In 2009, CREDO released an expansive study of charters that made big waves. It showed that, among the sixteen states studied, there was wide variation in charter quality: Lots of charters were doing well, but even more were underperforming their local district schools. Ever since, charter antagonists have gleefully cited this report to make all types of unflattering claims about chartering.

CREDO's charter quality report
CREDO's expansive study of charters made waves in 2009. 

They should be less buoyant this week.

Four years after the first study’s release, CREDO is out with an update. It includes all of the previous participating states and a slate of new ones. In total, the states covered by the new report educate more than 95 percent of charter students nationwide.

This week has brought lots of articles about the study. But most miss some key findings—both in terms of the sector’s basic descriptive statistics and the quality of its schools.

I encourage you to read the full report, not just the executive summary, because some of the most significant findings and lessons evaporated in the shortening process.

Here are my big takeaways in no particular order:

  • Contrary to public perception, only 56 percent of charter students live in urban areas; the rest are in suburbia, rural areas, and small towns.
  • More than half of the charter kids studied live in poverty—higher than the district school rate. A growing number of Hispanic and low-income families are choosing charters.
  • Among the sixteen initial states, charters have improved significantly in both reading and math. They now outperform traditional public school (TPS) peers in reading (about eight days more of learning per year) and are on par in math. (Figure 22 nicely shows these improvements.)
  • The performance of new charters lags that of longer-standing charters.
  • Looking at all twenty-seven states, the average charter student starts further behind academically than his TPS peers.
  • Importantly, charters are producing large academic gains for the most historically disadvantaged students, notably low-income Hispanic and African American students and English language learners.
  • Enrollment among these groups is growing; in other words, the groups of students that most benefit from charters are increasingly finding their ways into charters.
  • However, there continues to be wide variation in performance within the national charter sector. Some schools outperform peer district schools, some do about the same, and some lag behind. But these proportions have been trending, since 2009, in the right direction for the charter sector.
  • One continuing disappointment: CMO-run schools aren’t doing as well as they should. We’re all aware of the great CMOs, but too many states have allowed middling or poor charters to replicate, causing overall CMO performance to lag.
  • Perhaps most striking is the enormous variation in charter performance from state to state. Some state charter sectors are helping their kids learn dozens of extra days worth of material annually. The best results are now found in D.C., Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Tennessee. (By contrast, the performance of Nevada’s charters is shameful.)
  • I suspect it’s no coincidence that the states with great charter performance have independent authorizers (no more district authorizing!).
  • The report compares the additional learning kids get from their states’ charters to their respective states’ NAEP scores. Two major findings jump out: In Massachusetts and New Jersey—states with high statewide NAEP scores—the charter sectors still best their TPS counterparts.
  • In D.C., where NAEP scores are woeful, the charter sector is offering kids remarkably higher-performing options.
  • Per Figure 42, the longer kids stay in charters, the more they learn compared to TPS peers.
  • Lastly, the report offers five scenarios for closing low-performing charters. The upshot is clear: Get serious about shuttering failing charters, and the sector’s overall performance skyrockets. (It would have been nice if they had also shown the sector-wide influence of various scenarios for growing the best charters.)

All in all, the results are encouraging for charter supporters. It appears that the systemic elements of chartering are working as many predicted. In other words, chartering is a continuous improvement process for a system of schools: When you build a strategy around closing bad schools while enabling great ones to grow and promising new ones to start, you shift the quality distribution to the right year after year.

This, of course, requires both sound policies and smart practices, especially among authorizers. But if we keep at this with fidelity, we should see the charter sector continually improving. That means more great seats for kids in need.

This piece was updated on June 27, 2013, for the Education Gadfly Weekly.

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