Charter Schools: A Closer Look at the Stanford CREDO Study — Part B

Summary: Last post I began a dive into the details of an inquiry by The Stanford Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) into charter school progress in the United States. This post continues the same swim with more of the specifics.…..

Again, from the Stanford CREDO study, further potentially rich lines of investigation…..

— After what is often a halting start in their initial year in a charter school, students tend to do better in that setting in their succeeding years, which argues that individual families need to stay the course in the new system they have chosen.

This finding should not surprise. The CREDO study itself speculates that many charters themselves are in initial phases, and did not at the onset of the study have their systems fully hammered out.

Further, the student in transition to charter may well be expected to take time to adjust to his or her new setting, particularly to begin to see that an opportunity has opened in contrast to a previous discouragement.

— As dutiful researchers, the CREDO authors acknowledge that there may be issues of “selection bias” in their matching of charter school students with traditional public school students. That is, does the simple choice of and follow through with a charter option mark the charter student as different somehow than a student who would otherwise be his demographic “twin”, and thereby skew the head to head comparison?

In a fairly extensive discussion, the authors conclude the study minimizes such effects, but it is not hard to imagine a potential cascade of connected events, beginning with the fact that a choice to step outside of conventional schooling and immerse one’s kid in a new framework marks a family as by definition different than a traditional public school family. Such a charter choice arguably comes from a special determination for a child’s betterment, and the ability to turn determined optimism into action over time, by contrast with a traditional public school twin, whose parent may be relatively more mired in hopelessness or otherwise an inability to act. Such a difference would not necessarily show up in the demographics that match the twins in the two types of schools.

The issue of selection bias is not a quibble, but hardly an invalidation of the CREDO results. Just a caution as we meander our way looking for some results we can hang our hat on.

— The diversity of the population studied exceeds that of the nation as a whole (for example, 27% were African American, 30% Hispanic), and almost half, 49%, were recipients of free and reduced lunch. These are the at risk populations, among others (Special Education, English Language Learners), that pull down the nation’s composite academic test scores, can be expected to labor in a knowledge intensive economy, and so are closely monitored for evidence of promising  interventions.

These figures are an opportunity to expand on concerns about the accurate comparison of charter students with their traditional public school counterparts. Gary Miron, a researcher at Western Minnesota College of Education, as reported in the Huffington Post, argues that the positive test scores of the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter school network are buoyed by the exit of less successful lower skilled students who would have downgraded the school results had they stayed enrolled. Such sustained enrollment or lack thereof over time in either charter schools or traditional public schools could skew a comparison of skills “value added” between charter and traditional school students.

I am not clear if Miron’s criticism focused on KIPP results for all grade levels, or on one level, likely high school, or perhaps middle school.

Dropout from traditional public high schools is legion; the capacity of charter high schools to “hold” at risk students is less clear. It is on the high school level that traditional public schools outperform charters in the CREDO study; one could speculate they do so only because the drop out rate of lower end students from traditional public schools exceeds the drop out rate in charters.

However, the matching virtual twin design of the CREDO study would seem to minimize if not eliminate such an effect, because presumably the loss of one half of a virtual twin via dropout would lead the researchers to drop the other half from the study, as well. The criticism of the KIPP charters by contrast may be of a research design not so adept at neutralizing the dropout issue as is the CREDO study.

That said, the ability of a school, charter or TPS, to “hold” students and minimize dropouts in the process of improving their educational mindset and their academic skills nonetheless should be a vital part of the conversation.

Note that the conflicting winds in just this mini discussion exemplify the extreme difficulty facing researchers who try to get a handle on academic progress, whether of charter schools, or more broadly across the educational landscape.

— Performance of charters varied significantly between states, which should give some direction about where to look for strategies and policies possibly worth emulating. Specifically, charters in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Colorado (Denver) and Illinois (Chicago) showed gains beyond those of traditional public schools twins.

— At least some of the success of these states presumably rested with the policies they implemented at the state level, as I discussed in my support of Washington State’s Charter School Initiative 1240. (See November 1, 2012 “Charter Schools and Politics:  Vote Yes on Washington States Initiative 1240”) Specifically, a lack of limits on the number of charters, a low number of “authorizers” of charters themselves, and the opportunity for charters to appeal decisions by authorizers were all correlated with stronger test scores on the part of charters in states that adopted such policies.

— Any successful performance by specific charter schools would also be worth emulating. Though the study does not name specific such schools, it notes (as I discussed a couple of posts ago – see October 24, 2012 “Charter Schools: The Stanford CREDO study and Charter Progress”) that 17% of charters outperformed their traditional public school counterparts, and so would be candidates individually for further scrutiny.

So where do these useful but complex results leave us?

They support continuation of charter school experiments, for sure, despite the circuitous and sometimes ambiguous turns of this long running narrative.

They urge closer scrutiny of individual schools that have demonstrated successful interventions, and attempts to replicate the most promising.

Perhaps they argue for greater focus within the charter movement on elementary and middle school development, with eventual transition within those school districts to charter high schools for those same students.

At some point, charters and reformers will have to acknowledge to the voters in a more clamorous fashion than heretofore that enhanced funding for schools, focused on at risk students primarily, will be a necessary part of public school reform, as exemplified in charter success using foundation funds as a key and consistent ingredient. Again, a tough sell.

States, through their charter “authorizers”, will have to find the political will to shut down failing charters, because they drain funds and energies that might be targeted toward more promising ventures.

After approximately fifteen years of the charter movement, as far as I can tell there has been relatively little transfer of the charter experience to public schools in ways that are outside what public schools are doing innovatively on their own. Roland Fryer’s efforts with the Houston school system appear to be an exception (again see the October 24 post “Charter Schools: The CREDO study and Charter Progress”). It seems to me it is this transfer of success or failure to do so that will ultimately define the charter movement. Meanwhile, charters are not the only route to school reform.

Though there are foundation monies that have found their way to purely traditional public schools, such as those from the Gates Foundation most prominently, as far as I know such flows are outside the charter influence.

Which brings me to take a closer look at such reportedly successful school reform movements such as the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) and the Harlem Children’s Zone, as well as other reform networks such as the Coalition of Essential Schools.

Finally, I continue to look for exemplars, charter or otherwise, which may promote professionalism within the teacher ranks, and so pose a challenge to the old school, top down hierarchical order that in my experience dulls staff energies and limits progress. So far I have yet to uncover much such evidence in the charter movement, but believe it to be there.

It’s gotta be there, know what mean? Anyone out there who can point me in the right direction?

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