Selected readings on US charter schools
A recent thread in studies about public charter schools and student achievement is that broad analyses often mask the key features that explain why some charter schools outperform traditional public schools (TPS). A paper by Hiren Nisar from Abt Associates follows this idea by highlighting the impact of school autonomy on student performance. He finds that students in Milwaukee public charter schools that operate with more autonomy from traditional public school regulation (called non-instrumentality charter schools) outperform their counterparts in less-autonomous public charter schools (instrumentality charter schools) and traditional public schools.
In Milwaukee, both instrumentality and non-instrumentality schools have more budget and curricular flexibility than traditional public schools. However, there are key differences in operational autonomy: instrumentality public charter schools operate as a part of traditional school districts, they face little risk of closure, and they hire unionized teachers. When looking at achievement over all charter school students compared to TPS students, Nisar found little significant difference in performance. However, not all public charter schools are subject to the same policies, and those differences have significant impacts on student achievement levels.
Nisar breaks down these differences by examining how a school’s instrumentality status relates to students’ reading proficiency. He finds that “students at a non-instrumentality charter school would be reading at a grade higher from their counterparts in an instrumentality charter school in two years, and their counterparts in a TPS in three years.” He also finds that African-American students perform better in non-instrumentality charter schools than any other type of public school. When looking at low achieving students, he estimates that attending a public charter school of any type would eliminate the reading achievement gap in two years.
Aside from the encouraging empirical findings, there is a broader takeaway from Nisar’s paper – as he puts it, “the details of charter school policies matter.” In Milwaukee, public charter schools that operate autonomously from traditional school districts, and therefore face a greater risk of closure, perform better. As NAPCS President & CEO Nina Rees said, “The charter school idea is predicated on the notion that in exchange for autonomy and freedom from bureaucratic rules, schools would face closure if they fail to meet their academic goals.” The tradeoff of enjoying more autonomy for greater accountability in the form of school closures is a basic tenet of charter schools, as well as a keystone of the NACSA’s One Million Lives campaign. This paper offers a strong suggestion that autonomy and accountability for public charter schools are essential policies that go hand in hand with learning gains for students.
Source: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (blog) – by Chris Rue, Research Analyst
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