How Can a Student Learn Anything from a Charter?

Now again comes yet another study agitating the old debate about whether students learn more in ‘charter schools’ or in ‘district schools’. The Stanford researchers suggest not; others say yes: CREDO didn’t look far enough down the students’ experience in the charter schools. Some studies say: No sure. Others conclude: It depends: Sometimes yes; sometimes no.

This kind of thing is not really helping us move ahead very much, is it? I ask this in all seriousness, partly because I am genuinely puzzled that so many researchers I like and respect engage in this comparison-among-jurisdictions, and partly because by feeding the ideological and political debate it obstructs clear thinking about strategy.

I have no qualifications to quarrel with the statistical analysis. I’m sure it is possible to relate student scores to particular schools; charter and district, public and private, and to draw conclusions about the category in which, overall, students ‘do better’. What puzzles me is that it must be equally possible to get data and to do similar analysis about student scores in, say, one-story buildings and two-story buildings, or east-facing schools and west-facing schools.

A report concluding that students learn more in one-story schools than in two-story schools probably would not be considered useful. But ‘charter’ and ‘district’ are just structures, aren’t they? Surely students learn not from the structure but from what the organizers put into it; from what they read, see, hear and do. So shouldn’t researchers and analysts be looking to see what the schools have students reading, seeing, hearing and doing; looking to see what the school is as a school, and relating student scores to that?

‘To charter’ is a verb; chartering is a platform on which teachers and others create schools. A chartered school is not a kind of school; at least not in terms of its approach to learning. The whole idea was to leave it open for their organizers to try new approaches; for the new sector to operate as a kind of R&D program for K-12. And it does. While many chartered schools are conventional in their approach, the sector contains more innovation than research has yet identified. Probably more innovative schools in the district sector, too. A few researchers, like Jeff Henig at Teachers College at Columbia University, are now looking inside the black box of ‘charter’ and ‘district’ to distinguish the differences. More should.

All this surfaces an uncomfortable truth: that education research does not know how to describe schools as schools. Amazingly, this is a field without a taxonomy. Imagine zoology or geology without a taxonomy! One could be created, using a framework developed by Mark Van Ryzin on a Spencer Foundation grant. Perhaps this is what it will take to get us beyond “This structure performs better than that structure”.

—Guestblogger Ted Kolderie, Education|Evolving (and on Facebook here)

13 Replies to “How Can a Student Learn Anything from a Charter?”

  1. This is disingenuous. Although sponsors of charter schools differ, there was a theory of action behind them that said that district rules and union policies were impediments to improvement; by removing these impediments, schools would improve. The CREDO results show that this theory of action was flawed. Removing the impediments is at best an enabling condition with which some charter schools were able to create improvements and many were not. Time for a new theory of action.

  2. You ask the right question, Ted, and you identify a problem with ALL educational research, not just charter school research. I think, by now, most of us who’ve read a lot of research know that almost all of it is fundamentally flawed in one way or another. My favorite “stat-o-the-day” was one I uncovered yesterday for a charter school client. He needed to know what I thought of the Open Court reading program. So I went to the website and, of course, they had a ton of studies showing how great the program was. Then I went to the What Works Clearing House where I found that 30 studies of Open Court had been considered but that none of them had passed the Clearing House’s requirements for a scientifically-based study. From this I conclude (trusting the Clearing House more than Open Court’s publisher) that there is no valid data supporting the use of Open Court.

    So here we are in the age of data-driven decision making and we discover that the data we have to work with just drives us crazy – or in the case I just mentioned, requires a choice and a conclusion that is based on lack of data rather than on data itself. I would say the same thing has happened where charter schools are concerned.

    However, there are a few things we can be sure of. First of all, charter schools are likely to have more variability than a similar number of randomly selected non-charter schools. This means some will be better, others worse, by any set of standards one applies. Second, charter schools are likely to be less consistent from year to year. They are, after all, newer schools and therefore more likely to change over shorter periods of time. Finally, charter school populations are likely to accrue differently than public school populations. For example, many charter schools grow by moving to new buildings. They also market aggressively in their local communities. Regardless of what people say, they are likely to attract, over time, slightly different mixes of children (even when accounting for race and socio-economics as the CREDO study attempted to do) than their public school counterparts. However, I’ll bet we can all agree that what makes a great charter school – namely, smart, dedicated, well-trained people – is exactly what makes a great school of any kind. In particular, the quality of teaching has been shown in many studies over many years to be the single most important factor in student achievement. So, if charter schools are to succeed, it will be their ability to attract and retain the best people that will make the difference – which is exactly what traditional public schools need to do.

    What all this means is that charter schools, as a form of schooling (which you rightly argues is nothing more than a “type of box”) will be harder to study than traditional public schools. However, the fact that we are so many years into the charter school experiment and have, as yet, no conclusive data on their effectiveness relative to traditional public schools, is disappointing to say the least. And I am beginning to sense a palpable frustration among charter school supporters as a result.

    I would argue that supporters of charter schools are no less full of zeal than are their detractors. Therefore, I am suspect of people in both groups. Most suspect, however, are people who make their living off charter schools. Nothing wrong with that. But I would suspect their financial interest to cloud their judgment at least on occasion. So, when data comes from people who make their living on charter schools, I think we have to set a higher bar not only for results but also for replication. One thing we almost never do in education is replicate studies. I’m not sure why this is. But I know it’s true, comparing research I have read in medicine and psychology, for example. I suspect it’s because most of the research conducted on education at this point in time is, like the Open Court research I mentioned above, conducted by people with a financial interest in the outcome and therefore subject to a healthy dose of skepticism. (Why bother to replicate a study you suspect is bogus to begin with?)

    Personally, as someone with only the most limited financial interest in charter schools (or, actually, with a financial interest in seeing charters fail because I make 95% of my living from traditional public schools), I believe in the idea of charter schools. But I have come, over the years, not to believe in the current implementation of charter schools.

    First of all, charter schools are too easy to charter. I could charter my own school more readily than I could become a certified teacher. And I have found in my work with charters that many are created out of the belief that merely caring about kids is enough to run a great school. Caring of this variety is better expressed on a coffee mug than it is in a school, in my opinion. Real caring is about knowing your business and doing it right.

    Second, I rarely find that the quality of instruction is better at charter schools than it is at public schools; in fact, mostly it is worse. I believe this is because few experienced teachers will leave the relative security of a traditional school for a new school they know may last only a year or two or three.

    Third, with the exception of one charter school I am working with now, I have found charter school administrators lacking in instructional knowledge as well as the belief that further staff training could increase that knowledge. There’s a real “not invented here” feeling to most of the charters I’ve worked with. And while I suppose that is to be expected, I don’t think it’s healthy. Just as traditional schools have much to learn from charters, so charters could learn from traditional schools.

    Now, before I wrap up, I will also admit that most of the traditional public schools where I have worked have many of these same problems. But there is, I find, within most public schools, at this time, a feeling that reform is real, testing is serious business, training is necessary, and that opening up to the outside world is required and well worth the risk. By the same token, I find most charter schools to have a relatively closed feeling about them.

    As someone who is passionate about new school models; as someone who has innovated his own original programs in reading, writing, assessment, and classroom management; as someone who craves change and pushes relentlessly for progress; I want more charter schools.

    But I don’t want more like the ones we have.

    I believe we need a reshaping of charter school law in this country. First of all, there ought to be higher standards for the charter itself, and schools should be inspected regularly to see if they are living by that charter. Second, people who charter schools should use a recognizable model of some sort. (By recognizable, I do not mean extant; I merely mean that someone ought to be able to recognize as a model.) This model may change over time, but new charter schools should at least start with something tangible rather than just their own sense that caring and coffee cups will make a difference in kids’ lives. Finally, we need to see some evidence of the original promise of charters: more competition that drives quality in traditional schools and many examples of successful replication of charter models in other charter schools and in traditional public schools as well.

    Without these changes, I’m not sure much will change with regard to the ambiguous view we seem to have now on charters. We cannot merely tolerate new research because, as I’ve discussed, that research is likely to be suspect for one reason or another. Nor can we simply allow the public’s distaste for traditional public schools to become a justification for opening the floodgates on charters. Charter school promoters should concentrate on creating better charter schools. And charter school detractors should concentrate on creating better traditional public schools. Leave the research to disinterested parties. And then make sure we have enough of it so that arguments can be settled conclusively, via replicated studies, over long periods of time.

    In the meantime, let’s the fight the good fight, not the bad one. If charters give us more flexibility, let’s use that flexibility to create and categorize new models. If you don’t like the fact that we don’t have a useful taxonomy for schools, charter or otherwise, why not create one? It’s not that hard and it might well be the key as you suggest that it is.

    What must stop, however, is the idealization of the charter concept as the answer to education reform. Charter schools are just a different name for a different type of box. As a concept, charters are not an answer to anything. What they are, more appropriately, is a potential enabling factor in the creation of more successful ways of schooling.

    We will always have trouble having many charter schools. First of all, they are not easily scaleable. It’s hard to open new schools; just finding buildings is a killer, let alone good staff. Second, charters tend to be significantly smaller than their public school counterparts. This means that large numbers of charter schools will require large numbers of administrative and support staff. Finally, charter schools are under state legislative control that is fickle at best, mercurial at worst. We have some states with many charter schools (relatively) but we will still have eight states (I believe) which don’t allow them at all. One can expect that this state of affairs is unlikely to change any time soon. And Arne Duncan’s idea of shutting down underperforming charters to make way for… (what? Schools that don’t exist but that he expects to perform better for some reason?) is a non-starter. States won’t close their own charters if for no other reason than local upheaval and the fact that most parents who send their kids to charters are rabid supporters of their schools (as well they should be).

    So if, in 20 years, we will not all be attending charter schools, what can we expect their value to be? Competition and replication. Set up your next charter school across the street from your nearest public school. Create totally original models of schooling that work. Get people in (people who are not you!) to document what you are doing. Codify models, create taxonomies, and export the charter school movement to traditional public schools by force of logic – not by force of political, personal, or profitable will.

    Charters have a vital role to play in ed reform. But to date, as a whole, they have not fulfilled their promise. At this point, we know of only one model, the KIPP model, that is unequivocally successful. And I am not aware that this model has been replicated in any non-KIPP school, charter or otherwise (though have no idea why). Now, if it were up to me, and I was chartering a new school, the first thing I’d do is spend a few weeks at KIPP schools. But I’d also seek out other great schools, like Nancie Atwell’s Center for Teaching and Learning, and observe those as well.

    We all have a lot to learn from each other. But none of it includes bickering over specious studies or the idea that simply because one box has a different name than another that it must be better or worse.

  3. I love the point of this post and the comments. Saying one box might be better than the other is much less interesting and actionable than figuring out what makes one box better than the other. If a study shows charters are better than traditional schools, or voucher programs produce statistical gains in student learning, that’s only the first step (assuming it’s a step that even occurs). The real question is: Why?

    I would bet dollars to donuts that the teaching and learning in most traditional schools, charter schools, and voucher-funded private schools are almost identical, within demographic boundaries. When they aren’t, we should ask what makes the difference, and then ask if that difference can be scaled. Non-scalable differences are anomalies. Scalable differences represent possible systemic improvements.


  4. I admire the analysis in Bob’s comment, but don’t know enough to respond. I want to echo the point in the blog post and in the other comments, that charter v. non-charter is really about form and not about function. I think, bearing in mind Parry’s comment, that we should look to the work of Richard Elmore, who points out that there is more variation from classroom to classroom within a school than there is from school to school, and to Dylan Wiliam, who has reviewed the research on different reform initiatives and concludes that the most effective reform effort is indeed instructional, and involves implementation of assessment as learning. Really, we should not be surprised that when it comes to education, it’s what goes on in the classroom that counts.

  5. Of the 700 plus charters in the state of California, over 300 of the charter schools are high performing. Over 100 of these 300 top performers are located in inner city neighborhoods in Crenshaw, South LA, East LA, Compton, Inglewood, Watts, and Compton serving 100% students of color with extremely high free and reduce populations that frequently have a significant percentage of foster care kids.

    The point, and forgive me for getting to it after so long an intro, is that there has been nary a ray of hope in these communities education wise in 30 years. Traditional public high schools have 70 percent drop out rates and less than 10% of the students that enter the 9th grade go on to graduate from college. In these communities, where it is easier for a youth of color to pass through the eye of a needle, than graduate from high school, charter schools are sending thousands of our kids to college.

    So all talk of studies are senseless if they don’t address this point.

  6. I read everyone’s posts. I know that a lot of parents think that charter schools are better schools than public schools. But, I see the difference of public and private being that a public school has to educate anyone who enters and a private school can be more selective in terms of the school population. So when schools are dealing with different populations of students, of course they will look differently.

  7. Heather,

    Are you talking about public magnet schools where districts hand pick each student? That’s what it seems like you are describing. Public charter schools that have a waiting list must admit students in a public lottery process. There are no applications, essays from the students, letters of recommendation, test scores, etc.. That is what private schools do. The difference between a public charter admission by lottery is vastly different than a private school’s process. The difference between a public magnet school (Boston Latin, Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies LACES and Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies (SOCES), New York’s Test Schools:
    see Wikipedia Article expert below.

    Stuyvesant High School (pronounced /ˈstаɪvɨsənt/), commonly referred to as Stuy (/ˈstаɪ/),[3] is a New York City public high school that specializes in mathematics and science. It is one of the most competitive public high schools in the United States, sending more students to some of the nation’s most prestigious universities than most other public or private schools.[5] The school opened in 1904 on Manhattan’s East Side and moved to a new building in Battery Park City in 1992. Stuyvesant is noted for its strong academic programs, having produced many notable alumni including four Nobel laureates.[6] U.S. News & World Report ranked it twenty-third in their 2008 list of America’s best “Gold-Medal” high schools.[7]

    Together with Brooklyn Technical High School and Bronx High School of Science, Stuyvesant is one of the three original academic Specialized High Schools of New York City. Run by the New York City Department of Education, the trio are open to New York City residents and charge no tuition. Admission to each is by competitive examination only, of which Stuyvesant has the highest cutoff score. A long-standing friendly rivalry between Stuyvesant and Bronx Science exists over the Intel Science Talent Search, with each school claiming dominance over the other at various times.


  8. Having just completed teaching 3 years in a charter school, after 5 years in public schools, one year in a Catholic school, and one year in an alternative school, I come to the table with some real perspective about charter school structure. There is no universal charter school structure. The Imagine Schools (one of the largest charter companies) run schools that look, smell, teach, and score about the same as their counterparts in the traditional public school sector. The only thing that makes them unique is parental choice — which increases vested interest on the part of the parent. Other charters, such as Newpoint, are truly experimenting with more student-centric, project learning infrastructure and superstructure concepts

    The most important contribution of charter schools (the good ones, anyway) is that they tend to keep the district schools on their toes by providing a competitor — something not previously available to the poor — breaking the pattern all monopolies suffer from for the public school system. Competition is the only guarantee for the pursuit of quality.

  9. Dear Friend Ted,

    I agree that the simple comparison of “ownership or management” of schools, charter vs. public, is not very meaningful. But, this invidious approach was established by those who made claims for simply moving from public to charter as going from inefficient to efficient, from neglecting children to caring about them, from failing to successful, from neglecting education to embracing it. Some of mine and your closest colleagues have made these claims and continue to make them. Then when researchers go out and try to test them, they are criticized for a lack of understanding, subtlety, and so on. But, the claims are far from subtle, so what do you expect?

    With respect to taxonomies, you are also too hard on educational researchers. The Bloom and Krathwohl taxonomies have been around for years in terms of types of learning in both affective and cognitive domains. These may not be completely appropriate for comparing charter and public schools. But, when the claims become more concrete and detailed, a different taxonomy is likely to arise for evaluators.


    Hank Levin

  10. Parry you re absolutely right that the fact that the boxes are different isn’t really news. And Ted K. you know there is at least one significant study of what happens inside charter schools If people want to understand what makes some charters strong, despite the entry levels of their students (in other words, beyond choice, they do not ‘cream’), folks interested in the inner workings of successful charter and what makes them successful should read Inside Urban Charter Schools published in 2009 by Harvard Education Press. It presents two years of qualitative data investigating the inner workings of five high performing urban charter schools. What makes them successful is NOT dazzling instruction but rather organizational coherence that is both scalable and transferable to other schools. It takes thoughtful leaders committed and passionate about the the education of children.

  11. Thank you Mike for the clarification and article. I was simply basing my response off of a charter school in the town where I live. It is just frustrating to me as a public school teacher to see so many high performing students going elsewhere, when as many of you have pointed out-much of the education is the same.

  12. You have to look inside every public school, charter or traditional to find out whether it works for its students. All public schools are different. Charters due to their structure have a more freedom to experiment more easily and quickly than district schools. However all public schools can and must experiment to find out how to be responsive to the students who attend. We cant change our students; we must change the response we have to their needs.

  13. Hi guys!
    Just an added question to this discussion. Do you think that charter schools structure their curriculum around brain research, ie Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences?

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