RAND Study: Charter Schools Don’t Hurt Traditional Schools

Published June 1, 2009

A new study by the RAND Corporation found charter schools do not harm conventional public schools and charter students are more likely to graduate high school and go on to college than other public school children.

The study took a closer examination of the topic than any previously released, according to its authors. Researchers mapped the test scores and post-graduation achievement of millions of students at thousands of schools.

“Charter Schools in Eight States: Effects on Achievement, Attainment, Integration, and Competition,” released in March, examines the charter school movement in Florida, Ohio, and Texas, plus individual districts in Chicago, Denver, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and San Diego.

“We got together a group of researchers so we could put together data from all these different sites and examine them in a consistent and rigorous way,” said Brian Gill, study coauthor and a senior social scientist at Mathematica Policy Research, an education research group based in Princeton, New Jersey.

Not Skimming Best Students

Gill said the research led to four conclusions.

* Charter schools are not “skimming the cream” of students, as some critics have worried. Students’ academic achievement was comparable to that of students at traditional public schools. Furthermore, demographics and racial/ethnic compositions also were comparable between the charter schools and the public schools the students had left.

* Test scores did not significantly differ between charter and public middle schools and high schools. “One thing we learned, though, was that the jury is still out on charter elementary schools,” Gill said. The academic achievement for kindergartners, in particular, was difficult to determine because no data from the previous year is available, so researchers cannot compare the trajectory as they would for other grades, he explained.

* Traditional public schools are unharmed by charter growth. The research showed no effect, either positive or negative, on the academic achievement of nearby public school students’ performance as charter schools expanded into their districts.

* Greater percentages of charter school students graduate from high school and attend college than those in traditional public schools. Although charter school students did not show a significant difference on test scores from their public school counterparts, they did graduate substantially more often and attend college substantially more frequently, Gill said. The information for this conclusion was collected only from Chicago and Florida because those were the only locations where the college data or graduation data were collected in addition to K-12 academic achievement data, Gill said. He said this is the first time he knows of researchers examining the correlation between charter schools and longer-term achievement.

Increasing Relevance

Report coauthor Ron Zimmerman, an associate professor at the Michigan State University School of Education, said the study’s conclusions about longer-term achievement are provocative and merit further examination.

“It might be partially that there’s just a different environment at charter schools,” Zimmerman said. “Two students might have similar ACTs, but the charter school may create an expectation for students going on to college, or there may be better counseling for [those] going on to college. Because of the guidance and the atmosphere created at the school, one student may go on to college and one may not.”

Gill said future examinations of that dynamic should gain further relevance as President Barack Obama considers whether to follow through on his campaign promise to pass policies allowing more charter schools to open.

“It’s clear that there is, at the federal level and in a lot of states, a large interest in continuing to promote the goals of charter schools,” Gill said. “There’s also a lot of interest in trying to refine charter laws and policies so the charter schools we have are working well and we can figure out ways to deal with the ones that are not working well. There’s a lot yet to be known, but this study certainly suggests some promise.”

Jillian Melchior ([email protected]) writes from Michigan.

For more information …

“Charter Schools in Eight States: Effects on Achievement, Attainment, Integration, and Competition,” by Brian Gill and Ron Zimmerman, RAND, March 2009: http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG869/