Report: Charters Schools Aren’t Improving Student Achievement in Chicago

Kevin Solari October 17, 2014

Chicago Public Schools former CEO Arne Duncan can smile for the kids, but not for their schools. (US Department of Education / Flickr)

Judg­ing by a new study put out by the Insti­tute on Met­ro­pol­i­tan Oppor­tu­ni­ty (IMO) at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta, Chicago’s char­ter school exper­i­ment has failed.The report indi­cates that, despite what the program’s cheer­lead­ers say, the char­ter school mod­el does not improve stu­dent achieve­ment. The study com­pares char­ter schools to tra­di­tion­al pub­lic schools in a vari­ety of cat­e­gories, such as read­ing and math pass rates, grad­u­a­tion rates, and ACT scores. The results are under­whelm­ing, with char­ters usu­al­ly per­form­ing below their dis­trict coun­ter­parts and, if bet­ter, only by sin­gle-dig­it mar­gins.For exam­ple, when com­par­ing char­ters to non-char­ter pub­lic schools, char­ter schools’ four-year grad­u­a­tion rate is 66 per­cent, com­pared to non-char­ters’ 68 per­cent. Five-year grad­u­a­tion rates show an even greater gap, with 76 per­cent of char­ter stu­dents and 86 per­cent of all pub­lic school stu­dents grad­u­at­ing in that time frame.
In a few small­er sub­sets, char­ters do per­form bet­ter. For instance, they have a 4 per­cent lead over tra­di­tion­al schools in Lati­no stu­dents’ read­ing pass­ing rate, and a 3 per­cent lead against tra­di­tion­al schools for low-income stu­dents in the same cat­e­go­ry.This evi­dence is con­trary to the rosy pic­ture paint­ed by pro­po­nents. It’s also sur­pris­ing because char­ters have a leg up on their coun­ter­parts in sev­er­al ways that have lit­tle to do with edu­ca­tion­al qual­i­ty.Char­ters’ mod­el of free­ing par­ents from the bounds of dis­trict lines and giv­ing them a choice in their kids’ schools—much tout­ed by May­or Rahm Emanuel and oth­er char­ter fans—would tend to attract par­ents who are more involved in their children’s edu­ca­tion. The char­ter school appli­ca­tion process can be ardu­ous, some­times involv­ing infor­ma­tion ses­sions at des­ig­nat­ed times, which neces­si­tates greater parental involve­ment before stu­dents even begin class­es. Parental involve­ment has been shown to increase stu­dent achieve­ment. Because of this, says the report, “stu­dent per­for­mance should exceed what one sees in tra­di­tion­al schools, even if char­ters do no bet­ter at teach­ing their stu­dents.”More­over, char­ter schools can hold stu­dents to a high­er stan­dard, with the study not­ing that expul­sion rates in Chica­go char­ters are over 10 times that in tra­di­tion­al schools. Although stu­dents can only be expelled for dis­ci­pli­nary rea­sons, char­ter schools in Chica­go have in the past been charged with exces­sive­ly harsh dis­ci­pli­nary poli­cies. Some crit­ics say that char­ters force out stu­dents who are hard to edu­cate or will bring down school test scores. Pub­lic schools, on the oth­er hand, are required to accept all stu­dents.The study also com­pared char­ters to a spe­cif­ic type of pub­lic school, mag­nets, which are focused on spe­cif­ic sub­jects like math, sci­ence and the arts, and have selec­tive enroll­ment, but oth­er­wise have to fol­low the same rules as tra­di­tion­al pub­lic schools. Mag­nets have many of the same advan­tages char­ter schools do: They can accept stu­dents all through­out the city, and their selec­tive enroll­ment requires extra effort from stu­dents and par­ents from the start. When direct­ly com­pared to dis­trict mag­net schools, char­ters came in behind in every sin­gle category—sometimes by as much as 20 per­cent.Chica­go char­ter schools’ fail­ure to live up to their promise affects a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of stu­dents. Near­ly 50,000 stu­dents in Chica­go are enrolled in 131 char­ter schools. The city opened its first char­ter in 1996, and dozens more sprang up dur­ing the sev­en-year tenure of Chica­go Pub­lic Schools CEO Arne Dun­can, now Obama’s Sec­re­tary of Edu­ca­tion. When Mr. Dun­can went to Wash­ing­ton in 2009, he con­tin­ued to push for more char­ters nation­wide. By 2012, there were almost 6,000 char­ter schools and 2.1 mil­lion stu­dents enrolled in them.The expan­sion has not been with­out oppo­nents. Char­ter schools are con­tentious for a vari­ety of rea­sons: opaque account­abil­i­ty, uncer­ti­fied staff, and poten­tial con­flicts of inter­est, to name a few. But all that has been excused by pol­i­cy­mak­ers and par­ents on the grounds that stu­dents leave char­ters bet­ter pre­pared for col­lege and careers. This study shows that excuse to be unten­able.The study con­cludes with the sug­ges­tion that it is “time to reeval­u­ate where the sys­tem is head­ed.” The IMO study sug­gests a three-year mora­to­ri­um on new char­ter schools and an “impact study on how char­ter school pol­i­cy has affect­ed the dis­trict as a whole.”Although he began as its strongest sup­port­er, there are signs that Dun­can may be recon­sid­er­ing his advo­ca­cy for the char­ter school movement—or at least is lean­ing towards clos­er scruti­ny of those that per­form poor­ly. Last year, along with pop start Pit­bull, he pre­sent­ed at a Nation­al Alliance for Pub­lic Char­ter Schools con­fer­ence with the theme “Deliv­er­ing on the Dream.” Sec­re­tary Dun­can said that “states that were not care­ful about autho­riz­ing char­ters and let weak oper­a­tors remain open year after year have a lot of low-qual­i­ty char­ters. There are too many char­ters where stu­dents actu­al­ly learn less than their coun­ter­parts in tra­di­tion­al pub­lic schools.”Pub­lic edu­ca­tion is increas­ing­ly dri­ven by data. Char­ter school oper­a­tors in Chica­go, the data shows, are weak com­pared to oth­er dis­trict schools. Time will tell if Sec­re­tary Dun­can will apply his stan­dards to his own cre­ation, or if the Chica­go Board of Edu­ca­tion will con­tin­ue to offer the city’s stu­dents under­per­form­ing char­ter schools.
Kevin is an edu­ca­tor and free­lance writer in Chica­go. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @kevinsolari_.
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