Charter Schools Show Steeper Upward Trend in Student Achievement than District Schools: First nationwide study of trends shows large gains for African Americans at charters

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Date: Winter 2021
From: Education Next(Vol. 21, Issue 1)
Publisher: Hoover Institution Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 3,999 words
Lexile Measure: 1440L

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THE NUMBER OF CHARTER SCHOOLS grew rapidly for a quarter-century after the first charter opened its doors in 1992. But since 2016, the rate of increase has slowed. Is the pause related to a decline in charter effectiveness?

To find out, we track changes in student performance at charter and district schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests reading and math skills of a nationally representative sample of students every other year. We focus on trends in student performance from 2005 through 2017 to get a sense of the direction in which the district and charter sectors are heading. We also control for differences in students' background characteristics. This is the first study to use this information to compare trend lines. Most prior research has compared the relative effectiveness of the charter and district sectors at a single point in time.

Our analysis shows that student cohorts in the charter sector made greater gains from 2005 to 2017 than did cohorts in the district sector. The difference in the trends in the two sectors amounts to nearly an additional half-year's worth of learning. The biggest gains are for African Americans and for students of low socioeconomic status attending charter schools. When we adjust for changes in student background characteristics, we find that two-thirds of the relative gain in the charter sector cannot be explained by demography. In other words, the pace of change is more rapid either because the charter sector, relative to the district sector, is attracting a more proficient set of students in ways that cannot be detected by demographic characteristics, or because charter schools and their teachers are doing a better job of teaching students.

Three Decades of Growth

The nation's first charter school opened in Minnesota in 1991, under a state law that established a new type of publicly funded, independently operated school. School systems in 43 states and the District of Columbia now include charter schools, and in states like California, Arizona, Florida, and Louisiana, more than one in 10 public-school students attend them. In some big cities, those numbers are even larger: 45 percent in Washington, D.C., 37 percent in Philadelphia, and 15 percent in Los Angeles.

Nationwide, charter enrollment tripled between 2005 and 2017, with the number of charter students growing from 2 percent to 6 percent of all public-school students. But the rate of growth slowed after 2016 (see "Why Is Charter Growth Slowing? Lessons from the Bay Area," research, Summer 2018). There are several possible reasons for this. The rate of states passing charter laws declined after 1999, and many of the laws passed since 2000 have included provisions that can stymie growth: caps on the number of schools allowed, arcane application requirements, and land-use and other regulations. In addition, a political backlash is slowing charter expansion in some states.

Researchers who have looked at the academic performance of students in charter and district schools at a single point in time have generally found it to be quite...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A645314683