WMU News

Pennsylvania charter schools have positive impact

March 24, 2001

KALAMAZOO -- A Western Michigan University study released March 23 by the Pennsylvania Department of Education says charter schools in that state's four-year old school reform initiative are having some positive impacts on the predominantly at-risk student population they serve.

Charter schools in Pennsylvania, according to Drs. Gary Miron and Christopher Nelson of WMU's Evaluation Center, are attracting large numbers of nonwhite, urban students with a history of poor performance on achievement tests. While the Pennsylvania charter school initiative as a whole is too young to warrant firm conclusions on student achievement, the pair notes that in the oldest charter schools they studied, students were posting gains far in excess of those posted by students in surrounding districts. Those gains were made on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA).

"The PSSA findings, while tentative, suggest that those charter schools that have had some time to work with their students can produce measurable gains in achievement. We expect to have firmer results in time for the five-year report," says Nelson.

Miron, the project director, and Nelson, the project manager, have been involved in evaluating charter school initiatives in a number of other states as well. Miron notes that the findings from Pennsylvania indicate that reform there is among the most successful he's seen.

He attributes the Pennsylvania initiative's success to extensive central-level support and oversight, the timely delivery of start-up funds to charter schools, and the tendency of Pennsylvania charter schools to form alliances with local nonprofit agencies so that the schools' impact is on the community as a whole, as well as on the students enrolled. He also notes that the proportion of students with disabilities in Pennsylvania charter schools, at 10.5 percent, is only slightly below the statewide average, although figures vary widely by school. That is in contrast with some other charter systems that have been criticized for excluding students with special needs.

The 17-month initial study of Pennsylvania charter schools is part of the state's overall accountability plan. The WMU study was designed to provide critical early data to school administrators and central level policymakers so that improvements can be made in the course of implementing the reform.

"The goal of this report is not only to look at how the charter schools are doing. It also seeks to raise questions and identify frameworks for the five-year legislatively mandated evaluation. The Commonwealth deserves a lot of credit for starting the evaluation process so early in the game," says Nelson.

Since the Pennsylvania legislation was passed, the state's charter school initiative has grown to include 65 schools attended by more than 20,000 students, or just over 1 percent of Pennsylvania public school students.

Miron has been the lead researcher on a number of charter school studies around the nation. In addition to the Pennsylvania study, he is working on an ongoing study of Connecticut's charter schools and recently completed a nationwide study of schools run by Edison Schools Inc., the nation's largest private educational management firm. Miron also was one of two Evaluation Center researchers who conducted two comprehensive studies of Michigan charter schools for the Michigan Department of Education. Currently, Miron and Nelson are working on charter school studies in the state of Illinois and the city of Cleveland.

Detailed information about the Pennsylvania study can be accessed online at <www.state.pa.us> or through the WMU Evaluation Center Web site at <www.wmich.edu/evalctr>.

Media contact: Cheryl Roland, 616 387-8400, cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

Office of University Relations
Western Michigan University
1903 W Michigan Ave
Kalamazoo MI 49008-5433 USA
616 387-8400