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Charter School Performance Study Finds Small Gains

Math teacher Robert Biemesderfer asks students questions during the opening of a BASIS charter school.

Charter school students on average slightly outpace comparable public school kids in reading and tie them in math, according to a large study of academic performance that shows slow but steady charter school improvement in some states since 2009.

Charter students on the whole end the school year with reading skills eight instructional days ahead of public school kids, and perform at about the same rate as public school students in math, according to the study released by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO. In math, the study found that 29 percent of charter schools showed “significantly stronger learning gains” than their public school peers, with 40 percent performing similarly and 31 percent “significantly weaker.” In reading, 25 percent of charters showed “significantly stronger learning gains” than public schools, 56 percent showed no difference and 19 percent showed “significantly weaker gains.”

CREDO looked at 2.3 million charter students in 25 states and two cities — New York and Washington. It is likely the biggest study of charter schools to date — bigger than the Stanford group’s 2009 study of charter schools in 16 states that has been cited hundreds of times by scholars, lawmakers and advocates. The 2009 study showed charter students were losing seven days in reading and 22 days in math to public school students. It found that 17 percent of charter schools outperformed public school peers and 37 percent were actually doing worse.

“Charter schools now advance the learning gains of their students’ more than traditional public schools in reading,” the authors of the new study write. “However, charter school quality is uneven across the states and across schools.”

CREDO found more pronounced gains for some minorities. Hispanic English-language learners in charter schools were 50 days of reading instruction ahead of the average of their public school school peers, and 43 days ahead in math. Charter school black students in poverty were 29 instructional days ahead of public peers in reading, and 36 days ahead in math.

Charter schools are publicly funded, but may be privately run. They have been controversial in school districts across the country, competing for resources with public schools. Nationally, charter schools have bipartisan support, with backers that include the White House, House Republicans and House Democrats. The idea behind charters is that the schools, stripped of government regulations and union rules, can be free to innovate and tweak class times, school year length and teacher evaluations.

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