Putting Charter Theories to the Test

Guest post courtesy of Terry Ryan, Thomas B. Fordham Institute

Dayton – the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s hometown, where I go to work every day – is famous not only for the Wright Brothers but also for being a school choice Mecca. Annually since 2006, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has put Dayton on its top-ten list of charter communities by market share (27 percent of public school kids in the city attend charter schools). Another 1,500 children use a state-funded voucher to attend a private school of their choice.

With more than a third of all children in the city now utilizing school choice, the Gem City is an excellent place to test theories and arguments about charter schools and choice more generally, which is exactly what we’ve recently done with two theories about charter schools.

The first is a favorite of charter school advocates — that parents will make sound decisions about schooling and select high-performing schools for their children while shunning low performers. If this theory holds true over time, parents’ positive and proactive school selection will lead some schools to improve and weak ones to close as the high performers gain market share. In short, parents will be picky consumers and good schools will thrive while bad schools wither.

The second theory has been promoted by charter school opponents since the first charters opened their doors in the 1990s and holds that charter schools drain public schools of students and resources. Opponents frequently wield this criticism against charters when districts are facing deficits or declining enrollment; in effect, they deflect the conversation about how districts ought to right-size or make cuts by rallying anti-charter sentiments.

Do these shibboleths around charters hold up in Dayton?

Fordham commissioned economist Richard Stock of the Business Research Group at the University of Dayton to analyze student-level data from the Ohio Department of Education and track student movement among schools and across local school districts from 2005-06 thru 2008-09.

When it comes to Dayton, his findings refute both theories:

1)      There is no evidence that student movement is driven by a decision to attend a better-performing school. In fact, according to the data analyzed by Stock, students who move from a low-rated school are more likely to move to a school with an equal or lower rating than would be expected if the students were moving at random.

2)      There is no evidence that Dayton district students are moving to charter schools at high rates. Instead, mobile students are moving outside of Montgomery County and disappearing from the system altogether. Over the last four years there has been little overall movement of students from district schools to charter schools. Further, there is no evidence that charter schools are gaining or losing higher-performing students – evidence that at least among the most mobile student population, charters aren’t “creaming” the best students. In Dayton, school movers actually have significantly lower reading scores than do non-school movers. The single greatest indicator of whether a child is likely to move from school-to-school is his or her reading score on the state achievement test. The lower the score, the more mobile the child.

These findings from Dayton dispel commonly touted notions from both charter advocates and foes, and point to another cause for concern: outstanding levels of mobility among disadvantaged kids that have an adverse impact on their educational outcomes. The findings also serve as a reminder of the need for more such data to test ideas about the impact of school choice, and to add concrete evidence to the rhetoric so that policy decisions can be well-informed.

10 Replies to “Putting Charter Theories to the Test”

  1. I wonder if the low-performing students are moving to new schools in order to get a fresh start where teachers and staff do not start out knowing their achievement levels. I can understand this sentiment, but also know that these students may not get the support and scaffolding they need at the beginning of the school year because the staff is unaware of their strengths and areas of need.

  2. I agree that charter schools “take from” public schools, in the way that parents are going to want to take their children from public schools and place them in private schools. I also believe that the existence of charter schools will make lower performing schools raise the bar so that only the good schools are left and the bad ones are non existent.

  3. I wonder how many of these studenmts are moving because of atheletics? I teach and coach in a small public school and often find my team playing catholic or private schools that are loaded with talent. I am a proponent of a better education for everyone. However I wonder if moving these students is actully in their best interest., or are they moving because they are tremendous atheletes?

  4. I agree that both of these theories are false. In my district, transportation is not provided at the charter school, so in order to attend, parents must be able to drive their students to and from school. Also, the charter school does not offer as many electives or extra curricular activities as the public schools in the district. This charter school focuses on the core academics and is one of the highest performing schools in the district, yet there are a number of reasons that a parent would choose a different school.

  5. I am one of the parents that has chosen a charter school for my child to attend. I was not happy with the school she was attending due to a lack of diversity among the faculty and student population. The charter school I chose for her had only been open for one year, so the school’s test scores were not a factor in my decision. Parental involvement was a requirement in my decision making process. At my child’s school, parents are required to volunteer a certain number of hours. I saw this as a positive because being an educator myself, I have seen how parental involvement can change the make up of the school. My sister has also chosen a charter school for her child. Where we live, diversity is not prominent. She chose the school because of the diversity. I do see myself as a picky consumer when it comes to my child’s education. I strive to instill in her to do her best and that her education holds more priority than what clothes she wears, or if she has a Wii, or whether she has seen the latest music video. My choice in charter school was because I wanted her in an environment with similar values and beliefs that I try to teach her at home. The school I teach at is not a charter school and I found it interesting that the low performing students were the ones that move often. I see this all the time at my school. What are the parents of these low performing students thinking? Maybe if they did not move their child as much, the child may be able to flourish in a stable environment.

  6. Student mobility is a great concern in the district that I teach, which ironically enough is a disadvantaged district that borders Dayton. I read this article with great interest and was not surprised to learn that students moving from one low rated district actually move to a district that is equal or even lower achieving. This is evident in my district. The move ins that we receive are generally students who have experienced little academic success and have often been in more than two different schools before leaving their primary years. It has been my experience that many of the transient families are at the mercy of friends and family who allow them to live with them or who are often evicted from their residence and they continue moving from place to place. All this happens at the expense of the children’s education. As an educator who genuinely cares about student success and achievement, student mobility can be a source of frustration as I try to meet and reach the learning goals of each child that enters my classroom so he or she may leave ready to face life, both academically and socially.

  7. Could we be careful about generalizing for all charter schools from results from one community?

  8. First most charters thrive in the inner-city school system. With that being said its not that the parents seek a better performing schoool. But one of which is a safer environment for their child.

    The problem with charter school is that they dont compensate teachers like public school systems do. I once taught at a charter school and my salary started at 30,000 dollars a year and even if I stayed for 30 years it would top out at 35,000 a year. And that is in Michigan, one of the highest paying states for teachers. The fact is teachers seek public school jobs and the turnover rate in a charter school is very high. I left after two years because there were better opportunities elsewhere.

    Short-term a charter school may sound like a great place to be. But the way they run their schools is not so good.

  9. Problem students move (push), athletic achievers move (pull), and perception often affects moves more than the reality.

    Despite being the 7th safest out of 40 medium-sized high schools, our school continues to have a more negative image than average. I attribute it to parents maintaining the mental image they have from their own high school years. Maybe I’m wrong, but it sure seems that way.

  10. Implicit in the first theory is that parents switch schools for academic reasons. While all parents certainly want the best, having worked in admissions for a catholic school that served primarily low income students of color, academics were not their biggest reason for wanting to switch schools. Safety, diversity, access to teachers and principal, and feeling like they would be treated with respect were some of big reasons mentioned to me. We see this emphasis on non-academic issues when parents will defend their failing charter to school to death because of how happy they feel at the school.

    We also have to be mindful that switching schools is NOT always a matter of choice. When parents lose homes or jobs it obviously has little to do with choice and more with what is accessible. I would love to see some research into why parents switch schools to get a better sense of what is happening.

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