Charter Schools: A Closer Look at the Stanford CREDO Study (Part A)

Summary: The details of the Stanford CREDO study on Charter Schools flesh out the more widely reported summative findings.

The Stanford CREDO study (Center for Research on Educational Outcomes) cited over my last couple of posts proves to be the gift that keeps on giving. Just as sometimes interesting tidbits are buried toward the end of a newspaper story, the nooks and crannies of the CREDO study hold nuggets perhaps not quite such headline fodder as some of the results widely reported, but which flesh out the picture in a more complete mosaic, and sketch potentially fertile further lines of inquiry.

In fact, most reportage on this study I have seen in quality mainstream media refers only to the most composite of the study findings. I am reminded that most of the time when I encounter information in these sources about which I am professionally or otherwise familiar, I am struck by the inadvertently poor focus of the picture presented, so hurried sometimes the reporting to meet a deadline, and therefore am forced to ponder how distorted may well be the information I encounter about which I know relatively little. Left indicted are both the reporter who digs in too shallow a manner, and the consumer who accepts overly broad swaths as in depth knowledge.

This has been just a little reflection, a side editorial if you will, on our lives in the midst of information overload, and the dilution of knowledge into what can approach the useless at best, or misleading, at the worst. Yet we act, believe, or vote thus with a knowledge set often somewhere between the fragmentary to the illusory.

But I know you are eager to learn of the CREDO nuggets. So, in some rough order of importance…..

Remember – the core methodology of the study involves matching charter school students with their demographic twin in their corresponding traditional public school (TPS).

— Note that the results cited, while statistically significant, actually represent relatively small differences between the results earned by the charter school students and the TPS students.

— Across the full study elementary and middle school charters outperformed their traditional public school counterparts, by contrast with the overall results that found 37% of charters underperformed by contrast with their traditional public school counterparts.

— By comparison high school and “multi-level” charter schools, presumably K-8, but nowhere defined, did more poorly than their public school peers.

These latter two sets of results leave me curious and beg various questions, which this initial study doesn’t attempt to answer. Simply, why the differences cited? Though it is tempting to assume (waggishly) that the younger children, elementary and middle, have not yet been sullied by the nasty public school, there is no differentiation noted in the statistics between the kid who arrived on the charter doorstep at the beginning of kindergarten, and she who arrives after a stay in the traditional public school. More likely, charter schools share in the TPS quandaries about American adolescents, and how to rein their energies to academic discipline, while there is still something more receptive to adult input in the younger kids……Though that formulation does not explain why high school charters should perform worse.

Hope lingers around the results for middle school age kids. Studies in my own former school district and elsewhere have lamented the decline of at risk kid as student through middle or junior high school to the point of dropping out before high school or, almost as bad, stumbling with poor attendance, poor grades, and poor discipline records in the middle school years, so that those habits perpetuate in high school and dropout simply happens later. That transition from elementary, where these same kids often have done well enough, through the stages of puberty into high school, commonly frustrates the efforts of many middle and junior high schools.

— Low income students and students for whom English is a second language, otherwise known as English Language Learners (ELL), who found their way to a charter setting outperformed their traditional public school counterparts, while Special Education students in each setting performed about the same.

— By comparison, African American and Latino students in charter settings fared more poorly than their traditional public school colleagues.

As the CREDO study points out, the modest success with low income students is particularly good news, for that group of young people is large, and represents a challenge for the American myth of upward mobility, so much under siege in the current era.

By historical patterns African Americans and Latinos are over represented within low income strata. Arguably, policy can hope to right these imbalances more clearly through actions that lift folks out of poverty, via education, than the more politically fraught (and perhaps legally fraught) affirmative action.

Which further begs the question, however, since low income charter students posted welcome figures, why the same measure of success didn’t extend to Black and Latino students? Here is where aggregate statistics may start to lose their usefulness, and where focus in on specific schools in specific communities may give us more vital directive. What role, if any, does staff race and ethnicity contribute to the success of their students? Where school districts struggle to upgrade minority professional presence, it is a relevant question. What is the source of the reported success of schools in the Harlem Children’s Zone, for example, beyond what works for low income students solely, this in a state outside the purview of the CREDO study? Etc. Stay tuned for more CREDO next week.

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