Is Legislature’s faith in charter schools justified by results?

The Georgia Legislature continues to put a lot of faith in charter schools, although recent research might give them reason to pause.

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The Georgia Legislature continues to put a lot of faith in charter schools, although recent research might give them reason to pause.

The Georgia Legislature continues its faith in charter schools, approving new funding for those authorized by the State Charter Schools Commission that gives them more per-pupil dollars than some traditional schools earn.

Is that faith justified? Some research says it is, but new studies raise questions about performance, discipline and transfer rates in charter schools.

Using Indiana Department of Education data for students in grades 3-7 in traditional public schools, Gary Pike of Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis and his colleagues found children transferring to charter schools posted significantly lower math gains over their first two years than if they had they remained in traditional public schools.

Their new analysis, "Unfulfilled Promises: Transfer to a Charter School and Student Achievement in Indiana," revealed high transfer rates out of charters. Of students who moved to a charter school in 2012-13, almost half returned to traditional public schools over the next three years.

Indiana experienced a doubling in charter school enrollment in the period covered by the study, said Pike, but a rapid influx of new charter schools has prevented the waiting lists and lotteries some states have. In a phone interview, Pike said the research did not probe why students were leaving charter schools, but recent data confirms the transfer rate out of charters is not only continuing but rising.

Test scores didn't appear to be a motivator, he said, explaining, "I think it is something else, something to do with children's experiences in the charter school. We're talking about third-, fourth-and fifth-graders so it may be as simple as they missed their friends."

One commonality did emerge: In the year before students transferred to a charter, they tended to have a discipline referral, so their parents may have been seeking a different setting, suggested Pike.

Often overlooked in the charter school discussion is what happens when students return to their old schools. "Students transferring back, whose level of math achievement is significantly lower than it would be if they'd never left, present a challenge because the school now has less resources for remediation. Because, those resources have been drawn off to support charters. This is a consequence that has not been thought through, but needs to be," he said.

Another recent report, "Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap," concludes that while there's little evidence charter schools nationwide offer many academic benefits compared to traditional public schools, a subset of charters is worth expanding -- the no-excuses charters serving urban and low-income students.

"Attending an urban, high-quality charter school can have transformative effects on individual students' lives. Three years attending one of these high-performing charter schools produces test-score gains about the size of the black-white test-score gap. The best evidence we have so far suggests that these test-score gains will translate into beneficial effects on outcomes like college-going, teen pregnancy, and incarceration," concludes the report, which recommends traditional public schools embrace the no-excuses model.

Soon to follow, however, was a review of the report by A. Chris Torres of Michigan State University and Joanne Golann of Vanderbilt University in which they criticize the failure to fully explain what "no excuses" can look like in a school. And, in their view, it can look overly restrictive -- "a highly regulated environment where students are tightly controlled, and demeaned or even humiliated for small behavioral missteps."

The reviewers contend this micromanagement of student behavior can undermine the development of critical skill sets -- assertiveness, initiative, self-expression, persistence, advocacy and self-regulation. They also point out that parents who don't choose a no-excuse model may not want it foisted on them, noting, "... the positive impacts of no-excuses charters may not generalize to a broader range of students because these students (and their families) likely differ in many ways from students (and families) who do not actively seek out these schools."

(What I often find talking to Georgia parents disenchanted with their no-excuses charter school is they endorse the stringent discipline policies until they're applied to their child.)

Georgia's faith in charter schools has to be balanced by a commitment to what Pike calls the original compact behind the charter movement: "These schools need to identify their mission and goals and we need to hold them to it. The schools were created to be experimental. The experiments that don't work need to be ended."