(Guest Post by Collin Hitt)
A new report finds generally positive gains for charter schools across the country. This adds to a growing literature that finds positive results for charter schools. But more importantly, the report is from Stanford CREDO, whose previous research has been the most cited research by charter opponents over the past four years.
CREDO does not use random assignment methods, which are the gold standard in social science research. They use a matching method that has generated significant controversy, particularly because some have claimed that their results are biased against charter schools. There’s no need to rehash that debate here. For now let’s take CREDO’s results at face value. Their finding:
The National Charter School Study 2013 looks at performance of students in charter schools in 26 states and New York City, which is treated separately as the city differs dramatically from the rest of the state. In those states (and New York City), charter school students now have greater learning gains in reading than their peers in traditional public schools. Traditional public schools and charter schools have equivalent learning gains in mathematics.
I actually see CREDO’s newest report as a more significant political development than as an advance of scientific understanding. The group’s previous work had been used as a potent weapon against charter schools, despite the fact that there are mounds of gold standard studies that finds gains for charter schools.
In 2009, CREDO shot to prominence with a report that covered 15 states and the District of Columbia. Five states saw gains for charter students (AR, CO, IL, LA and MO). Six saw declines for charter students (AZ, FL, MN, NM, OH and TX). Three states (CA, GA and NC) and DC saw mixed results.
CREDO’s report was repeatedly used and misused by opponents of charter schools. I saw this firsthand in Illinois, where CREDO actually found positive results. The report was used to argue against charter schools generally. I even saw it used, repeatedly, as evidence against the creation of independent authorizers for charter schools – this despite the fact that the original report did not include any information from states like IN, MI, NJ, NY or WI that had some of the most active and well regarded independent authorizers of charter schools.
In the intervening four years, CREDO has released additional reports for six states. Five found gains for charter schools (IN, MA, MI, NJ and NY), while only one found declines for charters (PA). They’ve also updated previous state results, most recently in Illinois, with charters posting stronger gains than previously reported. These intermittent reports have done little to force charter opponents to update their talking points. I think this new report is different.
Anyone following CREDO’s work since 2009 will be unsurprised by today’s findings. The new national report includes several states that, by CREDO’s estimates, are home to high-performing charters that were omitted from their 2009 report. CREDO is arguing that charter quality in general has improved, as well. I’ll buy that, too, though I also suspect that districts have begun to more strongly respond to charter school competition in ways that have improved performance in district schools. Improvements systemwide from increased competition would actually obscure the benefits of attending a charter school, in studies like CREDO’s.
The next couple of weeks will be an interesting test for journalists who cover charter schools. For years, CREDO’s report has repeatedly been quoted as unambiguous evidence that charter schools don’t work. No one can now do that in good faith. CREDO now finds that the evidence on charter school performance is generally positive and improving significantly.