WMU News

WMU study finds gains in Pennsylvania charter schools

Dec. 23, 2002

KALAMAZOO -- Charter schools in Pennsylvania are making achievement gains and attracting more students, but school-by-school improvement is inconsistent and high teacher turnover is cause for concern, according to a new study released by the Pennsylvania Department of Education and researchers at Western Michigan University.

The report, "Strengthening Pennsylvania's Charter School Reform: Findings from the Statewide Evaluation and Discussion of Relevant Policy Issues," was produced by Drs. Gary Miron and Christopher Nelson and John Risley, all members of the WMU Evaluation Center, and draws on five years of data from charter schools and other relevant stakeholder groups.

"Probably the most important finding we have is that there is a small but positive overall trend in student achievement," says Miron, the study's project director. "We also found this in previous Pennsylvania studies, but now we can determine it with greater certainty because there are more years of data and more schools included in the analysis."

The evaluators found that charter school students, on the whole, are gaining ground on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment relative to peers in demographically and geographically similar public schools. Christopher Nelson cautions, however, that "these gains are not uniform, with some schools experiencing sharp declines and others impressive gains."

"We don't have all the data we need to understand it," Miron says, "but one of the greatest obstacles charter schools face in fulfilling their missions seems to be attracting and retaining teachers."

During the 2000-2001 academic year, about 24 percent of Pennsylvania charter school teachers left their schools, compared with 9 percent for public schools. There also was a considerable pay gap in annual salaries--$11,300--between charter school teachers and district teachers, even after matching them by years of experience, formal education and expenditure levels at the school. Risley notes that "a certain amount of attrition is probably healthy especially in a charter school when it means that teachers who might not agree with a school's mission make room for those who do." Nonetheless, high attrition rates in Pennsylvania charter schools are a concern.

Confirming other studies, the WMU study found that charter school parents, students, and teachers reported that they are satisfied with the curriculum and instruction in their schools though less so with facilities and resources. The evaluators found, however, that there is little or no relationship between levels of satisfaction and achievement gains.

In addition to these findings, the study reports on key findings in other areas:

Choice and innovation: Considerable growth in the number of charter schools has increased their availability as a viable educational option. However, large segments of the Commonwealth have no charter schools and not all charter schools offer unique alternatives to traditional public schools.

Equity and access: The report found that overall charter schools enroll similar proportions of low-income and minority children as local school districts. But a school-by-school look at the data suggests some charter schools differ greatly from the local districts in terms of ethnic composition and proportion of low-income families. The researchers also found that charter schools continue to attract significantly fewer students with disabilities. Because some individual charter schools differ so greatly from their host districts in terms of demographic characteristics, one possible consequence is that they result in local school districts being more segmented by race, social class and ability. This is an area that deserves further attention.

Accountability and oversight: Pennsylvania education officials have done a remarkable job of providing technical assistance to charter schools, making them aware of relevant rules and regulations. The quality of school mission statements and reports has improved over time, but is in need of further improvement. Oversight provided by local districts and the Pennsylvania Department of Education is in need of additional improvement and coordination. While the auditor general conducts rigorous compliance visits, so far only approximately one quarter of charter schools have been audited. The report suggests that policymakers should consider undertaking a systematic assessment of local districts' resources, both human and fiscal, for providing meaningful, timely and consistent oversight of the charter schools they sponsor.

Impacts on other public schools: The net financial impact charter schools have on other public schools is unclear. In terms of educational impact, the evaluators found little evidence of change in traditional schools as a result of charter schools' presence.

The study, which follows an Evaluation Center report issued in 2000, is part of Pennsylvania's overall accountability plan and is designed to provide critical data to charter school administrators and central level policymakers working to implement the reform. Another report is scheduled for <www.pde.state.pa.us> or through the WMU Evaluation Center Web site at <www.wmich.edu/evalctr> where an executive summary as well as the complete text of the report is posted.

Nationally, The Evaluation Center is involved with charter school research in Connecticut, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois. Researchers Miron and Nelson also are working on a large federal study to identify factors that drive charter school success.

The Evaluation Center is an interdisciplinary university-level research and development unit whose mission is to provide national and international leadership for advancing the theory and practice of evaluation.

For information, contact Jeff McCloud of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, at (717) 783-9802; Gary Miron of the WMU Evaluation Center, at (269) 387-5895; or Mark Schwerin of the WMU Office of University Relations, at (269) 387-8413.

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

Office of University Relations
Western Michigan University
1903 W Michigan Ave
Kalamazoo MI 49008-5433 USA
269 387-8400