Study: Majority of U.S. charter schools perform equal or worse than traditional schools

Published: Monday, June 24 2013 10:00 p.m. MDT

InTech Collegiate High School students Antonio Jacome and Carlos Sarmiento work on a project during chemistry class in North Logan Wednesday, April 24, 2013.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A new study of 26 states, including Utah, suggests that charter schools have made modest gains in student performance but have not yet surpassed their traditional school counterparts en masse.

In the study, released Tuesday by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, researchers found that charter schools had improved since a similar study in 2009, but noted that those gains were partly due to the closure of underperforming charter schools.

"The results reveal that the charter school sector is getting better on average and that charter schools are benefiting low-income, disadvantaged and special education students,” said Margaret Raymond, director of CREDO at Stanford University. “As welcome as these changes are, more work remains to be done to ensure that all charter schools provide their students high-quality education.”

In the 26 states that participated in the study, which together account for 95 percent of the nation's charter school students, researchers again found that most charter schools are performing no better, if not worse, than their traditional school counterparts in reading and mathematics, based on standardized tests.

Nationwide, 25 percent of charter schools show significantly stronger learning gains in reading than their traditional school counterparts. The remaining 75 percent of charter schools showed either no signficant difference or were significantly weaker than traditional schools.

In math, 29 percent of charter schools outperform their traditional counterparts, with 40 percent showing no difference and 31 percent posting learning gains signficantly weaker than traditional schools.

By comparison, the center's 2009 study found that 17 percent of charter schools outperformed their counterparts, 37 percent underperformed and 46 percent were not significantly different.

"Despite these improvements, there remain worrying numbers of charter schools whose learning gains are either substantially worse than the local alternative or are insufficient to give their students the academic preparation they need to continue their education or be successful in the workforce," the study's executive summary states.

Learning days

The study also measured performance in school days, translating the deviation between charter and traditional schools as the equivalent number of learning days a student either gained or lost during a school year by choosing to attend a charter option.

Charter school attendance was found to be the most beneficial for minority students, English language learners and students who live in poverty. Black charter school students were found to gain an equivalent of 14 extra days of learning in both math and reading, with English language learners gaining 36 days in both subjects over their traditional school peers.

But for white students, charter school attendance was found to be detrimental, with students losing out on the equivalent of 14 days of reading and 50 days of math.

"What we see here is white students and Asian students are not benefiting from attendance in charter schools," Raymond said.

While those numbers reflect the nation's charter schools overall, Utah's charter schools were also found to be performing behind their traditional school counterparts. According to the study, the average charter school student in Utah receives the equivalent learning of seven fewer days in reading and 43 fewer days of math than their peers in traditional schools.

Enrollment increasing

Approximately 4 percent of the nation’s public school students are enrolled in charter schools, according to the Stanford study, with more than 2.3 million students in more than 6,000 schools in 41 states. Enrollment in charter schools has increased 80 percent nationwide since 2009.

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