CREDO issues another reality check for Ohio charters

Charter schools are quickly becoming a defining feature of Ohio’s public-education landscape, educating over 120,000 children statewide. Also known as “community schools” in Ohio, charter schools have several distinctive characteristics: They are schools of choice, they operate independently of traditional districts (and some state regulation), and they are held contractually accountable for their results by a charter school authorizer.

The “theory of action” behind charters is fairly simple. Empower parents with choice, give schools greater freedom, and hold schools accountable to a contract—and higher student achievement, more innovation, and stronger parental engagement will follow.

But how does theory stack up against reality? Are Ohio charters actually producing better results than their district counterparts? One way to answer this question is by analyzing student achievement data, and since 1999, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) has been the nation’s foremost independent evaluator of charter school performance. 

Today, CREDO published a report on the academic performance of Ohio charter schools. It found that Buckeye charters, taken as a whole, continue to produce mediocre results. With state test scores in math and reading from the 2007–08 to 2012–13 school years used as the outcome measure, the study found that, on average, Ohio charter students are falling behind their counterparts in district schools. Students lost, on average, fourteen days of learning in reading and forty-three days in math over the course of the school year.

For those who have followed the Fordham Institute’s commentary and research over the years, this finding, sobering though it is, should come as no surprise. Furthermore, today’s overall finding is also strikingly similar to CREDO’s 2009 national analysis, which included Ohio results through the 2007–08 school year. At that time, CREDO estimated a forty-three day deficiency in math (the reading result for charters was not statistically different from districts). All this suggests that, in the aggregate, there’s been no academic progress for charters in recent years, despite energetic efforts to right Ohio’s charter school ship.

The overall news on charters is disappointing. But in the midst of the gloom, CREDO brought some good news and also raised several unsettling issues that researchers and policymakers must continue to grapple with. As we argue in the conclusion, CREDO’s findings confirm the need to rehabilitate the charter school sector in Ohio through policy changes.

The Good News

1.) Low-income black students benefit greatly by attending a charter school. Demographically speaking, one of the most at-risk subgroups is low-income black students. Taken together, Ohio charters educated over 46,000 low-income black students in 2013–14. Happily, CREDO found that low-income black students attending an Ohio charter are faring significantly better than their peers in traditional district schools. It estimated that low-income black students receive twenty-two additional days of learning in math and twenty-nine days in reading when attending a charter instead of a district school. A key objective in education reform is to improve the academic lives of our neediest students; charter schools in Ohio appear to be doing exactly that.

2.) Cleveland charters are pulling their weight. When CREDO sliced the results by city (Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, and Dayton), it became evident that Cleveland charters are outperforming the district. The study estimated, for example, that Cleveland charter students receive fourteen additional days of learning in reading and math, relative to their district peers. CREDO’s findings add to the evidence that Cleveland charters are helping to create a stronger public school sector in this long-suffering city and suggest that Cleveland’s education reforms should continue to include a strong charter school component.

3.) There’s something about middle schools. One of the striking findings was that middle school charters have a strong positive impact on student learning. (Charters with other grade configurations—elementary school, high school, or multilevel school—did not show positive impacts.) The research center found that middle school charters contributed a very impressive forty-three additional days of learning in math and thirty-six days in reading. Coincidentally (or not), two high-impact Columbus charters that Fordham authorizes originally opened as middle schools. This causes us to wonder whether smart upstart charter organizations would do best to start their schools in the middle grades and then expand either upwards (into high school) or downwards (into elementary grades), precisely the lesson KIPP and other charter high-fliers have learned over the years.

The Unsettling Issues

1.) Online charters. We know that e-schools are fast becoming a large part of Ohio’s charter school landscape. What is far murkier is how to properly measure their performance and how to hold them accountable for those results. To date, the available data has not been encouraging, and CREDO appeared to confirm this. It is plausible, though not directly confirmed by the report, that the strong negative result for both charter operators and “multilevel” schools was driven by the existence of statewide e-schools (see points 2 and 3 below). Either characteristic would likely apply to a large statewide e-school. Researchers need to crack open the black box of Ohio online charters even further and take a harder look: How long do their students typically attend an e-school, and does that affect their results? With whom should we compare online students’ achievement (and progress)? Does the impact of online schools differ depending on the length of attendance, geographic region, or any other student characteristics? All told, we are still left wondering whether the performance of online charters is truly an educational quality problem or related to other factors.

2.) Charter operators (for-profit and nonprofit). CREDO compared the charter-impact results of schools run by charter-management networks (for-profit or nonprofit operators) to standalone charters. The findings suggest that charter students attending a management-run school make significantly less academic growth than those attending a single-standing charter. (CREDO did not break down the results by for-profit and nonprofit company.) We know of a few outstanding management companies in Ohio, but it appears that, on balance, the Buckeye State still has too many management-run schools that are underperforming. In the coming days, Ohio policymakers will need to address accountability and governance issues related to charters that contract with an external operator.

3.) Charter high schools. CREDO found that charter high schools performed relatively poorly in comparison to districts and to other types of charters. Many of these charter high schools are probably dropout-recovery schools. So while not entirely surprising, it is especially worrisome that dropout-recovery schools are struggling to move the achievement needle for adolescents who need a serious academic boost. At the same time, we also know that Ohio has a few stellar high school charters. (For instance, consider the strong results on state report cards for high schools like Dayton Early College Academy, Arts & College Preparatory Academy, and Toledo School for the Arts.) Ohio leaders should examine why current charter policy encourages the growth of too many low-performing charter high schools while not allowing enough high-quality ones to flourish.

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The Direction of Ohio Charter Policy

To improve the sector’s mediocre student achievement, Ohio policymakers must tether charter school policy to a seemingly simple principle: Replicate high-performing schools and close those that persistently underperform. But to date, Ohio has not created strong enough policies that ensure the replication of great charters or the closure of low-quality schools. The CREDO study released today reminds us that reshaping Ohio’s charter school law to align with this guiding principle is an urgent and necessary task. Too many low-performing charter schools throughout the Buckeye State continue to weigh down the sector—stunting support for the growth of high-quality charters.

Several policymakers are already examining ways to change the course of Ohio charter policy. This report should challenge them—and charter advocates—to lay the whole of Ohio charter school law on the table. It is time to uncover exactly where our charter policies tolerate lackluster academic performance. Wholesale charter school improvement is possible in Ohio; it has happened elsewhere. To see this through, Ohio needs a clear charter school statute, sound implementation of policy, strong funding arrangements, and a dose of public goodwill. Join us next week to hear more ideas on moving Ohio’s charter school policy in the right direction.

Chad L. Aldis
Chad L. Aldis is the Vice President for Ohio Policy and Advocacy of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.