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Missouri's charter schools fare well in national study on student achievement

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 15, 2009 - Students in charter schools in Missouri, Illinois and three other states have achieved higher academic gains than their counterparts in traditional public schools, according to a study released this morning by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes or CREDO.

Even while the study praised the progress of students in charter schools in the two Midwestern states, along with Arkansas, Colorado and Louisiana, it gave charter schools overall a poor grade.

Charters are just beginning to come into their own, the study noted, and the movement has become a rallying cry for education reform. But the study, said the author, "reveals in unmistakable terms that, in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well as their" traditional public school counterparts.

"Tremendous variations in academic quality among charters" are common, noted the study, adding that "quality is the most pressing issue that charter schools" must resolve.

Margaret Raymond, principal author of CREDO's research team, told the Beacon that the study marked the first look at the performance of a large sample of charter schools in comparison to their public school counterparts. She said data from Missouri included more than 6,000 students in 39 charter schools for the 2005, 2006 and 2007 school terms.

The students were matched about 80 percent of the time with a similar group of students in traditional public school. This level of matches "assures" that the findings are "indicative of the overall performance of charter schools in Missouri," the report said.

In other findings about Missouri, the report found that:

  • In general, new charter school students experience an initial drop in both reading and math compared to their counterparts in traditional public schools, but they experience no significant drop in reading and math in later years in charter schools.
  • In general, blacks and Hispanics in charter schools achieve significantly more in reading and math compared to their counterparts in public schools.
  • Poor students in charter schools perform significantly worse in both reading and math than their counterparts in traditional public schools.
  • Both special education students and English language learners receive no significant advantages from attending charter schools compared to their counterparts in traditional public schools.

According to the study, the math performance of 46 percent of charters was no different from traditional public schools, while the math performance of 17 percent of charters exceeded that of traditional public schools. The remaining 37 of charters posted math scores below traditional public schools.
Raymond said she was surprised by some Missouri MAP scores showing that students in charter schools on the whole perform no better than those in traditional public schools, even though charter students outpace traditional public schools in a few grades.

She would not provide breakdowns of Missouri charter schools that performed best and worst in her study. She added that she had no idea why charter school students in Missouri performed better, according to her findings, than those in many other states.

Aaron North, executive director of the Missouri Public School Association, noted CREDO's finding about Missouri, where charters are educating a growing number of students in St. Louis and Kansas City.

"The results in the CREDO report are clearly encouraging for Missouri charters, though there are areas for improvement," said North.

Peter Downs, a critic of charter schools and president of the elected School Board in St. Louis, criticized the findings. He said the study design was biased in favor of the most successful charter schools.

While CREDO has received grants from groups for and against charter schools, Raymond said that this research was not funded by such groups. She said an independent study of the performance of charter schools was an important public policy issue and that the data finally gave the group sufficient numbers to do a valid study.

Downs also questioned why Missouri's student performance in charter schools was so much higher than in other states.

"It would be interesting to find out why Missouri is the exception," Downs said.

Downs suggested that Missouri's findings may be skewed since charter schools do not educate many special education children or students with disabilities. He also said the period studied by CREDO coincided with the district's adoption of an unpopular, unsuccessful reading program called Open Court.

Finally, he says the debate about charters in Missouri has moved away from the original intent of the program -- examining success stories in charter schools and using that information to improve public schools.

"Let's look at those that have failed, find out why they failed and look at those that succeed and use that to transform our public schools," Downs says.

Raymond said she personally believed that public schools needed to survive. She predicted that they would remain an important part of the picture in spite of the rise in charter schools and that many of them "will look more like charter schools" in a decade or two.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.