Saturday, March 22, 2014

Yes, NYC charter schools are working

Yes, NYC charter schools are working

Foes distort the evidence to claim otherwise

By Marcus A. Winters / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

Wednesday, March 12, 2014, 5:33 PM

Critics frequently argue that New York City's charter schools are no more effective than its traditional public schools. As proof, they almost invariably point to research by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) showing that charter schools and nearby traditional public schools are equally effective on average.

In the context of the New York City discussion, however, this is a blatant mischaracterization of CREDO's work.

CREDO's research uses a sophisticated matching strategy to compare the achievement of charter school students to similar students attending nearby traditional public schools. They have conducted this research in 27 states and cities to date, pooling the results to reach their nationwide conclusion.

The national scope of CREDO's work is enormously valuable. However, it is essential to keep in mind that their research is not really a national evaluation of charter schools. Rather, it is better understood as a combination of several local studies of charter schools. In fact, CREDO finds that charter schools' effectiveness varies dramatically from place to place.

CREDO used their methodology to study New York City's charter schools in particular. They found that attending a charter school in New York City had a large positive effect on student performance in mathematics, and a mild positive effect in reading. The positive effect was especially large for charters in Harlem and for those affiliated with a charter management organization (the controversial Success Academy Network is one of the largest and best-known CMOs).

New York's charter opponents have developed the habit of citing the nationwide result, rather than the local one — a tactic that can only be called misleading. Nationwide, CREDO found little difference between charters and traditional public schools. But that result came from combining the results of states where charters are ineffective with those where charters are very effective, such as New York City. When specifically discussing the effectiveness of charter schools in New York City, it makes no sense to consider the effectiveness of those in Ohio, Arizona, and elsewhere.

CREDO's findings confirm other research done on the Big Apple's charter schools utilizing a superior randomized field trial methodology. Three studies — one by Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby and two by Harvard economist Roland Fryer and Princeton economist Will Dobbie — compared the achievement of kids attending one of New York City's charters to those of kids who applied to a charter but were denied a seat through a random lottery. This procedure is often referred to as the "gold standard" of social science research. Each of those papers found that students benefitted substantially from attending a New York City charter school. The city's charter school opponents willfully ignore these papers, two of which have been published in a prestigious academic journal.

CREDO's finding that the effectiveness of charter schools varies considerably across school systems is interesting but not surprising. The laws and regulations governing charter schools differ across states. The challenges faced by students vary across states. And the most effective charter schools have targeted certain areas and not others.

Perhaps the most important area for future researchers to focus on is developing an understanding of just why some charter schools, and some charter school sectors, are more effective than others. There is a great deal of work to be done in this area. To date, the best evidence comes from Fryer and Dobbie's research in New York City, where they found that the most effective charters are those that exhibit characteristics such as frequent teacher feedback, use of data to guide instruction, high-dosage tutoring, increased instructional time and high expectations.

The empirical evidence, including the CREDO research, consistently demonstrates that on average New York City students are benefitting from attending a charter school. The frequent mischaracterization of the lessons of CREDO's research for New York City is a disservice to the important public debate about the future of the city's charter sector.

Winters is a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and assistant professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Follow him on Twitter @MarcusAWinters.

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