Charter Schools Push Out Their Students?

(Guest Post by Collin Hitt)

Charter schools push out students who fall behind academically – that’s how they achieve superior results, right?* This is one of the main claims of charter school opponents, a claim that calls the moral character of charter school employees into question.

Charter schools – especially “no excuses” schools – thrive off of promises to recruit and educate students who would otherwise be left behind. Poor kids. Minority kids. Kids with low test scores who can’t read. A movement that promises to educate these kids only to slyly turn them away in favor of their higher-performing peers, is a movement of charlatans.

A forthcoming article looks at the issue. Ron Zimmer and Cassandra Guarino,in Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis, examine the transfer-out patterns in a large urban school district with nearly 60 charter schools. It is by far the largest, high-quality study to ever look at the issue.

Their main finding:

The coefficient estimates suggest that low-performing students at TPS schools are 1% to 5% more likely (at statistically significant margin) to transfer than above-average students, although the statistical significance may be achieved in part due to the large sample size. Low-performing students are neither more nor less likely to transfer out of charter schools.

They find no evidence that charter schools are pushing out their lowest-performing students. But wait – did anybody else catch that? – what did they write about traditional public schools? From the next paragraph of their study (emphasis added):

This suggests that low-performing students are more likely to transfer out of a [traditional public school] than a charter school. But again, the differences are relatively small—about 5%. Overall, the results across all models provide no evidence that low-performing students are more likely to exit a charter school than a high-performing student or a low-performing student in a TPS.

This study shows that in one very large urban district, there’s no evidence that charter schools are pushing out their bottom performers. The same cannot be said of the district’s traditional public schools. Let’s be charitable to the traditional public schools in that district; perhaps the findings that their lower-performers are more likely to leave is a result of the fact that those parents are seeking to leave for charter schools. Or perhaps this finding is just a fluke with Zimmer and Guarino’s model, and there’s really no difference at all in the exit rates of low performers in the district’s charter and traditional schools. Those are plausible ways to interpret the findings. (Can anyone think of plausible, less charitable ways to view these findings?)

Now ask yourself, had Zimmer and Guarino instead arrived at the opposite results – charter schools are more likely than traditional public schools to see their lowest performing students leave – would charter opponents be this generous in their interpretation? My guess is that the web would be somewhat more atwitter about this study, which deserves better coverage than it’s getting.

* The most rigorous research on charter schools uses random assignment. In the intent-to-treat components of these studies, students are considered charter students if they’re ever offered a seat in a charter school. Regardless of whether the students accept the offer, and regardless of whether students transfer out of charter schools at a later date, they are still considered charter school students in the ITT analysis. Yet random assignment studies consistently find positive results for charter schools, especially in urban areas where they are most likely to encounter disadvantaged students. Even if charter schools were pushing out their students – which apparently they’re not doing, according Zimmer and Guarino – it couldn’t explain these gains.

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6 Responses to Charter Schools Push Out Their Students?

  1. matthewladner says:

    There have been widespread rumors here in AZ for over a decade that districts push kids out after count day. Meanwhile they pontificate about charters “creaming” despite the fact that the law requires random admission lotteries. No one ever produces any evidence that they law is being violated, it is good enough just to make the allegation in their minds.

    This study, in short, is delightful.

  2. Hookahboy says:

    How about charter schools skimming the cream because of a mistaken belief that they would get a “better” education? At the end of the day, it comes down to whether a balkanized school system what we want in order to “fix” a supposedly broken system? These studies say nothing about this question. Charter schools have become vessels for rich hedge fund guys who want to salve their conscience by seeming to do something about poor kids while at the same striking back at the unions for daring to have the right to collectively bargain.

  3. […] that’s not allowed (many), they push out students who bring down their numbers.  Turns out that doesn’t seem to be true.  I don’t pretend to have any particular insight on charter schools, but have generally been […]

  4. Ed Fuller says:

    The problem with all of the Zimmer studies I have read (I probably have not read all of them) is that he lumps all charters together. My own data from Texas shows that high-profile charters skim higher performing students than other schools in the same geographic area while low-profile charters (typically low-performing as well) have the opposite problem. Average the two together, and you get no apparent trend. The same is true for pushing kids out. One would expect someone the caliber of Zimmer to report the results for different types of charters.

  5. […] of the knocks against charter schools is that they push out poor-performing students. Not so, says a recent […]

  6. […] One of the knocks against charter schools is that they push out poor-performing students. Not so, says a recent […]

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