By Sharmain Matlock-Turner ovand Michael Pearson
As the mayor's race heats up and budget discussions begin, we can expect to hear more of the usual debate about charters vs. traditional district schools. That discussion is an unfortunate distraction when we should be focused on ensuring equitable funding for public education and equitable access to the city's best schools.
Families care more about school quality than school type, and - if we are being honest about the data - the debate over charter schools' ability to produce better results is over. A new study by the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University shows that charter schools in urban areas, including Philadelphia, outperform traditional public schools in math and reading. The evidence, the center writes, is "especially strong for students who are minority and in poverty."
Specifically, the study finds that during a school year, the typical student at an urban charter school receives the equivalent of 40 days of additional learning growth in math and 28 additional days in reading compared with a peer student in a traditional public school. In Philadelphia, the results are more dramatic: About 40 additional days of learning in both math and reading. Add up that time from kindergarten through 12th grade, and it's the equivalent of nearly three years of additional learning.
A key element of this new report is its urban focus. Past research from the center, whose mission is to improve the empirical evidence used to assess education reform initiatives, has shown that charters, in Pennsylvania and across the nation, have not outperformed traditional public schools. This new report focuses on charter and traditional schools in 41 cities, controlling for academic and socioeconomic differences in its comparisons of student academic growth.
The data from 2006 through 2012, when spending on public schools in Pennsylvania was reaching record highs, presents an opportunity to move past the tired arguments over charter schools and toward a more important focus: schools that succeed vs. those that struggle.
It is clear from the data that in an urban context, charters succeed in ways that traditional public schools do not. It is time to act on the research and invest resources according to what we have learned. For example:
Learning gains in charter schools are most significant for black, Hispanic, low-income, and special-education students. The report notes that many charter schools were formed for the purpose of serving the needs of these historically underserved populations. Intentionality matters. In Philadelphia, much of the debate about charters has centered on the impact their growth has had on the system overall. CREDO reinforces what local data already showed: Charters have increased educational opportunity for our city's most disadvantaged students.
Charter schools are dynamic. Not all charters are the same. In every city, some schools outperform others, and some don't keep up with their traditional peers. Boston and Newark are the cities with the highest-performing charter sectors. In those cities, more than three-quarters of charters outperform the district. In Philadelphia, six out of 10 charters outperform the district; only two out of 10 perform worse than traditional schools.
Charters keep getting better. CREDO also demonstrates that larger and more mature charter sectors perform at a higher level - indicating that the sector as a whole, which is barely 20 years old, is improving as it gains critical mass and experience.
Charters are clearly not a failed experiment, nor are they a silver bullet. They are a powerful asset in the urgent effort to provide educational equity for disadvantaged students - especially when there is a focus on expanding enrollment in the best charters and closing those that underperform. Finally, charters could be an even greater asset if traditional schools would embrace practices that charters have proved effective.
"The best urban charter sectors provide extraordinary opportunities to learn how to best serve the most disadvantaged students," says the CREDO study. "[They] clearly refute the idea that some groups of students cannot achieve high levels of academic success. They need only to be given the opportunity."