Best Practices in High-Achieving Charter Schools

    Some charter schools begin by converting from another type of school (conversion schools).  Others simply begin (start-up). How they begin and how they perform is the interest of this project.  The work with conversion schools is taking place in California, where researchers are asking how conversion schools look today--in terms of enrollment, faculty and achievement--compared to before they converted, and how they compare to start-up charters on the same characteristics.  The work with charter school performance is analyzing schools in ten states, where researchers are considering how the schools fare over time, whether they experience a depressing effect on test scores in their first two years of operation, and how well EMO-run schools perform. As part of this project, investigators also completed a review of charter school research. Examining the economic, political, and organizational rationales for the founding of charter schools, they sought to determine whether charters are effective, fair, and innovative.

    Research on conversion charter schools reveals positive results overall. Conversions have gained over the long term, and both conversions and start-ups have improved over the short term. In conversion schools, there were no changes in enrollment data, the demographic mix of students, or the credentials and experience of teachers that explain the test score gains. The teachers at conversion charters hold credentials comparable to teachers at traditional public schools and have only slightly less teaching experience. Start-up charter schools also registered test score gains, especially those serving low SES populations. Their teachers are less experienced and less likely to be fully credentialed than teachers at conversion schools, though start-up teachers did improve over the period studied. Overall, investigators caution that it is important to place these gains in context, and especially to consider them in light of chartering as an NCLB remedy. At the rate of progress estimated in the current study, it will take conversion charters another thirty years before reaching the state average in academic achievement.

    This project’s review of charter research finds evidence that both supports and contradicts the efficacy of charter schools. Conclusions depend on the methodology and type of data used, and because few randomized scientific experiments exist to corroborate previous findings, there is little scholarly consensus. Researchers find mixed evidence on whether charters advance equity. On the one hand, they present a viable school choice to families who cannot afford the cost of private school; on the other hand, there is evidence that charters may exacerbate racial segregation. In terms of innovation, findings indicate that charters have been innovative in governance and finance, but less so with instructional practices. There are no results to report yet from the ongoing analysis of charter performance and EMO influence.

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The NCSC is funded by a 5 year, $13.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences. Its lead institution is Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. The center is housed on the campus of Peabody College, one of the nation's top graduate schools of education.