Distinguishing between high and low quality charter schools

As I feel a need to do every time I write about charter schools, Michigan Future is a long time supporter of charters and more broadly education choice. Still are. But we have been disappointed in the results of charters (choice too) in Michigan––particularly in our central cities.

Its in urban areas where breakthrough charters are concentrated. Have best fulfilled the promise of how you substantially improve student achievement when you free schools from central office bureaucracy, elected school boards and unions. Supposedly the three impediments that most stood in the way of delivering high quality teaching and learning.

In two recent columns (here and here), David Leonhardt of the New York Times has framed well the reality of charters today. Some are getting the kind of student achievement results we all hoped for when we supported the creation of charters two decades ago, many aren’t. Leonhardt identifies Boston as one of the places with the best results and Detroit as one of the worse.

The challenge for us in Michigan is to stop assuming that charters are inherently higher quality than district schools––they aren’t––or that markets inherently produce better student outcomes than government––they don’t. The reality is that to get strong charters as Leonhardt makes clear you need to balance autonomy with accountability.

One can argue that Massachusetts has gone too far in emphasizing accountability. If I were a Massachusetts voter I would have voted in favor of allowing high performing charter networks to expand in central cities beyond the current cap. But its clear the “lets eliminate the cap of charter schools with no quality standards” that is Michigan’s policy is even more harmful for students.

Using research findings comparing charter school admissions lottery winners and losers in Boston, Leonhardt writes:

When you talk to the professors about their findings, you hear a degree of excitement that’s uncommon for academic researchers. “Relative to other things that social scientists and education policy people have tried to boost performance — class sizes, tracking, new buildings — these schools are producing spectacular gains,” said Joshua Angrist, an M.I.T. professor.

Students who go to Boston’s charter schools learn reading and math better and faster than students elsewhere. They are more likely to take A.P. tests and to do well on them. Their SAT scores are higher than for similar students elsewhere — an average of 51 points higher on the math SAT. Many more students attend a four-year college, suggesting that the benefits don’t disappear over time.

The gains are large enough that some of Boston’s charters, despite enrolling mostly lower-income students, have test scores that resemble those of upper-middle-class public schools. The seventh graders at the Brooke Charter schools in East Boston and Roslindale fare as well on a state math test as students at the prestigious Boston Latin school, the country’s oldest public school and a school with an admissions exam.

A frequent criticism of charters is that they skim off the best students, but that’s not the case in Boston. Many groups that struggle academically — boys, African-Americans, Latinos, special-education students like Alanna — are among the biggest beneficiaries. On average, notes Parag Pathak, also of M.I.T., Boston’s charters eliminate between one-third and one-half of the white-black test-score gap in a single year.

But about Detroit and Michigan Leonhardt finds a different story. He writes:

 … there is clear evidence that competitive market forces, by themselves, don’t prevent bad schools. The market is too complicated: parents and students can’t always judge what makes a good school and can’t easily leave one they have chosen.

Just look at the many poor-performing for-profit colleges — or the fact that Michigan’s version of education reform, which is heavy for-profit schools, seems to be performing worse than other states’ versions. Choice works best when mixed with oversight.

Michigan needs to quickly learn lessons from Massachusetts. Starting with what success looks like. Its not one iota better than the nearby district school, but rather substantial improvement in student outcomes. And that to get those breakthrough gains you need strong accountability standards in who gets to open schools and, maybe even more importantly, who gets to expand.


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