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Charter schools that start bad stay bad, study finds

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Charter schools that start out doing poorly aren’t likely to improve, and charters that are successful from the beginning most often stay that way, according to a new study by researchers at Stanford University.

The report, done by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) and funded by the Robertson Foundation, also found that charter management organizations on average do not do a “dramatically better” job than traditional public schools or charter schools that are individually managed.

One caveat to the findings: They are based on standardized test scores, and there are big concerns among educators and researchers as to whether student achievement should be primarily based on these scores given the limitations of test design and other factors. I am writing about the report because it is going to be cited in the school reform debate, as previous CREDO reports have been, especially the 2009 report that showed that only 17 percent of charter schools across the board get better test scores than traditional schools.

The latest report, conveniently released during National School Choice Week, found that the success or failure of charters can be predicted by the third of operation. Assigning charters to one of five different ranks based on performance, the researchers found that 80 percent at the bottom in their first year were still at the bottom in year five. Ninety-four percent of charters that began at the top level were still there five years later.

The only schools that saw any movement across levels were those in the second-lowest level; by year five; half had fallen to the bottom and the other half had improved, mostly to the third level. And the report said that it was only elementary schools that showed an upward pattern of growth. “Substantial improvement over time is largely absent from middle schools, multi-level schools and high schools,” it said.

“Poor first year performance simply cannot be overlooked or excused,” it says. “For the majority of schools, poor first year performance will give way to poor second year performance. Once this has happened, the future is predictable and extremely bleak. For the students enrolled in these schools, this is a tragedy that must not be dismissed.”

The findings could have a big impact on charter school policy (if policymakers actually looked at research, which they famously don’t.) Some states, like Michigan, permit charter management organizations to open new schools even if the ones they are already running aren’t doing well. In fact,a pro-charter organization, Democrats for Education Reform, recently issued a statement expressing concern that charter policy in the state does not adequately address the issue of charter quality as it allows charter expansion.

The first part of the CREDO study discusses the thousands of charters in 23 states plus New York City and Washington, D.C. that the researchers looked at  from the time the schools opened through their fifth year, and the second part analyzes 167 charter management organizations with a total of 1,372 schools.

Among the report’s findings:

* Charter management organizations “on average are not dramatically better than non-CMO schools in terms of their contributions to student learning.

*Charter management organizations “produce stronger academic gains for students of color and students  in poverty than those students would have realized either in traditional public schools (TPS) or in many categories what would have learned in independent charter schools.”

* There is wide variation in the quality of the results produced by charter management organizations. “Across the 167 CMOs, 43 percent outpace the learning gains of their local TPS in reading; 37 percent of CMOs do so in math. These proportions are more positive than was seen for charter schools as a whole, where 17 percent posted better results. However, about a third (37%) of CMOs have portfolio average learning gains that are significantly worse in reading, and half lag their TPS counterparts in math.

* Few observable attributes of charter management organizations provide reliable signals of performance.

*Charter management organizations “that are driving to scale show that scale and quality are not mutually assured.”