Charter schools or traditional schools: which is better?


In response to our recent blog post about the success of one Utah public charter school, we have received requests to produce credible research and data showing whether public charter schools are superior to traditional public schools. In the interest of responding to constructive reader feedback, I want to use this post to: (1) discuss some important issues that this request brings up, and (2) summarize some pertinent research and data.

In the world of education policy, there tend to be a lot of oversimplified positions that don’t reflect reality. This is especially true when it comes to the question of what the research and data show about how public charter schools compare to traditional public schools.

Some argue on one extreme that the research/data show that public charter schools are more effective. Others argue on the other extreme that there is no credible research/data to show that public charter schools are more effective. Both of these narrow, oversimplified positions are difficult to counter in the public mind due to the reality that most people don’t spend their days wading through reams of obscure research papers and data on public charter schools (and reasonably so!).

In truth, and as common sense would suggest on an issue as complex and nuanced as education, the reality of what credible research and data shows is somewhere between the simplistic extremes. [pullquote]Credible research shows that some public charter schools are more effective than comparable traditional public schools, some are about the same, and some are worse.[/pullquote] Credible research shows that some public charter schools are more effective than comparable traditional public schools, some are about the same, and some are worse. Additionally, credible research suggests that public charter schools do some things (but not all things) better than or serve certain groups of children better than traditional public schools.

The common sense underlying this outcome in the research and data is that different children tend to learn differently, and that an educational method that is effective for one group of children will be ineffective for a different group. In other words, there is not one educational system that will work for all children. This is why conservatives, who seek to ground their thinking in reality-based principles, are such vocal advocates for more school choice.

As an illustration of what the research and data show, and to respond to the request to produce credible research on the issue, below I have summarized a number of studies on the effectiveness of public charter schools, including links to the study or the study abstract.

With the exception of the final two studies, whose credentials speak for themselves, all of the research summarized below received a “quality rating” of “excellent,” “excellent/very good,” or “very good” from an education research center at the University of Washington. However, if you want a more complete picture of the research summarized below, I would recommend reading the papers for yourself. Enjoy!

This study of public charter schools in Massachusetts published by the Massachusetts Department of Education found that “at least 30 percent of the charter schools performed significantly higher” than their comparable traditional public schools in both math and language arts between 2001 and 2005, with one exception. Further, “the percentage of charter schools performing lower than their [comparable traditional public school] has declined to approximately 10 percent in mathematics and dropped below 10 percent in English language arts.”

This study published by the University of Columbia found that public charter schools in an urban school district which begin as charters (not converting from a traditional public school to a public charter school) “generate improvements in student behavior and attendance.”

This study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that, after the initial start-up period has concluded, “average school quality in the charter sector is not significantly different from that in regular public schools.”

This study of public charter schools in Florida, published in the MIT journal Education Finance and Policy, found that “achievement initially is lower in charters. However, by their fifth year of operation new charter schools reach a par with the average traditional public school in math and produce higher reading achievement scores than their traditional public school counterparts.” Further, they find that “competition from charter schools is associated with modest increases in math scores and unchanged reading scores in nearby traditional public schools.”

This study of public charter schools in Texas, published by the University of Tennessee, finds after controlling for the disruption to student learning caused by the move to a public charter school, “charter schools significantly improve the performance of students in both math and reading, with some evidence that school performance may improve as new charter schools progress beyond their first year in operation.”

This study of public charter schools in Texas, published by the University of Columbia, finds “a positive and significant effect” from the presence of charter schools on traditional public school student outcomes.

This study of public charter schools in Texas, published by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, found that public charter schools whose student bodies have a larger portion of “at risk” students than traditional public schools have a positive effect on student achievement growth relative to traditional public schools.

This study of 36 public charter middle schools in 15 states, done by Mathematica Policy Research and funded by the federal government, found that, on average, charter middle schools had academic achievement similar to traditional public schools in reading and math. The researchers also found that “study charter schools were more effective for lower income and lower achieving students and less effective for higher income and higher achieving students,” and found that charter schools in large urban areas had positive effects on math achievement, while those outside urban areas had negative impacts. Levels of parent and student satisfaction were also higher at public charter schools than traditional public schools.

This study of 2,403 public charter schools in 16 states published by Stanford University found that 17 percent of public charter schools had student math gains that were higher than traditional public schools “by a significant amount,” 46 percent had math gains that were “statistically indistinguishable” from traditional public schools, and 37 percent had math achievement gains that were “significantly below what their students would have seen if they enrolled in local traditional public schools.” The relative effectiveness of public charter schools varied by state.

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  • tiredoffighting

    Wish you would have cited the many studies which point in the other direction. I have to say I would hope all charters would do better as the predominant student body is made up of a majority of upper middle class; homogenous students. In Utah, that is the case. There a minimal numbers of economically disadvantaged, ELL, and special ed students. In addition, class sizes are significantly smaller. Still most do not do as well as traditional neighborhood schools. Those are Utah’s facts and truly worth the recitation.

  • Anonymous

    As a former public school teacher, I generally support charter schools.  But — and please correct me if I am wrong — in Utah many of our legislators seem to be pushing for privately owned FOR PROFIT schools.  Is this correct?

    And is the observation correct that at least some of our legislators are pandering to influential friends who stand to gain from those profits?

    Ethical actions are not a strong suit for many of our legislators.

  • Anonymous

    Why is it some people narrowly define “education choice” as creating completely separate education systems? My children in a traditional public high school have myriad choices–a high-tech school, technical programs, International Baccalaureate, online classes, sports programs, foreign languages, concurrent enrollment, clubs, etc., etc. There are many ways to expand “choice” without the need to create duplicative systems.

    Everything now offered by charter schools could easily and effectively be offered within the existing traditional system if lawmakers and the public really wanted it.

  • WhataShocker

    Wow. Still no comparisons about special education and ell populations (typically excluded from charter schools). Not surprising that test scores increase when these populations are not represented or serviced.

  • Duane

    As a former public school teacher, I suspect you get most of your information about charter schools (and any other alternative education) from the union. Do you have any information that did NOT come from the union about legislators pushing “for profit” schools?

    Not only that, but you seem to have bought in to the propaganda about “for profit” activities. Maybe you are not aware that non-profits have just as many problems as for-profit enterprises. United Way spends about 70% of your donation for overhead costs like $150,000 salaries for regional managers. “Non-profit” does NOT mean there is no greed, graft, corruption or plain old inefficiency.

    The US Post Office is a poster child for “non-profit” enterprises and so is your local DMV. You loved your last visit to the DMV, didn’t you? Do you really think that Apple iPad or iPhone or any other phone you probably love would have been anything worth having if produced by a non-profit? If you didn’t like your last phone, do you think you would have been likely to switch to a better one if Motorola had the same government-enforced monopoly that public education has been for most of the last 150 years?

    And don’t even try to tell me that education is different. Stevens Henager and University of Phoenix are turning out thousands of graduates who apparently are getting jobs and referring new students. If they didn’t do a good job of educating, they would not have any students. And many local pre-schools do an excellent job with pre-kindergartners, including the one my son went to. They also have to produce results or they too, lose students and give up.

  • Duane

    Class size makes almost no difference until the students-to-adult ratio is down around 13:1 or even 9:1, depending on which studies you read.

    Academic performance at ANY new school is sub-par for the first 3-5 years, even traditional district schools. New district schools come up more quickly because most of the teachers and administrators not only come from similar indoctrination camps (Education Colleges), but even from similar schools in the same district. It is not relevant to compare charter schools still in their first five years to schools that have been operating for ten to thirty-plus years.

    Not only that, but charter school performance is often biased downward by the continuous influx of under-performing students from local district schools. Union members at district schools might claim that is a problem for them as well when under-performing students transfer from charter schools to district schools. The sheer numbers mean it is a miniscule problem for district schools, maybe almost unmeasurable.

    Both Thomas Edison Charter Schools in Cache Valley are located in upper-middle class towns, but you should come visit and see for yourself that the student mix is not what you think. I don’t know what the student mixes are for other charter schools in Utah, but I bet you haven’t visited any of them, either, to see for yourself.

    Many of those “other studies” you ask for make the mistakes I pointed out above, sometimes intentionally. Comparing new schools to well-established schools is irrelevant. So is failure to adjust for the influx from district schools. Any researcher who does so is either dishonest or ignorant. At least the second can be cured as long as they are not dishonest, too. I have talked to one of the researchers who conceded that they had not accounted for the ages of the schools. She said they intended to do so in the future. I hope she does.