Vinny Badolato is vice president of public affairs at the Colorado League of Charter Schools.
I’ve been anxious to address the performance of Colorado’s charter school sector since I took the dive into blogging on EdNews. Before I talk about Colorado performance, however, I have to address the 400-pound gorilla in the room: The Center for Research on Education Outcomes’ (CREDO) popular – and highly misunderstood – report Multiple Choice: Charter School Study in 16 States.
For those who don’t know, the CREDO report is a broad look at charter school performance in 15 states and DC that generally uses 2003-2008 state longitudinal student performance data to compare the academic performance of charter schools student to “virtual twins” in traditional public schools (TPS). I won’t go further into the methodology of the report due to space constraints, other than to say that it is accepted as a fairly strong method.
So what did the author find? Well, anyone who has so much as dipped into charter school policy knows that the overall finding was the following: In math, 17 percent of charter schools demonstrated growth that significantly exceeded TPS growth, 46 percent showed indistinguishable growth, and 37 percent showed growth below their TPS peers. This 17-46-37 combo has been cited ad nauseam since the release of the report in 2009, primarily by charter school opponents, as an indictment of charter schools and the justification to claim failure and dismantle the system.
But – and this is unfortunate – the continual drumbeat of 17-46-37 obscures some of the other very important findings of the study along with the very significant limitations of this – or any – national study on charter schools.
First, some of the other findings:
- Nationally, students in poverty and English language learner students at charter schools significantly outperform their TPS peers;
- Students in charter schools do better than their TPS peers over time, which means there is a dip in performance in year one that reverses significantly to positive in years two and three;
- States with caps on charter school numbers have significantly lower growth than states without caps (there is no cap in Colorado);
- States with an appeals process in regard to adverse decisions on applications or renewals also demonstrate significant student growth (Colorado has an appeals process);
- Finally, there is very large variance in the quality and performance of charter schools across states.
So, it is not as bad as detractors would like to have us all believe. Yes, there are improvements to be made, but the 17-46-37 mantra is quite misleading.
This gets me to the crux of my post, which the serious limitations of national charter school studies.
Charter schools are first and foremost state-created entities whose flexibility, autonomy, accountability, funding and structure are by and large dependent on the strength and balance of the state law that permits them, as well as the thoughtfulness and oversight of the entities that authorize them. Of course individual school effectiveness depends on the quality of the teachers, leaders and governing board of that school, but overall charter school performance – both individually and as a sector –is closely coupled to state law and authorizer practice. Any study that presents charter school performance as a national aggregate totally misses this.
And the variance in the quality (chiefly, the balance between autonomy and accountability) of state charter school laws is immense. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has created a yardstick to measure this quality based on national best practices and industry standards. The states that have built their charter sector using these best practices have generally seen better results for a longer period of time in the CREDO report and scores of other studies.
Just as important as the strength of the law is the quality of authorizer practice. Luckily, we have a yardstick to measure this too: the National Association of Charter School Authorizer (NACSA) Principals and Standards for Quality Charter School Authorizing. Also built on best practices and industry standards, this document demonstrates what it means to be a high quality authorizer. And the quality of authorizing is even more varied than charter laws, both between and within states.
So how does Colorado stack up on all of this? Colorado ranks fourth out of 40 states and DC with charter school laws on the model law and our State Board of Education is preparing to adopt the NACSA standards in rule. We are national leader in creating a strong charter school environment. And Colorado charter schools do very well in the CREDO study. Of course we have more work to do, but we are in impressive shape and continually moving in the right direction.
So here’s my request: When talking about the quality of charter schools, let’s stick to the Colorado context and put 17-46-37 back on the shelf. And when looking at national charter school studies, let’s use them for their intended purposes, which is to learn what works, what doesn’t, and what changes need to be made to improve the sector.
Because I have a secret for you: Charter schools aren’t going way, no matter how many times 17-46-37 is repeated. So let’s come together to figure out ways to make them work even better rather than wasting energy debating their existence.