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Charter Students Fare No Better, Study Says

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By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2004

Charter school students across the country are performing no better in math and reading than their peers at regular public schools and by some measures are doing worse, according to a report released yesterday by an independent, congressionally mandated research group.

The survey by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which describes itself as "the nation's report card," showed that 58 percent of fourth-grade students in charter schools performed at a basic level in reading, compared with 62 percent in traditional public schools. When the results were adjusted for race, students at the traditional public schools in the survey still did slightly better, but the margin was deemed "statistically insignificant." Low-income students at regular public schools generally outperformed their charter school counterparts.

The study is perhaps the most authoritative evaluation of charter schools to date. It is politically controversial because the charter school movement was established to provide poor and minority students an alternative to low-performing public schools. Public school advocates pointed to the results as evidence that many charter schools have not lived up to their promise of significantly raising academic achievement.

Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige, an outspoken supporter of charter schools and other forms of school choice, said in a statement that the NAEP study "should not be used as a red flag by those with an agenda to stop the charter school movement in its tracks." He said charter schools tend to serve "students whom the traditional public school system left behind years ago."

Catering to more than 1 million students nationwide, charter schools are a part of public school districts and are funded by taxpayers but operate under independent boards with considerable academic autonomy. The movement has expanded rapidly over the past few years, notably in the District, where nearly 20 percent of students now attend 49 charter schools. There are five charter schools in Virginia and one in Maryland.

Unlike most private schools and many voucher schools, charter schools must participate in the same kind of accountability studies, based on standardized tests, as traditional public schools. The NAEP report looked at a representative sample of more than 3,000 students in 150 charter schools across the country, comparing their performance with that of nearly 190,000 traditional public school students.

The study suggested a slight edge for the regular public schools among students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a standard measure of poverty. Sixty-two percent of regular public school fourth-graders in this category performed at a basic level in math, compared with 53 percent in the charter schools, a statistically meaningful difference.

According to the NAEP study, charter schools achieve better results in their first year of operation than in subsequent years. For the critics, this is evidence that the alternative schools are siphoning good students from public schools. Charter school advocates pointed to a slight upturn in academic performance at well-established charter schools as evidence that the schools are on the right track.

Some of the data in the survey were released unofficially in August, provoking a furious debate between advocates and opponents of charter schools. Both sides were represented at yesterday's news conference where the more detailed survey was unveiled by the NAEP, which was established by Congress in 1969 to provide objective evaluations of the state of American education.

"If our much-maligned public schools are failing, then charter schools . . . are failing, too," said Bella Rosenberg, assistant to the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which released the unofficial data this summer. She said that charter schools seemed to be doing a poorer job of educating low-income and special education students than regular public schools.

Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a pro-charter advocacy group, said the NAEP statistics did not tell "the full story" about charter schools, which tend to recruit a disproportionate number of students from disadvantaged groups. She described the NAEP results as "a statistical dead heat" and pointed to studies by private researchers that suggest that "the longer kids are in charter schools, the better they do."

The NAEP study showed that charter schools recruit more black students than regular public schools (31 percent to 17 percent) and are more likely to be located in central urban areas (50 percent to 29 percent). However, regular public schools cater to slightly higher proportions of students with disabilities and low-income students than charter schools. Teachers at regular public schools tend to have greater experience and stronger academic qualifications than their charter school counterparts.

Advocates for charter schools note that they have succeeded in winning the confidence of large numbers of parents disillusioned with regular public schools. Deputy Education Secretary Eugene W. Hickok described the NAEP study as useful but noted that it made no mention of "parental satisfaction, which is a big part of the charter school movement."

The Department of Education drew attention to a study by Harvard Economics professor Caroline Hoxby showing that charter school students that have been operating for nine or more years are 10 percent more likely to be proficient in reading and math than neighboring public schools. Other researchers have criticized the methodology used by Hoxby, and Hoxby herself has had to correct some of her data.

Both sides agree that charter schools and traditional public schools vary widely in quality, and that further research is necessary to determine the progress of individual students within the two systems. Under its present statute, the NAEP is prohibited from tracking individual students.


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