WMU News

Lack of data, accountability impact charter schools

Jan. 10, 2002

KALAMAZOO -- For years, parents, politicians and practitioners have had plenty to say in the debate over charter schools and their effect on public schools. Now, new research examining data nationwide speaks to just how little is known about student achievement in the public-private hybrids.

"With the exception of Michigan and a few other states, our knowledge of charter schools' impact on student achievement is still in its infancy, in spite of the fact that the movement is 10 years old," says Dr. Christopher Nelson, senior research associate with Western Michigan University's Evaluation Center.

For a study released in December, titled "Student Academic Achievement in Charter Schools: What We Know and Why We Know So Little," Nelson and WMU colleague Dr. Gary Miron, principal research associate with the Evaluation Center, conducted a meta-analysis of research and evaluations of student achievement in charter schools. They found that relatively few researchers have adequately tackled the achievement issue, largely because of limitations in the data available to them.

The researchers analyzed results on student achievement across charter school evaluations that were relatively recent and comprehensive. Although 38 states have charter school laws, their analysis was limited to studies from Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Texas as well as the District of Columbia.

The others states were excluded because they:

had few or no operating charter schools;

had charter schools that were too new to provide much data; or

had many charter schools, but no studies meeting the researchers' criteria.

In the eight states where good data are available, the studies paint a mixed portrait of student achievement in charter schools, with charter schools in some states having a positive impact and schools in other states having a negative impact.

In Michigan, where there is an unusually large number of high-quality studies, charter school students trail students in similar traditional public schools. The findings come as Michigan's charter schools face scrutiny from a special commission charged with examining all aspects of the publicly financed alternative schools. Also at issue is whether legislators should allow more than 150 schools to be chartered by state universities. Michigan, with 186 charter schools, has fewer than only Arizona, California, and Texas.

"After 10 years, very few states are evaluating the reforms," says Miron, who has researched charter school efforts in Cleveland, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania. "Oftentimes, the data are not sufficient, and in some states, charters don't share information. If we're going to improve public schools and use charter schools as a lever to drive change, they have to hold up their end of the deal, which is accountability."

The authors' study is available in its entirety from the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University at <www.ncspe.org>. The study's release precedes their new book, which is set for release in March.

"What's Public About Charter Schools: Lessons Learned About Choice and Accountability," is a book on Michigan charter schools and addresses student achievement, finance, equity, innovation and customer satisfaction. The book also pays special attention to the role of private management companies, which operate nearly three-fourths of the state's charter schools.

"In many respects, our book is quite critical of the charter school reform in Michigan," says Miron. "But we have seen charter schools--here and elsewhere--that work quite well. The trick is to find what's working in these schools and help others to do the same."

Miron and Nelson recently received a $400,000 grant to study why some charter schools work well and others do not. The two-year study, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, will examine schools across the country to identify the factors that drive charter school success and failure.

"We don't believe that the shortcomings we see in many charter schools are inevitable," says Nelson. "We hope to identify some policy levers that can be used to improve the schools."

For more information, contact Gary Miron at <gary.miron@wmich.edu> or (269) 387-5895. Christopher Nelson may be reached at <christopher.nelson@wmich.edu> or (269) 387-5895.

Media contact: Gail H. Towns, 269 387-8400, gail.towns@wmich.edu

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