Public charter schools were once viewed as a nonpartisan compromise between vouchers for private schools and no choice at all. Not now. In its 2020 national platform, the Democratic Party calls for “stringent guardrails to ensure charter schools are good stewards” and says federal funding for charters must be conditioned on “whether the charter will systematically underserve the neediest students.” Charter schools are indeed acting as good stewards by outpacing district schools on achievement growth—especially for the most at-risk students.
In a new study we compare the progress made by cohorts of charter and district school students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress from 2005-17—a sample of more than four million test performances. Overall, students at charters are advancing at a faster pace than those at district schools. The strides made by African-American charter students have been particularly impressive. We also see larger gains at charters, relative to district schools, by students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds.
Sometimes known as “the nation’s report card,” the NAEP administers math and reading tests every other year to representative samples of fourth- and eighth-grade students in all 50 states. Ours is the first study to use this vast storehouse of information to analyze changes over time in the charter and district sectors. By adjusting for student background characteristics—sex, ethnicity, income, and (for eighth-grade students) computer availability and the number of books in the home—we made direct comparisons between student outcomes at charter and district schools. Because NAEP data don’t allow us to track specific students, we looked at changes in performance from one student cohort to the next over 12 years.
In 2003 an exploratory precursor to these NAEP surveys revealed that the average performance in reading and math of fourth-grade students attending charter schools trailed that of students attending district schools. When these results became public, the finding garnered widespread media attention.
Much has happened since then. For one thing, the charter sector has grown to include 6% of all U.S. public-school students—up from 2%. Just as important, we are now able to report that student achievement at charters has been rising at a considerably faster pace than at district schools. Nationwide, eighth-graders attending charter schools show learning gains over students at district schools amounting to three months of learning from 2005-17. The differences between charters and district schools is smaller at the fourth-grade level.
Relative to district schools, the most striking gains at charters are for African-American students, who constitute about 30% of the charter-school student population nationwide. Even after adjustments for background characteristics, their achievement gains in eighth grade exceed those at district schools by about six months of learning. African-American student performance in fourth grade rose by an extra four months of learning. Progress at charters by white students was more measured. Gains for charter-school student cohorts were two months of learning above those in the district sector.
Eighth-grade student cohorts from poor families are also making more-rapid progress at charters than at district schools. The scores of those in the bottom 25% of the socioeconomic distribution increased nearly twice as much as those of students in the district sector.
The charter advantage isn’t universal—Asian-American and Hispanic students are doing equally well in both sectors, as are students in the Western U.S. more generally. But the sizable gains for African-Americans and students from poorer backgrounds bolster President Trump’s claim that school choice is a civil-rights issue. Much more progress needs to be made to close the achievement gap. But if charters haven’t resolved social divides, they have proved to be a healthy tonic for the American educational system. Charters are improving outcomes even without the “stringent guardrails” proposed by the Democrats.
Mr. Peterson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a professor of government at Harvard and director of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, where Mr. Shakeel is a postdoctoral research fellow.
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