Charter school students are making larger gains in reading than their peers in traditional classrooms while performing on par in math, according to a study of 1.5 million U.S. children.
The average student at a charter -- a privately run public school -- learned eight more days of reading a year than a pupil in a regular school, according to the Stanford University study. In both subjects, poor students, black children and those who speak English as a second language fared better in charters.
The study, one of the largest ever of charter school performance, buoyed advocates of the school-choice movement, which views charters as an alternative to the shortcomings of public education. Results from the study of 25 states and the District of Columbia represent a turnabout from a 2009 report that had shown charter schools children faring worse.
“The charter sector does seem to be posting better results, especially with disadvantaged students,” said Margaret Raymond, director of Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which conducted the study. “The fact that they are moving the needle with this many students since 2009 is a pretty impressive finding.”
The earlier report, which included 16 states, found that students at charters schools posted seven fewer days of learning in reading and 22 fewer in math a year relative to regular school peers.
Charter schools have grown more serious about academic quality because of the national debate about their effectiveness, Raymond said in a telephone interview. Higher expectations and parent involvement may also play a role, she said. Equally important, those overseeing charters have started shutting down poor performers, she said.
As many as one in five charter schools should be closed because of poor academic performance, according to a November 2012 report from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which represents states, districts and universities that grant them permission to operate.
“Policy makers have to be willing to make the tough political call to say no to keeping a failing school open,” said Greg Richmond, president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers in Chicago. “There are still 1,000 schools that are worse than their counterparts. We need to recognize that fact and deal with it.”
Charter schools, which are run without many of the rules of regular public schools, typically don’t have contracts with teachers’ unions and often feature longer school days.
Business leaders such as Microsoft Corp.’s Bill Gates, President Barack Obama and many Republicans including former Florida Governor Jeb Bush support charters. In New York City, Wall Street executives offer financial backing for growing chains of schools that include Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, and Success Academy.
Critics, including some teachers’ unions, say charters skim off students from the most committed families and siphon money and resources from regular schools. Parents of students with disabilities have said some charters exclude their children. The Stanford study found that charters have a lower proportion of special-education students than other schools.
“We should ask ourselves why we keep pitting charter schools against neighborhood public schools -- a strategy that has created little more than a disruptive churn,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement, adding that the performance difference is negligible.
Students from all backgrounds didn’t benefit equally from charter schools, the study found. Black students in poverty achieved above-average learning gains -- equivalent to 36 additional days of learning in math -- as did low-income Hispanic students. White students fared worse overall, while Asians did more poorly only in math.
To address concerns about differences in school populations, the Stanford study sought to compare the improvement in academic achievement of similar students, matching each pupil at a charter with a “virtual twin” at a regular school with similar state test scores while controlling for demographics.
Charters now serve about 4 percent of the nation’s public school pupils, with more than 2.3 million students in over 6,000 schools in 41 states, according to the study. Enrollment has surged 80 percent since the 2009 report.
In the study, 25 percent of charter schools showed significantly stronger learning gains in reading than traditional schools, while 56 percent showed no real difference and 19 percent of charters lagged. In math, 29 percent of charter schools outperformed, while 40 percent were about the same and 31 percent were weaker.
The study found wide varieties among charters schools in different states. Rhode Island’s charter schools showed among the biggest gains relative to regular public schools -- equivalent to 85 days in reading and 111 in math.
In the District of Columbia and New York City, which was broken out separately, charters also outperformed by a wide margin. New York City charter school children learned an additional 92 days of math in a year.
“If there’s one thing this report confirms, it’s that we can’t roll back the reforms that have transformed the educational landscape in New York,” said Devon Puglia, deputy press secretary for the city’s education department.
Nevada charters had far worse results than regular schools in reading and math -- equal to 139 fewer days of learning. Pennsylvania charters also underperformed. Steven Canavero, a spokesman for the Nevada Education Department, said the state has already taken steps to address underperforming schools.
“This report affirms what we already knew,” Canavero said in a phone interview. “We have established new expectations for schools and provided standards so now it’s about implementation.”
Some education researchers criticized the study’s claims. The data from the report show no significant difference between charters and traditional schools, according to Andrew Maul, a researcher at the National Education Policy Center and a professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
``It’s incredibly small, and therefore it’s basically a zero finding.” Maul said in a telephone interview.