Charter Schools: The Stanford CREDO Study and Charter Progress

Summary: The Stanford CREDO study provides some ambiguity and fodder for different points of view, but also direction for the charter school movement.

In descending a variety of pathways into the question of charter schools, it is not long before one arrives at the doorstep of Stanford University, where one can bask in almost perpetual sun, obtain an elegant education, or encounter the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) and its currently gold standard report, or at least much cited report, on performance of charter schools in comparison to traditional public schools (TPS).

The report, entitled “Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States,” has been much discussed in various media, and I assume has woven its way in and out of many academic discussions in diverse settings.

For good reason. Its ambitions are no less than the capture of the state of progress of students in charter schools in the sixteen states in question. Aside from serving as an annoying reminder to me of my folly in ducking all opportunities to subject myself to a course in statistics, the results are sufficiently ambiguous, borderline contradictory, and subject to the eye of the beholder, as to arrive plausibly at their goal – an accurate statistical reflection of the reality on the ground in a topic fraught with winds of ideology and passion.

Without such research, which we hope can give us accurate data, the argument over charter schools becomes an exercise without boundaries and without any internal or guiding metrics.

The methodology in the abstract is simple enough. In a sample of over 2400 charter schools and 1.7 million “records”, the researchers paired each charter school student with a “virtual twin” in a traditional public school (again, TPS). Apples to apples, in other words. The twins are matched via a variety of prime demographic measures, and their subsequent test results in reading and math are compared during a given time span. If the charter student outperforms his TPS “twin,” then the charter school is deemed to have outperformed the TPS in that particular instance, and vice versa. The comparisons in aggregate are then used to judge the progress of charter schools as one group across the sixteen states, the progress within each of the sixteen states, and finally progress by comparison of charter school performance within specific school districts with those schools charter students would have otherwise attended.

The ambiguity and any resulting spin comes from the most publicized finding, the aggregate of all charters against all traditional public schools, which of course has been the most prominently publicized, and which encapsulates both good news and bad news.

Simply stated, 19% of charter schools in the full aggregate study performed better than their traditional public school counterparts (TPS), 46% did no differently, and 37% of charters performed more poorly than their respective TPS.

Some commentators have correctly lamented that 37%, or roughly one third of charter schools, performed more poorly than their corresponding public school, and caution against charter implementation. One advocate of charter schools in my state spun the same figures to say that two thirds of charters at least did no harm. More savvy commentators, to my thinking, noted that the 19% represents schools that seem to be having success that begs an attempt to replicate.

These are initial fruits of our national experiment.

The CREDO report promises an additional study in 2009 on the “influence of operational characteristics on performance” that would seem to shed light on how the 19% are successful, but as of posting I have yet to locate a copy. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, Roland Fryer, a professor of economics at Harvard’s “EdLab,” and a MacArthur Fellow, has separately studied demonstrably successful charter schools run by the Harlem Childrens’ Zone and by the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) network of charters, and has extracted what he believes to be five key ingredients of the improved academic results coming out of the two sets of schools. The betting on my part would be they will align well with the CREDO findings.

— Increased instructional time.

— A culture of high expectations.

— Heavy doses of tutoring.

— Consistent feedback to teachers and sturdy investment in their increased competence.

— The use of data to drive instructional choices.

Currently Fryer is implementing his ideas in a number of Houston schools. Early returns have been promising. See his monograph, “Injecting Successful Charter School Strategies in Traditional Public Schools – Early Results from an Experiment in Houston”.

Meanwhile, the CREDO study has additional, nuanced, less publicized conclusions worth further focus, which I will meander  through in upcoming posts.

The long march to educational reform continues.

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