Report: Charter schools show performance gain in some areas, but still lag behind traditional public schools

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A new national study of charter schools finds some improvement in school performance, but shows students at charters still aren't doing as well as students in traditional public schools.

Critics of the charter movement in Minnesota say it is further proof that charters are not living up to their promise. But charter supporters say the study is too narrow in scope and does not take into consideration other ways charters are helping students.

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University published its first study on charter schools back in 2009. That study showed more than a third of charters across the country performed significantly worse than traditional public schools, and fewer than half did as well as their district counterparts.

In the latest study those numbers have improved by several percentage points and finds that charter schools across the country and in Minnesota are doing a better job than district schools at helping students improve their reading scores during the year.

"We find that there has been slow and steady progress," said Margaret Raymond, the center's director and author of the report.

"The kids are still doing worse in math, they're doing a little bit better in reading, but not very much."

However, Minnesota charter schools are not doing quite as well as district schools in helping students gain during the year in math.

When it comes to year-end final testing, charter school students still are not scoring as high as their district counterparts.

While charter students are doing better during the year in reading, many students still start out the year behind and can't catch up, despite their improvement.

A report last year from the University of Minnesota showed Twin Cities charter students scored 7.5 points lower on math tests and almost 4.5 points lower on reading tests.

Myron Orfield authored that study. Orfield is a law professor at the University of Minnesota and leads the Center on Metropolitan Opportunity.

He thinks the latest national report from CREDO shows charters are not proving to be a good alternative to district schools.

"The kids are still doing worse in math, they're doing a little bit better in reading, but not very much. A huge percentage of these charters just aren't making it, they're closing," Orfield said. "The biggest recommendation of this report is to start to close the really bad ones."

The report suggests states crack down on low-performing charter schools. It acknowledges that approach could close hundreds of charters across the country.

Minnesota is the birthplace of the charter movement. The first charter school in the country started in St. Paul in 1992 and is still in operation today.

Charters are public schools, but are freed from some of the regulations that guide district schools, allowing them to develop their own curriculum and focus.

That's something the latest national report doesn't take into consideration, according to Joe Nathan. Nathan leads the Center for School Change, an organization that is looking for ways to help charters and district schools collaborate.

Looking solely at standardized reading and test scores does not tell the whole story, he said.

"There are parents who are looking for a much wider array of information about schools, and those are the kinds of things that I wish money would be spent on rather than trying to have a broad brush, 'Which are better, district or charter?'" Nathan said.

Nathan wants more discussion on how charters and district schools can both do better at improving graduation rates and increasing the number of students who go to college.

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