New Grades on Charter Schools

Courtney Williams's picture
Friday, November 4, 2011

The two most common criticisms about charter schools are that A) many of them aren’t that good and B) the good ones can’t be replicated to serve enough kids to really make a difference.

TIME got an exclusive first look at the most comprehensive evaluation of charter school networks ever, and although the study, which will be released today, underscores the challenge of creating quality schools, it also makes clear that it is indeed possible to build a lot of schools that are game-changers for a lot of students.

The study, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research and the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, examined networks of affiliated charter schools, which in the education world are referred to as charter school management organizations (CMOs). There are more than 130 of these non-profit networks serving about 250,000 students nationwide. I was on an advisory board for the early conception and design of this study, the goal of which was to better understand how CMOs operate and how effective they are. The study is filled with valuable data about how CMOs manage their teachers, how much funding they get and how they use it and what kinds of students they serve. But I’m focusing here on student achievement, which is, of course, the most contentious issue in the national debate about charter schools.

Of the 40 CMOs that were selected for inclusion in the study for various reasons, including having a minimum of four member schools, 22 networks had sufficient data for the student-achievement analysis, which looked at three years of middle-school performance. The study found that, in general, students at charter-network schools outperform similar students at traditional public schools, although sometimes not by very much. But that overall average masks an enormous variation among different CMOs. High-performing CMOs are so effective they are providing the equivalent of three years of schooling for students every two years. But CMOs at the low end are so bad they are effectively costing students a year of learning every two years. Bottom line: 10 of the 22 CMOs are outperforming their public-school peers in math and reading, in some cases substantially; eight are middling; and four are serious laggards.

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