There have been, and no doubt, are now taking place, many studies of how the results obtained by the nation’s public charter schools differ from those of other public schools with similar student populations. Depending on the study you cite, either charter schools do better than traditional districts in improving student or do no better. But one thing is known: None of these studies compare charter school students with those in traditional public schools who did not attempt the lottery.
The most-recent of these studies, from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, found in its Urban Charter Schools Report in 2015 that “urban charter schools on average achieve significantly greater student success in math and reading, which amounts to 40 additional days of learning growth in math and 28 days of additional growth in reading.” This isn’t to say charters are doing well everywhere, which CREDO points out throughout its study; these are averages, after all. In fifteen of the 41 regions in math and 18 of the 41 regions in reading there was no difference or the charters did less well then traditional public schools.
A crucial issue that I have not seen explored is that of the possible causal factors in student learning that differentiate charters from traditional public schools. That is, there seems to be an implicit assumption that the differentiating causal factor is the sheer fact of chartering.
There is something to this. One of the motivations for charters, in the first place, was that the administrations of at least some districts were so incompetent (to be polite), that they interfered with the operations of their schools. There is also the common American ideology that competition is beneficial, that if a school independent of the district administration did well, then others would imitate its innovations and all boats would be floated with the rising tide.
However, the situation today is increasingly one in which there are charter school operators, or as I call them, systems of charter schools, so that the comparison is not so much that between independent schools with adventurous teachers and teacher leaders and schools chained to district administrations, but between systems of charter schools, on the one hand, and traditional school systems on the other. This changes what it means for a school to be a charter, as opposed to a traditional public school. Instead of meaning that decisions will be school-based in the one and system-based, in the other, it means that either is possible for each, or, as likely as not, decisions will be system-based in both.
In our search for those independent variables that might be causal for differences in student outcomes between charter schools and traditional public schools, we might look at one aspect of the situation in New York City. Among the various systems of charter schools operating in New York, the KIPP group, with six schools in the city, has a good reputation and good results. KIPP has a strong system-wide culture of support and in-service professional development for its teachers and school leaders. In New York City, on average, 45 percent of the students in KIPP schools were judged Proficient on the state’s grades 3-8 English Language Arts tests in 2016, as compared to 24 percent of the students in the four geographical school districts in which they were located.
So far, so good.
Let’s do some poking about in the weeds to see if we can find out what it is about the KIPP charter schools to which we can attribute these results. First, student factors: In New York City, about one-third of Black and Latino school age children live in poverty. That figure rises to 50 percent for Hispanic families in which a woman is the householder and there is no husband present. Thirty-eight percent of Latino residents of the city speak English “less than well” (as do seven percent of Black residents). Eighteen percent of Black adults and 34 percent of Latino adults have not graduated from high school.
The KIPP schools have racial and ethnic enrollments nearly identical with those of the local traditional public schools, as well as nearly identical percentages of students with disabilities. They have a higher percentage of English language learners, an identical percentage of students eligible for free lunches (a measure of poverty) and more than twice the percentage of the slightly less impoverished group eligible for reduced price lunches. Their class sizes are slightly, but not significantly, larger than those in the local traditional schools.
However, there are important differences to be found in the data about teachers. Eighteen of the KIPP teachers have been teaching three years or less, as compared to 14 percent of the teachers in the local traditional schools. Among teachers with five years or less of experience, the turn-over rate in the KIPP schools was 43 percent and overall it was 42 percent, while in the local traditional schools annual teacher turnover rates were 24 percent and 19 percent respectively. In other words, every two years each KIPP school had an almost entirely new, younger, teaching staff, as compared to between every four and five years for the local traditional schools.
The situation in regard to qualifications is even more dramatic. Thirty-seven percent of the KIPP teachers have no valid teaching credential, 37 percent are teaching outside their certification areas, 38 percent of classes are not taught by highly qualified teachers and 37 percent are taught by teachers without appropriate certification. Just 13 percent have pursued graduate degrees. The comparisons with the teachers in the local traditional schools are stark: just two percent of those have no valid teaching credential, 17 percent are teaching outside their certification areas, 15 percent of classes are not taught by highly qualified teachers and 16 percent are taught by teachers without appropriate certification. Forty have pursued their own studies to the M.A. level and beyond. In sum, the local traditional schools are staffed with teachers who are better educated and better credentialed than those in New York City’s KIPP charter schools.
Why then do the KIPP schools have better results than the local traditional schools?
One theory would be that education and credentialing do not make better teachers and staff stability does not matter for the quality of the education students receive. There is enough data to suggest this – and teacher quality is the most-critical factor in how schools educate children. But it only one factor..
The second theory is that charter schools can sort out children they don’t want to serve through application processes that don’t apply to traditional public schools. The problem with that argument is that charters such as those run by KIPP also must go through a lottery process with various safeguards which ensure that the socioeconomic profiles of the students are nearly identical to that of districts. These lotteries exist because there are far fewer charter schools than there are traditional public schools.
The third theory, one that interests me, is that the determination of parents and legal guardians to get their children into charters is a filter that differentiates kids in charters from those in traditional public schools. There are, no doubt, many Black and Hispanic New York residents who have not graduated from high school, who do not speak English well, who are living in poverty, who will file a KIPP charter school application for their children. It is equally likely that there are those, and others more fortunate, who will not.
Few doubt that the concentrated parental attention on education that many middle class children receive is a factor in their educational success. In places where, as in New York, many traditional public schools fail to educate their students to their potential. For parents looking for a way out, they notice the success of charter systems like KIPP and apply to their lotteries. We might then guess that this has become a feed-back loop: increasing numbers of students with highly motivating parents yield ever better educational outcomes and attracting ever more students with highly motivating parents.
Of course, the motivated parent argument is an old one and we must be careful in considering it. It is often an excuse for traditional public schools to not properly educate children, especially those Black and Latino, with the fewest personal resources. At the same time, we must keep in mind that in the case of charter schools, the potential of those schools to provide more children with high-quality education can be limited by the lack of support for those with the fewest resources: Thee youth who don’t have parents or permanent legal guardians or whose parents and guardians are struggling too mightily with other issues (including deportation) to go through the charter school application process.
Benevolent social systems are limited in their impact when they cannot adequately help the child with the fewest personal resources. [They are also limited when there aren’t enough of them in the first place — and there aren’t enough high-quality public education systems of any kind.] Choice certainly has value. But so does ensuring that even the neediest children can gain the knowledge they need and deserve so they can survive once they leave schools.
What we have right now are collections of public education systems that fail to achieve the goal of providing all children equal opportunities for a high-quality education, a goal essential to the wellbeing of an increasingly sorely-tried American Republic. These issues aren’t an indictment of charter schools. But their existence, including their success, does highlight our failure to address this persistent inequity.