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It's Report Card Time for Charter Schools

November 16, 2011

Most people who are at all familiar with charter schools–public schools that are operated independent of the school district–know their performance is uneven.  

There are some rock stars, and also some clunkers. In fact, most charter studies to date suggest that only a handful are really good, most are performing no better than their traditional public school counterparts, and a good number of them are just plain awful. 

That’s why I was both excited and perplexed by the Mathematica Policy Research and Center on Reinventing Public Education report on the effectiveness of Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) nationwide. 

Last week Mathematica released a long-awaited study on the effectiveness of charter schools that operate as part of a network of schools–known as Charter Management Organizations.  

This study is on middle school, one of the most challenging parts of K-12. It’s important to prepare students well in middle school because it’s a critical time in a child’s academic life, serving as a bridge to the rigors of high school.  

This study is also significant because it looked specifically at CMOs (Charter Management Organizations). These are organizations that have been at this for several years, and certainly should have figured out what works best.  

CMOs are widely believed to have a better chance of being successful than stand-alone charter schools, because they have the infrastructure and resources to replicate good practices and take advantage of economies of scale.

The study found that, in general, students at these types of charter schools did better than their counterparts at traditional public schools.  Our partners in the sector like Andy Rotherham and Tom Toch have crunched the numbers and done in-depth analyses.  

I encourage you to read their articles and take the time to really understand these numbers, but I will give you the short version: many CMOs have made significant gains in math and language arts. There’s a lot to learn from those who have done well.  

But, that’s just part of the story.  

The most important finding is that the highest-performing CMOs were outrageously successful–giving students about three years’ worth of learning in just two years.  And equally as important, there were a handful of schools that didn’t do well at all. They actually did harm to their students, setting them back academically. And, that’s just not acceptable.  

Of the 22 CMOs that participated in the achievement analysis portion of the study, 10 were rock stars, eight were okay, and four were embarrassing.

At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, many of us have worked inside charter schools; some of us have even helped create them.  

We are passionate about charter schools as an important addition to the suite of public school options because we know what they can do. We know better than most how very hard this work is. And, we also know that we can accept no excuses for poor performance. We don’t accept it from the students we know can achieve, and we will not accept it from the schools that serve them.  

Now that these networks of low-performing schools have been identified, there is a responsibility to take action. When charters are performing poorly, they need to be closed.  They hurt the students who need them most and taint the entire sector. 

Commenting on the study, Tom Toch points out, 

“That some have nonetheless struggled reinforces the reality that truly high quality CMOs are likely to reach only a modest number of students in the coming years. We should cheer the expansion of KIPP, Achievement First, Aspire and the handful of other CMOs with great academic track records, and we should study what makes them successful. But it’s more hopeful than realistic, the new study makes clear, to expect such organizations to transform public education on their own.”

Toch’s sobering comment rings true to me as well. So let’s celebrate the cities, charters, and school districts that have put aside the “public schools versus charter public schools” battles and embrace the shared learning that should take place.

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