Calculating Success: Understanding Data in Chicago’s Charter Schools

Charter schools have become a dominant fixture in the city of Chicago and across the United States. Nationwide, enrollment in charter schools has more than doubled in the past ten years. In Chicago during the early 2000s, legislative action increased the number of available charters within the city from 45 to 75 and allowed multiple schools to be opened under the same charter. As the number of schools increased, so did enrollment. Chicago charter school enrollment increased tenfold between 2000 and 2014, vastly outpacing national averages. One reason for this dramatic expansion is the perception that charter schools have been successful at addressing educational issues, even though studies have shown mixed results at best when compared with non-charter schools.

In a recent article, Myron Orfield and Thomas Lane examine the performance of charter schools in comparison to traditional public schools in Chicago. An accurate comparison of non-charter and charter schools requires controlling for other mitigating factors that can influence the performance of students, such as racial makeup, family income, and English proficiency. In addition, charter school students are self-selected, which leads to selection bias and makes comparisons between charters and traditional schools misleading. This selection bias favors the charter schools because the parents who make the effort to enroll their children in charter schools are also likely to be more involved in their children’s education. While charters are often presented as a more successful educational option, and have received funding from high profile donors like the Gates Foundation, they have not been evaluated effectively in relation to non-charter schools.

Orfield and Lane have addressed this need for effective evaluation by analyzing data from the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 school years. The data used in the analysis were drawn from the Illinois State Board of Education Center for Performance Report Card. Because these data points are extensive and can be sorted by many student characteristics, they are ideal for examining student body racial composition, test grade levels, percentage of English Language Learners or those with limited English proficiency, percentage of low-income students, percentage of homeless students, and attendance rates. The authors controlled for these factors and determined that charter schools lagged behind traditional schools in math and reading, both in terms of passing rate and growth rate. They also lagged in graduation rate and several ACT scoring categories. The ACT data shows a mixed picture over the two years, with statistically significant differences in reading and science in 2012-2013 that favored non-charter schools. Scores in English and math from the same academic year, as well as all 2013-2014 scores, did not have statistically significant differences. In fact, average ACT scores were, in most cases, identical between charter and traditional schools. When public magnet and gifted schools were also analyzed, charter schools often fared worse than public school options. A particularly strong selling point for charter schools is the claim that their students are more likely to find success in collegiate studies. One of the most accepted markers for potential success in college, the ACT, does not appear to support this assertion.

These results appear to show that charter schools are at best performing statistically similarly to non-charter schools. On this basis, the authors recommend a moratorium on new charter schools and an impact study of the effect charters have on the Chicago Public School (CPS) system. Additionally, they recommend that the State Charter School Commission be eliminated and control over these schools be returned to local officials. The authors also suggest that charter schools should be required to describe their educational practices and outline how they are meaningfully different from programs already provided by traditional schools within the CPS education system. Finally, the authors feel CPS should require, in order for schools to retain their charters, yearly accountability reports with regard to improved student performance measures that demonstrate progress toward meeting these goals.

Given the results of this study, diverting funding from public schools to support charter schools should be scrutinized to determine if the charters are providing an enhanced educational experience. While the debate over increased privatization of public education continues and promises to become more significant in the future, understanding the consequences of these policy proposals and how they impact student educational outcomes will be crucial to implementing meaningful policy.

Article source: Orfield, Myron and Luce, Thomas. “An Analysis of Student Performance in Chicago’s Charter Schools.” Education Policy Analysis Archives 24 111 (2016): 1-37.

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Michael Dean Lindemulder

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