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Are There Signs That a Proposed Charter School Will Falter? New Study Says Yes.

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Before charter schools even open, researchers say in a new report that they have pinpointed three signs that could determine if the schools will be low performing, just from their applications.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute released this week a study that highlights three risk factors for new charter schools: failing to name a school leader, lacking programs to support at-risk students, and planning a child-centered curriculum.

"We wanted to see if we could provide something pretty easy to use as a tool for authorizers," said Anna Nicotera, one of the authors of Basis Policy Research, which was contracted by the institute to the report.

The authors examined more than 600 applications to open charters in four states—Colorado, Indiana, North Carolina, and Texas—to look for common factors in schools that ended up reporting low test scores in their first years of operation. Low-performing schools were defined as those with test scores below the 25th percentile in proficiency and below the 50th percentile in growth.

The study, called "Three Signs that a Proposed Charter School Is At Risk of Failing," found low performance among: 

  • 51 percent of charter schools that proposed a standalone school without naming a leader.
  • 60 percent of charter schools that were designed to serve at-risk students, but failed to list "high-dose" programs to support them, such as small groups or tutoring.
  • 57 percent of charters with "child-centered, inquiry-based curriculum," such as Montessori, Waldorf or the Paideia method.

The likelihood of low performance was 80 percent in schools with two or more of the factors in their applications, the study states.

About 77 percent of the 600 or so applications were rejected. Of those that were approved, about 30 percent reported low performance in their first years.

Nicotera said authors at first were surprised that the child-centered curricula came up as a top risk factor.

"Then it started to make a lot of sense," she said. "These are just schools that perhaps test scores are not their focus. You can argue whether that's a good thing or a bad thing."

The study emphasized that the child-centered curricula can work for students.

"We do not mean to discourage innovation and experimentation with curriculum and pedagogy in the charter realm going forward," the study states. "Many of these child-centered schools aren't 'failing' in the eyes of their customers. ... But authorizers must balance parental satisfaction with the public's right to assure that students learn."

Fordham, a think tank that supports school choice, decided to study the application process because little research has been done in that area. Instead, most studies focus on the performance of charters after they open. The hope is that the study might help authorizers in preventing new charter schools from failing.

"We saw this as a rich area where not a whole lot is known now," Nicotera said.

Contact Sarah Tully at [email protected]

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