WASHINGTON -- When it comes to charter schools, the bad ones stay bad and the good ones stay good, according to a report on charter school growth released by an influential group of Stanford University scholars on Wednesday.
"There are very predictable lanes on quality, and once you get into a lane, a new school tends to not move very much," said Macke Raymond, the economist in charge of the university's Center for Research on Education Outcomes institute and an author of the report. "High stays high and low stays low."
The report, "Charter School Growth and Replications," found that, with some exceptions, charter schools that start strong are likely to stay that way, just as low-performing schools usually remain at the bottom. The study ranked charter schools within five levels based on performance, and found that 80 percent of schools in the bottom level during their first year remained there for five years. Similarly, 94 percent of schools that started at the top remained there. The only schools that changed levels were elementary schools and those in the second-lowest group, with half becoming worse and half becoming better.
"Substantial improvement over time is largely absent from middle schools, multi-level schools and high schools," the authors wrote. "Only elementary schools showed an upward pattern of growth" if they started out in the bottom two levels.
Charter schools are the fastest-growing sector of American public schools. Wednesday's report has tremendous implications for charter-school policy. Many states, such as Michigan, currently authorize the creation of new charter schools by organizations that operate existing charter schools -- even if their existing schools sometimes do not serve students well.
"In the charter school space, too often there's a willingness to give failing charter schools more time," Greg Richmond, who leads the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said in an interview. "This study says that we shouldn't be giving out yearly probationary renewals as much as we have done." Charter school authorizers, Richmond said, should check in early and often on schools and not wait a full 10 years or 15 years for renewal.
The report shows potential flaws in broader strategies to improve educational opportunities, in both traditional public schools and charter schools. The U.S. Education Department's School Improvement Grant program has allocated $5 billion to "turn around" the nation's lowest performing schools using a variety of strategies and staff shakeups. This turnaround project was built into the White House's blueprint for the renewal of No Child Left Behind, as well as the version of the No Child Left Behind bill considered by the Senate education committee last year. The report's findings casts doubt on this effort, Raymond said, suggesting that money spent trying to help failing schools would be better used to expand the capacity of schools that are already high-performing.
"There's … a question about whether efforts to turn around the bottom 5 percent of public schools more generally is a strategy that has legs," Raymond said.
The Education Department's preliminary results show that some schools posted test score increases. But about a third of the schools that got millions in School Improvement Grant money saw declines. (These early numbers represent only one data point and are therefore limited for policy decisions.)
"Efforts to fix those lowest performers are probably going to be unsuccessful," Richmond said. "Those worse schools probably never improve. The strategy itself has to be reconsidered."
Education Department officials declined to comment on the paper. (The Stanford scholars said they'll present the findings to the department on Thursday.)
The report comes one day after civil rights and community leaders chided the White House for not stopping school districts from shutting schools. "The civil rights issue is that we're providing really bad schools to low income kids," said Andy Smarick, a former federal and New Jersey education official who now works at Bellwether Education Partners. "Chicago made a bad policy call when they closed schools without providing better options. We need not turnarounds but the replication and expansion of great schools."
To reach these conclusions, Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes institute analyzed data from 25 states, looking at student performance in charter schools from their first through fifth years. The researchers used a process called virtual twinning to determine whether being in a charter school made a difference in a student's rate of learning. They found that two-thirds of organizations that manage charter schools start new schools that have similar performance levels as their old schools.
There are questions about the paper's methodology. As Mother Jones's Kevin Drum pointed out, the schools were studied over a relatively short period. The research only looked at 1,372 schools, a small sample compared with the number of charter schools nationally.
Gary Miron, a Western Michigan University professor who has professionally audited charter schools, said he is "concerned that limitations [of the analysis] are not adequately spelled out." Some findings were overemphasized, Miron wrote in an email to HuffPost.
1. Modern school supplies
Gone are the days when students were set for school with a three-ring binder and some No. 2 pencils. Now, parents say they're making expensive runs to local craft stores each time a project is assigned and are even furnishing their students with their own laptops. "You have to have a computer, and then you have to have the programs the school runs," says Jodi Drange, a parent from Montana whose daughter goes to <a href="http://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/montana/districts/laurel-h-s/laurel-high-school-12096" target="_hplink">Laurel High School.</a> "They never have enough time at school [for assignments] and they won't get their project turned in unless they can work on it at home." If your child needs a laptop, consider a refurbished model that can be significantly less expensive, Florida parent Krause recommends.
For the Krauses, costs of the fall play, the spring musical, and a trip for a thespian group competition were straining the family's budget. "[My daughter] was talking about also wanting to get into softball, and we were like, 'Well, we don't know if we can afford the equipment if you want to continue to do drama,'" Krause says. "It's getting ridiculous, cost-wise, to continue to fund all these things through the school." Participation in important but increasingly costly after-school programs may necessitate a family conversation, says Carol Ranft, a mother who lives within Georgia's <a href="http://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/georgia/districts/gwinnett-county-public-schools" target="_hplink">Gwinnett County Public Schools</a> district and who was paying $450 a year for her son to play lacrosse. "I think that's probably one of the bigger questions for parents: As the cost of those kinds of activities increase, are their students willing to put in their time and effort into a cause or an activity?" Ranft asks. "Is it as worthwhile to them for their time as it is for the parents' cost?"
3. College prep
It's important for college-bound high schoolers to be ready for their next step, but taking Advanced Placement tests, which cost $87 each, PSATs ($14), and SATs and ACTs ($49 and at least $34, respectively) can get expensive. [Get tips on <a href="http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/test-prep" target="_hplink">college test prep</a>.] "Fifty dollars doesn't seem that bad, but most kids take [the SAT] two or three times before they <a href="http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/applying" target="_hplink"> apply to college,</a> so that can add up," notes Karen Schoonover, chief academic officer and principal of Pennsylvania's <a href="http://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/pennsylvania/districts/new-hope-academy-cs/new-hope-academy-cs-16756" target="_hplink">New Hope Academy Charter School,</a> where low-income students get test fee waivers. If testing costs will be an issue for you, investigate waiver options with your school's guidance counselor, Schoonover recommends. Schoonover's daughter took college prep further, with subsequent costs. Through a dual enrollment program at <a href="http://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/pennsylvania/districts/west-york-area-sd/west-york-area-senior-high-school-17432" target="_hplink">West York Area Senior High School,</a> she took college courses for $250 each, amassing 17 credits by graduation--which would have cost about $12,000 to earn at a university, her mother estimates. "It saved me a lot of money in the long run," Schoonover says. "I wasn't really prepared in her junior year to start writing checks for tuition, though."
Even getting to and from school can get pricey. Confronted with the option to pay $1,500 a year for a school bus to come, the Krause family decided to drive their daughter both ways each day instead--a cost of about $150 a week, Krause estimates. For students who have a bus option but would prefer to transport themselves, there may be an additional cost, too: "If you're a senior and you're looking forward to driving your car and parking at a high school lot, parking fees have gone up," AASA's Domenech notes.
5. Special occasions
From senior trips to prom tickets, parents may find themselves opening up their wallets frequently--or facing the crestfallen faces of their teens when they hear the word "no." Even graduating from public high school can be costly once gowns, caps, tassels, and ceremony tickets are purchased. "I know this is all optional, but it's part of the high school experience, and it's all hidden costs," says Yvonne Johnson, a Delaware parent whose daughter goes to the <a href="http://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/delaware/districts/charter-school-of-wilmington/the-charter-school-of-wilmington-4580" target="_hplink">Charter School of Wilmington.</a> "It's not always easy to say no to them, [but my daughter's] going to college, and you've got think about all those expenses." [Find out <a href="http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/paying-for-college/articles/2011/09/13/get-your-kids-financially-ready-for-college-early" target="_hplink">how to talk to your children about money</a>.] The balance of costs and involvement will differ for each family, as you work as a team to figure out what you can pay for--and what you think you should. For the Montana-based Drange family, for instance, having no money saved for college was "the trade-off," mother Jodi reasons. "My kids are super, super involved in everything--I just think it's part of a well-rounded education, so we pay," Drange says. "We might not to do this or that, you know, 'cause I think the kids comes first in our lives."