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Lesson Learned: Study Shows Charters Outperform Traditional Public Schools

If traditional public schools want to succeed, they should follow charter schools’ lead.


People debating school choice have long had a difficult time finding a comprehensive study to really show the difference between charter schools — publicly funded schools that are run independent of a district or union — and traditional public schools. In most instances, the variables are too numerous for anything to be conclusive. Charter schools seemed to be better, but only certain charters in certain states with certain kids during certain years.

Finally, a new study has come out that indicates charters are indeed generally better than traditional public schools. Tabulating the academic progress of 1.8 million charter school students, researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes determined that these students were the equivalent of 16 instructional days ahead on English and six instructional days ahead in math. To make sure they weren’t comparing apples to oranges, these students “were each paired with a ‘virtual twin’ (i.e., a nearby pupil possessing similar demographic traits and prior test scores) enrolled at the district school that the charter student otherwise would have attended.”

Naturally, the gains varied from state to state and school to school. In states such as New York, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Rhode Island, charter school students outpaced traditional public school students by more than a month of instruction in reading and math. Additionally, charter schools that operate under a charter management organization (CMO), like the Knowledge Is Power Program or Founders Classical Academy, did better than their non-CMO counterparts, particularly in math.

And before skeptics give the “But Covid!” excuse, it’s worth noting that these results follow a pattern of steady progression over a decade: “The center’s first national analysis, issued in 2009, showed charters under-performing traditional schools in both core subjects; in a 2013 follow-up, they slightly bested traditional schools in English while still lagging in math.” Unlike most traditional public school systems, charter schools are relatively young and have accordingly experienced growing pains; Covid was incidental to this. Even among charter schools that were part of the same CMO, older campuses outperformed newer ones.

More than anything else, this study suggests that the kind of school matters more than the kind of students or teachers who happen to be in it. Due to the charter school’s very nature of being separate from a school district, purposeful with its enrollment, and dependent on making parents happy, it has become a better place for learning than the traditional public school. That said, even if these charter schools play by different rules and have different results, educators in traditional public schools can still learn something from them and improve instruction and their campus environment.

What Public Schools Can Learn from Charters

First and foremost, teachers at traditional public schools need to get serious about their curricula and student discipline. While they are fooling around with unproven gimmicks such as project-based learning, standards-based grading, restorative justice discipline, eliminating talented and gifted programs, and integrating digital technology into the classroom, most teachers at successful charter schools have opted for straightforward approaches to instruction and discipline — they simply can’t afford to do otherwise. They teach and model content, regularly assess their students, and pass or fail students with a grade. As for misbehavior, students are given so many warnings and corrections before they are eventually kicked out of the classroom.

What follows from these different approaches are two very different environments. Students at traditional public schools tend to be in more chaotic classrooms where the expectations are nonexistent and disruptions are constant, there’s no meaningful feedback on work, and everyone seems to be passed on regardless of what they can do.

By contrast, students at charter schools enjoy orderly classrooms where expectations are explicit, teachers regularly give meaningful feedback, and failure is possible if students don’t reach the prescribed standards. This may come off as unbearably strict for students and teachers at traditional public schools, but it actually allows for a calmer, less stressful learning experience in which everyone knows what to do.

Of course, another important element that allows charters to succeed is the ability to pick and choose their students. Rather than being forced to take in every kid from the neighborhood like traditional public schools, charter schools only take in students who are interested. Besides weeding out particularly difficult students, this system of admissions and enrollment also creates a strong incentive for admitted students to work hard and behave so they can stay at the school.

Traditional public schools don’t really have this option, but there are still ways of incorporating selectivity measures, mainly in the form of tracking. In terms of academics, this would mean that stronger students would be eligible for more advanced tracks, weaker students would be forced to take remediation classes, and standards would be enforced throughout the year. In terms of student discipline, bad students who are violent, disruptive, or continually insubordinate would be removed from regular classrooms and either placed on an alternative campus or expelled.

Again, this sounds unbearably strict, but the immense burden that these weaker students place on the classroom and the campus cannot be overstated. The Stanford study shows they are dragging down their peers and depriving them of what amounts to months of instruction. So many students who might have become ready for college or a career by the end of high school end up illiterate and can’t do basic arithmetic because no one ever bothered waking up that group of kids in the corner or telling those bad kids in the back to shut up and sit down.

Parents Need to Act

Despite the opportunities for improvement that this study highlights for traditional public schools, my experience as a teacher makes me pessimistic about anyone attempting to enact serious reforms. It would rock the boat too hard and go against the equity-obsessed leadership of most districts today. It therefore falls to parents to start speaking up and supporting the teachers, administrators, and school members who want to improve the quality of education and make traditional public schools more competitive with charter schools.

Or, if it’s possible, they should just enroll their children in a charter school instead. The numbers are in, and it’s a better deal in most cases. As for those who are in charge of traditional public schools, it’s time to stop being complacent and help our students by doing what is clearly working on other campuses.

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