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Charter schools lagging in Great Lakes states

June 6, 2007

KALAMAZOO--New studies by Western Michigan University researchers show students at charter schools in Michigan and five other Great Lakes states perform less well as a group than students at comparable traditional public schools and teacher attrition rates for charter schools are undermining their ability to develop and provide the schools that were envisioned.

The student achievement study, titled "Evaluating the Impact of Charter Schools on Student Achievement: A Longitudinal Look at Great Lakes States," also shows charters are improving. Released June 4 and conducted by Dr. Gary Miron, Chris Coryn and Dawn Mackety of the WMU Evaluation Center, the extensive research effort finds charter schools are closing the gap between themselves and public schools.

The student achievement report was the second of two recently released charter school studies conducted by the Evaluation Center. A prior study, released May 22 and titled "Teacher Attrition in Charter Schools," shows that as many as 40 percent of new charter school teachers end up leaving for other jobs. That study, conducted by Miron and Dr. Brooks Applegate, WMU professor of educational leadership, research and technology, as well the one on student achievement, were jointly published by the Education Policy Research Unit at Arizona State University and the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

In addition to Michigan, the study on student achievement examined charter schools in Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin and tracked test performance for math and reading over five years. Sophisticated statistical analyses based on statewide data sets were used to create comparison with demographically similar traditional public schools.

It found that 60 percent of academic comparisons between charter and public schools favored the public schools. States with the newest charter school laws--Indiana and Ohio--performed less

favorably, while states with older laws were able to identify and close poor performing charter schools.

Illinois had the highest relative results, in part because some 15 percent of its charter schools have closed since 2000, Miron says. When poor performing schools close, the aggregate results for remaining schools rise.

"There is a clear relationship between the performance of charter schools and the willingness and ability of authorizers to close poor performing schools," Miron says. "Closing poor performing schools lifts the aggregate results of the schools that remain and it sends a message to other schools that they need to be highly accountable."

While Indiana and Ohio "have the lowest current results, over time their charter schools are making relatively large improvements," the researchers write. The rate of improvement in those two states has been greater than states with longstanding charter school laws--Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The report concludes "that charter schools in the Great Lakes region are currently performing at lower levels than predicted on state assessments" and that student achievement in charters is lower than demographically similar public schools.

Considering that the charter school movement was conceived as an instrument for change, charters so far have not lived up to their intended purpose, the report says.

"Charter schools were envisioned as a means of pressuring traditional public schools to improve, both by example and through competition," it says. "If the charter school reform is to serve as a lever for change, it must demonstrate accountability: overall, charter schools should outperform similar district schools on standardized tests. Aside from recent advancements in Illinois, charter school reforms in the Great Lakes region have so far failed to meet this key expectation."

The teacher attrition study shows that younger teachers are more than twice as likely as those in regular public schools to leave after just one year. As many as 40 percent of newer charter schoolteachers end up leaving.

The research was based on the analysis of data collected in surveys of charter school employees from around the country from 1997 to 2006. Attrition rates fluctuate by year and state, but between one in five or one in four charter schoolteachers typically leave each year--approximately double the typical attrition rate of 11 percent at traditional public schools.

In addition to being younger and less experienced, the study found that teachers who quit charter schools were more likely to be uncertified, while those with higher levels of education were more likely to stay.

"High attrition consumes resources of schools that must regularly provide pre- and in-service training to new teachers; it impedes schools' efforts to build professional learning communities and positive and stable school cultures; and it is likely to undermine the legitimacy of the schools in the eyes of parents," the report says.

The study notes that the trend is of particular importance to charters because the percentage of charter schoolteachers under 30 is 37 percent, more than three times the 11 percent total at traditional public schools. Attrition rates were highest among upper grade levels, especially grades 6 through 11.

Miron and Applegate conclude that charter school proponents "would be well-advised to focus on reducing high turnover, especially for new teachers in charter schools." They also recommend that charters identify discrepancies and devise strategies to narrow the gap between teacher expectations and the realities of those schools and improve teacher satisfaction with working conditions, salaries, benefits and governance.

"The large numbers of teachers who are 'voting with their feet' suggest substantive frustration with working conditions and dissatisfaction with salaries, benefits, administration and governance," the researchers conclude. "The high attrition rates for teachers in charter schools constitute one of the greatest obstacles that will need to be overcome if the charter school reform is to deliver as promised."

More information is available on the Evaluation Center Web site at www.evaluation.wmich.edu.

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, (269) 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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