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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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Comments (32)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Regina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a kindergarten teacher at a charter school in N.C. It is the first charter school to start in N.C. I think most parents like the environment of a charter school. It reminds them so much of a private school. This school was originated back in 1997. This school was different because no child was to be labeled regardless of their condition. Most parents with children who had issues loved this idea because their child would not be labeled. Many children came to our school with behavioral problems. It was looked upon as an alternative school.
For this reason, I think our test scores are low. In N.C. we did not meet AYP. We are considered a low performing school. I think if the students were screened before entering the school, test scores would be better.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I used to work at a charter school in Chicago, IL. While the president of the charter schools had experience in education, I believe he was more interested in opening up several charter schools for money. I think that parents get very excited because they think that it will be more like private school. However, it depends on the area that the school is located in. I worked in an impoverished area. The school was full of students that were not pre-screened. Therefore, the school was one of the lowest charter schools in that area. It also was full of teachers, as well as a principal, who were not certified. Charter schools are not what people think they are. Before you put your children in a charter school, evaluate the area that the school is in as well as the teachers that are working there.

Irene Baker's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Questions-
How can we accurately measure if a Charter school really benefits students? Do test scores alone evaluate a student performance? I truly believe a lot more needs to be observed beyond test scores before judging the effectiveness of a Charter school. For example, are the students developing skills above and beyond the norm? Are these students experiencing relative curriculum?

Family Experience-
I teach in an area where Charter schools are non-existent. Yet, my nephew back home in Texas attends a Charter school. This Charter school has put an emphasis on developing bilingual skills, but my concern arises when he can read in Spanish but his English reading skills are poor. We are in America! I am Hispanic, I teach Spanish, and I think it is important to be bilingual; but English should be a priority, considering we live in the U.S. I feel like he is being cheated. He is in a very awkward position: he speaks English fluently but cannot read it well; while he can read Spanish well but he cannot speak it fluently. There is something wrong with this picture.

I am sure there are good Charter schools out there. I like the way creativity is incorporated and "out of the box" teaching is done. All of this good and wonderful but are the proper measures taken when teaching these children? Are priorities mixed up? Do Charter schools want to gain so much ground and reputation that the essential reading, writing, and math skills are forsaken when teaching?

Camille's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Do your nephew parents think that there is something wrong with the school's curriculm or are they happy with the charter school.

Toni's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Of course, if you pre-screened your students your test scores would be higher. If we pre-screened students at the public high school where I teach, our scores would be higher. Charter schools take public money and should not pre-screen students. If a school wants to pre-screen students, charge tuition and don't take public money.

Kip Fagan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If charter schools really do improve student achievement, then this is a great thing. But I'm wondering . . . I guess I just need to see more proof before I make up my mind.

Irene Baker's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I don't think they realize it. They are caught up in the idea of it being a Charter school. I have tried to point out to my sister a few things that concern me but it is like talking to a brick wall. Just the other day she mentioned to me that they are wanting to teach Russian next year. All I thought was, "Oh my!"

They are happy with the projects students get to work and the field trips they take but there is a lot more students need to be equipped with.

Angie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Students are not a dollar sign. Each school receives money for a child that is in their school during the October count. We have lost our focus when we talk about where children attend school. All students have a right to public education whether in a charter school or a typical school. As was stated before, charter schools look more appealing to the middle class that cannot afford a private school for their child. As a teacher of six grade, I would love to sacrifice part of my salary to have a full or part time aid, or a smaller class size. Last year, we were all told that everyone in our building would receive a "bonus" for a 4% CSAP increase. A group of us felt it was insulting to think that we needed money as an incentive to teach our student. I wanted to see the money go into hiring more teacher aids or another teacher. As a public school, we do not have the luxury or "pre-screening" students. Students with behavioral issues and special needs are now a main focus at our school because they are unsatisfactory on their state testing. Last year, I heard my principal say that we wanted to focus our resources on the students that were on the boarder of partially proficient to have our number go up. My son has special needs, and the public school has done their best to give him a great education. I wonder, would a charter school even have given him the time of day? It is about the money, and displaying a great public image. NCLB is to hold teachers accountalbe for teaching students, but it is lacking in humanity for our children. If charter schools are really taking away money from the public schools, then we need to evaluate the reasons why. All schools are not created equal. Some areas have more money which means better resouces, more informed teachers, and better test scores. Better test scores equals more money, but lower test scores means less money and diminishing resouces. How can we compete with less money? It goes to say that the rich receive a better education, and the poor testers have money and resources taken away.

T. Michael Burch's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Here in Washington state the Evergreen Freedom foundation has tried for several years to pass legislation to allow for profit charter schools. They are backed by a few rich business men and the main goal is to bust the teacher's union, and create schools that are union free. They promise that without the union they can offer a better education for less money. The problem is as stated in other postings that they would not be held to the same standards as public schools and would take away valuable tax dollars lowering the educational experience that the students they reject so need in order to learn and be encouraged to stay in school. There are some areas that have charter schools, but they are more along the lines of magnet schools catering to special subjects such as Aviation, Music, the arts, and so on. So far we have been able to defeat this push, but the WEA spends a lot of money to do this that could be used to help promote education.

Kenya Davis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel that Charter Schools have their advantages amd disadvantages. They are less structured than a "normal" public school in a good way (students are the active learners), children have a say so in their education, and to me they seem to have more technology and materials within a charter school. The classroom student ratio are smaller than public school and grouping students seem to be the key.

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