Key Issues in Studying Charter Schools and Achievement: A Review and Suggestions for National Guidelines

The Charter School Achievement Consensus Panel; Julian Betts and Paul T. Hill, Principal Drafters
Center on Reinventing Public Education
May 2006

For charter supporters, August 17, 2004, is a day that will live in infamy. That day, the New York Times unleashed its AFT-spun appraisal, based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, that charter schools were "lagging behind" traditional public schools. (See here.) All hell broke lose. Full page ads denouncing the article were taken. Rival studies were rushed to print. It was a fight to the death. Reason, facts, and rigorous analysis, it seemed, couldn't make much difference. And that was a big problem. So professor Paul Hill and the leaders of several foundations set out to create a space where research would triumph over rhetoric. The result is the National Charter School Research Project (of which Fordham is a minor funder), housed at his Center, and this white paper is one of its first major contributions. It can best be described as a peace offering, the conditions of a possible truce in the charter research wars. It focuses (probably too narrowly) on how to best answer one key question: "whether students in charter schools are learning more or less than they would have learned in conventional public schools." The paper walks the reader through seven major types of studies (such as experimental and "fixed effects") and considers their strengths and weaknesses in addressing this question. No method is perfect, argues the paper; even well-regarded experimental studies have limitations (namely, that their results might not be applicable to the entire charter universe). But some methods are definitely better than others, and studies that look at average student achievement at one point in time-as did the AFT's-are shown to be the least reliable. But even as the field matures, the research is not necessarily getting any better. The panel ranked a majority of the charter studies published between 2001 and 2005 as "fair" or "poor." (Unfortunately, the reader is not told which studies received which rating.) If researchers take this paper's recommendations to heart, the track record for the next few years should be much stronger. Before you launch your next charter school study, read the white paper here.

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