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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How Are California's Charter Schools Measuring Up?

Diane Demee-Benoit

Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia

Many people think of public charter schools as a way to increase student achievement and improve our public school system. However, many others believe charters divert resources from traditional public schools and don't meet up to accountability measures. These opposing views often lead to friction among people who actually have much in common: a genuine concern for children and the national right to high-quality public education.

What do we really know about public charter schools and their level of success? California has some recent data that hopefully will help advise the policy for charter schools' facilities, financial impact, and governance.

Let me give you some background on California's public charter schools. The first charter opened in 1993; since that time, the number has grown steadily each year. The most recent data, from 2005-06, reveals that 574 charter schools now operate in California, serving about 3 percent of our children. In addition, one-fourth of California's 1,034 school districts and county offices of education have at least one charter school, and 8 school districts have converted all their schools into charters.

In June 2007, EdSource -- a respected, nonpartisan educational-research organization -- published its third annual analysis, "California's Charter Schools: Measuring Their Performance." Though measuring and comparing school performance is always complicated, the Edsource report offers an impartial analysis that must be considered in the policy debate. Any analysis has its limitations, but what I especially appreciate about the report is the care researchers paid to controlling for the measurable student characteristics most strongly related to school performance.

I leave it to you to read and evaluate the report, but here are two points the researchers found especially intriguing:

  • As a whole, charter elementary schools had lower Academic Performance Index (API) scores than traditional public elementary schools; however, charter high schools generally scored better than their traditional counterparts. Furthermore, charter middle schools outperformed noncharters on all measures by statistically significant margins, and this strong performance has been stable for several years.
  • Classroom-based charters and schools run by charter-management organizations showed significantly stronger performances.

Additional concerns that need to be addressed include

  • school facilities, which remain a central issue for charter schools and local education agencies (LEAs).
  • charter schools' financial impact on the LEA's operating funds, and charter governance issues.
  • possible revisions to recent state statutes based on lessons learned.

Do you have experience with charter schools or an opinion you'd like to share? I'd like to hear from you.

Diane Demee-Benoit

Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia
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Paul Pyatt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I work in a Charter School in California. We have the highest API of the whole district and we have won the much coveted California Distinguished School award.

There are many things that make a Charter School effective much like any public school. These go from the Janitor to Administration through to the backing and support of the School District and supportive parents. There is not enough time (or space here) for me to write a paper on what makes our school so successful.

What I will say is that the word "Charter" is probably the most important aspect along with family participation. We have a Master Agreement which simply states that if you don't come to school and do what you should do as a student both academically and from a behavior perspective then after the 3rd warning "step" you get kicked out. Parents are expected to be involved in the school and more specifically in their childs education. We have a longer school day and school year, our pay is lower then other schools in the district, but for me this is worth it because I get to teach and not spend most of my time doing crowd control.

Our staff are committed to the vision of the school and what charter means. We teach the whole child not just part (3R's) we have high expectations of ourselves and of our students. Class size is capped at 25. Mediocrity is not an option. We are not a baby sitting service we are a committed high class team of professionals, whose aim is to prepare our children both academically and socially for an unpredictable future.

We have a student waiting list as long as your arm....any school could achieve this; there is no magic bullet. This is my third year at a Charter school and I can't imagine wanting to go back to a PS where lack of vision at state and federal levels has PS tied to the come all take all approach. Ask any PS teacher how this can (in some cases) destroy a class or school.

The mistake that seems to occur in many Charters is that it is seen as an "alternative school" or "a fun school". A school is school and having high expectations and getting rid of the one bad apple is essential in maintaining a safe and quality educational experience for the majority. A teachers time should be spent doing exactly that - teaching.

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John's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Charter Schools are about SAVING Money. They are notorious for not hiring "Highly Qualified" teachers in accordance with the "No Child Left Behind" Federal legislation. In California, it seems that the state is looking the other way. I can think of one where 85 percent of the teachers don't have a credential. Amazing how fast the profession is going down the tubes.

Usually, no medical benefits are offered, which younger teachers often don't think to ask about until later-on. Also, charter school teachers are "At Will" employees, who can be released at a moments notice, which often occurs when a slightly less expensive teacher comes along. Public school teachers do not have tenure. They are not university professors. They merely have "due process," like those who works for Jack in the Box. The process takes a year and a half. Always in a bad economy, we pick on teachers. We blame the teachers for Johnny's poor performance. Even if he rarely makes it to school, it's the teacher's fault. We can't blame the parents . . they vote.

Robyn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Every charter school is different. I am a big proponent of good charter schools. As with any school, a prospective student (or his family) should look into the specifics of that school before choosing to attend. I believe that charter schools provide much needed competition with traditional education. It takes away the guarantee that every school will have enough students to fill their hallways, regardless of their strengths and weaknesses. Without a guaranteed student base, schools must work to become better at educating children, and who doesn't want that?

mqdean's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My son attends a charter school in Northern California. He has a learning issue and would have been swallowed up at the local high school. I get the sense this is the case for most of the kids.

His school is populated by lottery so everyone who attends regardless of ability has a supportive family behind them.

The teachers are young and dynamic and can relate to the kids. Most of them are credentialed from a top local university.

The school has done very well but I get a sense it is not easy on a day to day basis. They are strict and expect the kids to rise to the occasion. Sadly some do not but it leaves room for others on the wait list.

I feel blessed.

Joseph Breault's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I can tell you that at Creative Connections Visual and Performing Arts Charter students are excelling, especially in the language arts area of state testing and local testing. Subgrups are scoring as follows; Hispanic 73% proficient of Above, African American 75% proficient or Above, Schoolwide 77.6% Proficient or Above. the integration of the arts into teaching have a "MASSIVE" impact on student language development. We are just beginning to develop a more in depth integartion of the arts into math instruction and expect the same results. As it is 60% of our kids are proficient or Above in mathematics. The CCAA student population reflects our community and is not just the "smart" kids as many think. What makes a charter work? Four things in this order of importance:

1. Highly qualified teachers
2. Leadership
3. Parent Involvement
4. Clear vision and committment to high standards

Visit us at our website for details...twinriversusd.org under schools.

James Dinwiddie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

California public schools are facing an "over the cliff" shortfall in 2010. Many, many teachers and administrators will lose their jobs. Schools will close. Class sizes will grow unmanageably large. API scores will drop and so will SAT and the rest of the standardized scores we're so obsessed about.

Are charter schools the answer? If California's public schools are allowed to fail this will mean a historic and wholesale abandonment of the ideal of quality public education for all. Maybe we have already reached the tipping point, and have to admit that the ideal of quality public schools is unreachable in our state. But to say that for-profit charter schools are the solution is to abandon the ideals of an educated citizenry and of democracy itself. What will replace these ideals? Good old American profit and greed.

Jutti's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I find it interesting that more than one person working at a charter school attributes their school's low scores due that the fact that their students were not "pre screened."

I teach at a public school. We do not pre screen our students. We take everyone who walks through our door! We get students who have been asked to leave their charter school because of their behavior and/or poor academic performance. We also get students who have had to leave the local parochial school for the same reasons.

One advantage charter schools have over public schools: committed parents.

Susan Olson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am the Director of a charter school in northern California.

It is important to note that charter schools cannot screen their students (i.e., not enroll students with perceived behavior or academic struggles). It is against the law. We enroll through a lottery system and encourage everyone who is interested in what our school has to offer to apply. We provide special ed services and work with "problem" kids like every other school.

In California charter schools receive comparatively less funding than non-charter public schools because charters must use the same funds to pay for facilities as well. So, the funding argument above is not quite right - believe me, people working at and running charter schools in my state are NOT in it for the money! Salaries are often lower at charter schools that at traditional public schools.

One thing I appreciate about working at a charter school is that we serve families from all walks of life, all socioeconomic levels. Yet, parents at charter schools are often more active at the school because it is a school of choice - this is a wonderful benefit for the students and community as a whole. The environment is one of enthusiasm for a particular approach, and when this is the case, everyone wins.

Charter law is very clear in California: more freedom in exchange for full accountability. Charter schools undergo the same rigorous testing and audit that any other public school faces. I find it exciting that charters are using a wide range of curricula that address an equally broad spectrum of learning styles. The academic, legal, and fiscal accountability that comes along with the freedom to try other-than-mainstream approaches is fair and, in my experience, a really wonderful thing.

Mom of 6's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

3 of my kids are 18 and up and 2 have graduated 1 due to graduate this year. My younger 3 are under 10. I have lost faith in some of the public schools in California primarily because when one of my 8 year old twin girls was in Kindergarten I went to all the parent student meeting and got glowing report cards telling me my daughter was doing wonderful the only problem I never saw any of that at the end of the school year I had her assessed again independently she knew nothing the teacher claimed she did so I have had bad experiences with the public schools because some teachers just push threw kids regardless of what they actually know. I have since taken my younger kids and placed them in a charter school where I HOME SCHOOL them with a curriculum that their ct ( certified teacher ) and I choose. There's good and bad on both sides of this debate and in both public schools and charter schools as well. Some charter schools don't prescreen but if your child isn't testing well they can drop them from the program. I feel if public schools can't drop or prescreen students than neither should charter schools.

Pat Chrosniak's picture

There are a couple venues for the establishment of charters for charter schools. The quality and emphasis of these schools depends upon the strength and deliberateness of their charters. For example, a state may initiate regulations about the number of schools and make recommendations to the charter team about things they want in the curriculum. Checks and balances would include performance as well as consideration about fiscal management. Admission to a specific charter might be outlined to include a lottery system that allows for diversity among the children who will be chosen.
Rather than looking just at standardized test scores, a charter school might have a composite of items that they would use to give a solid picture of performance and learning. [Consider, for example, the suggestions made for RtI progressive monitoring. Not just one measure.]

Some charter schools are excellent; others should be closed. Pat

It is tempting to label all charter schools based upon our own experience within our own states. I appreciate a comparative discussion in which schools can share the good, bad, and ugly of their schools with openness to learn and reflect upon future possibilities.

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