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Utah Charters' Performance Mixed, but Improves With Maturity

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With age comes improved performance among Utah's charter schools, many of which struggle in their infancy but appear to make gains compared to their public school counterparts over time, a new study concludes.

Research published in the Economics of Education Review found that the state's charters performed slightly worse than regular public schools in elementary math and language arts on state tests. At the secondary level, meanwhile, charters scored at roughly the same level in language arts as their regular public school counterparts.

But the study also concludes that those poor results were "mainly driven by charter schools in their organizational infancy," with roughly half of the 65 charter schools examined by the authors having been open three years or less.

As those schools matured, elementary school charters achieved similar results to regular public schools in language arts, and better scores than them in math, according to authors Yongmei Ni and Andrea K. Rorrer, both of the University of Utah. While newly established charters at the secondary level, by contrast, score as well as regular public schools in language arts from the get-go, with experience they perform a bit better than those schools, the study says.

The fact that charter struggle at the outset and then find their footing late—what the authors call "the vintage effect"—is consistent with some past research, they say. The Utah findings suggest that policymakers need to do more to help charters "prior to schools opening and in their first few years of operation to mitigate the impact of being a new schools."

Charter schools' performance is mixed, and tends to vary considerably according to location, academic and organizational philosophy, andother factors. A preliminary version of the Utah charter school study was released by the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, which I've provided a link to, above. The authors of the Utah study rely on a number of statistical techniques, including hierarchical linear modeling, to compare the performance of charter and regular public school students between 2004 and 2009.

Utah's was ranked as one of the more "charter-friendly" states in the land, the authors note, citing recent reports by the Center for Education Reform, which ranks states on the funding and independence they allow charters, among other factors. I reported recently on the variation in state and local policies on closing charters, and noted that Utah shuts down a relatively small portion of those schools, compared to other states.

The study also takes a look at the effects of mobility between the charter and traditional public sectors.

Given that parents choose charters, it's natural that those schools have highly mobile populations, the authors say. Transfers from regular publics to charter schools in Utah had little impact on student achievement, the study found. But shifts from regular publics to charters in the state showed negative results for students, particularly in elementary schools. Those results, Ni and Rorrer contend, raise questions about charters ability "to integrate new students into the classroom culture and learning environment."

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