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Charter schools inconsistent but improving, national study finds

An update of a landmark 2009 study showed charter schools on the whole have turned their performance around and are serving poor and minority students especially well.

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Charter schools are improving, according to a new national study, though there is still a wide quality range between the best and the worst.

The study, conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University, is an update of the center’s landmark 2009 study, which compared students’ performance at charter schools in 16 states with that of their traditional public school counterparts and found that, in many instances, charter schools fell short or made no difference in students’ learning.

This time, the news for charters was much better: Overall, in reading, charter students in the 26 states studied had the equivalent of eight extra days of learning each year beyond their peers in traditional public schools, compared with a seven-day loss in learning that the 2009 study found.

In mathematics, the 2013 study found no significant difference in learning, whereas the 2009 study found that charter school students had the equivalent of 22 fewer days of learning. The gains for poor and minority students and English language learners were even greater.

“The general reaction to the 2009 study was shock and disbelief,” says Margaret Raymond, the director of CREDO. “It was the first time we as researchers could provide enough of a wide-angle view for people to understand they’d gotten their doctors’ report back and the news wasn’t all that great.

“The real drive here was to see if in fact the attention to quality that appeared to have followed … had actually paid off,” she says. “We were intrigued to find out that in fact in both reading and math there has been an increase in performance.”

The CREDO study, the most comprehensive study done of charter school performance, uses what it calls “virtual twins” to gauge student learning – a methodology in which researchers compare students with students, rather than schools with schools, while controlling for as many demographics as possible.

The virtual “twin” students are composites of students that go to a traditional public school that the charter school student might otherwise have attended, and that in all other respects look like the charter student.

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