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Charter Networks Show Big Gains Over Other New York City Schools

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There are few places where the debate over charter schools is as heated as it is in New York City.

It's charged by the competition generated from traditional district schools, fast-expanding charter school networks, and independent, "mom and pop" charter schools as they clash for students, money, and space.

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Now a new study from Stanford University's Center for Research on Educational Outcomes, or CREDO, has come out comparing how well all three types of schools are educating their students.

Whether the report will help ground arguments over charter schools in well-researched evidence, as the study's authors say they hope it will, the findings will most certainly add fuel to the debate.

Looking at data from 2011 through 2016, CREDO found that students enrolled in schools run by charter management organizations academically outperform both traditional district schools and independent charter schools.

CREDO defined a charter management organization, or a CMO, as an organization that runs three or more schools and holds the charter contracts for the schools that they operate. Success Academy, KIPP, and Achievement First are a few well-known CMOs in New York.

Students in CMO-run schools improved in math so much that CREDO researchers estimate it was as if those students received an extra 97 days of schooling over their district school counterparts. For reading, the gains were equal to about an extra 46 days. 

CMO students gained 63 more days of learning in math and 40 more days in reading compared to students in charter schools not affiliated with a management organization.

But when compared to their peers in traditional public schools, students in independent charter schools attained the equivalent of an extra 34 days in math and performed about the same in reading.

Management Organizations vs. Indie Charters

Where CMOs really pulled ahead of independent charters is in their middle schools and schools that enroll multiple grade blocks, such as kindergarten through 8th grade.

There was no difference in student performance between CMO-run elementary and high schools and independent elementary and high schools.

"The middle schools include a lot of the 'no-excuses' model schools," said Margaret Raymond, the director of CREDO. "They have a deep intense focus on academic preparation of their kids. And the multi-level is usually a K-8. What operators tell us, but we can't test, is that keeping the students in the elementary setting and extending it through junior high, allows kids a longer period of time to be ready for high school."

Additionally, there was wide variability in school quality among the independent charters, said Raymond. The combination of very strong schools and very weak schools generated an unremarkable average, she said.

Taken all together, charter school students in New York City gained, on average, an extra 63 days of learning in math and 23 days of learning in reading. The results were especially positive for African-American and Hispanic students in poverty.

So where does this put New York City charter schools in comparison to other cities?

"They are on the order of effects that we see in other smaller urban communities," said Raymond. "They are smaller than what we see in Boston and Newark, but they are equivalent to D.C. and New Orleans and the urban areas in Texas."

Another CREDO study on charter schools across New York state released in late September found similar results. Charter students attained an additional 34 days in learning in reading and 63 days in math compared to their district school peers.

More About CREDO

Although CREDO has its detractors, its research is widely considered some of the most rigorous on charter school performance. CREDO uses a research method in which it matches charter and traditional public school students based on a series of criteria that include demographics and academic performance. It then compares the academic growth of these "virtual twins." (More on CREDO's methodology in the full report.)

CREDO is also unique in that it converts its findings on academic growth and performance into days of learning lost or gained.

Taken together, CREDO's studies have shown charter school performance to be a mixed bag, and as a result, are regularly cited by both charter supporters and opponents, depending upon the outcome of a particular study.

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