effective than traditional public schools, but suggest that many charter schools will have difficulty meeting the standards established by states under NCLB” for student reading and mathematics proficiency at each grade level, the study concluded.
The six-year study of about 340 public charter schools in Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Texas was done by researchers from the University of Rochester in New York and SRI International.
The charter-school law in Texas targeted “at-risk students” most likely to drop out of school because of low achievement, expulsion, pregnancy, homelessness and so forth, the study found.
Researchers said Texas charter schools included the state’s lowest-achieving, most academically deficient students. Seventy-eight of Texas’ 118 charter schools (66 percent) met state performance standards, while 6,308 (98 percent) of the state’s traditional public schools did so.
Similar results in North Carolina found 88 percent of charter schools and 100 percent of regular public schools met state standards. In Massachusetts, 64 percent of charter schools and 87 percent of regular public schools were up to standards. In Illinois, 52 percent of charters and 82 percent of regular schools met state performance standards.
However, 84 charter schools studied in Colorado were doing about as well as the state’s regular public schools, the study said.
“These findings are not indicative of the impact of student achievement,” the study cautioned. “Furthermore, it is not possible to determine from this study whether or not traditional public schools are more effective than charter schools.”
The opposite might be true, the study said.
The about 2,700 charter schools in the nation have flexibility from state and federal regulations to organize students and curriculum to increase learning achievement.
However, the study did not look at increased student achievement, which charter-school supporters call “the value-added benefit” of schools with more autonomy than regular public schools.
“We need more value-added research that looks at individual student progress from year to year,” said Jennifer Aument of the Center for Education Reform. “We don’t have that.”
Eugene W. Hickok, the Education Department’s deputy secretary, said that the study was “a snapshot” of results prior to NCLB and that additional study is needed to determine how charter schools help students.
Mr. Hickok said the report of 2001-02 results “does not mean that traditional schools are outperforming charter schools or vice versa.”
“More sophisticated studies have shown that charter schools do, in general, help students make faster progress than do traditional public schools,” he said.
Justin Torres, research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, noted that charter schools have encountered strong resistance from the education establishment.
“It’s totally absurd that you have, in most states, local school boards and local districts authorizing charters,” Mr. Torres said. “There’s a natural tension built into that relationship, and it hampers charter growth and operational efficiency. It’s like hiring foxes to guard the henhouse.”