Two 2004 reports cast a disparaging light on charter schools in North Carolina, but critiques of those reports say they are riddled with error and fail to factor in the fact that charter schools intentionally target students who are failing to perform in traditional class rooms.
University of Connecticut Professor Robert Bifulco and Duke University Professor Helen Ladd for the Terry Sanford Institute authored one of those reports, finding that state charter school are “lacking.”
“Parents often expect charter schools to provide a stronger academic experience for their children than traditional public schools, but that is typically not the case,” Ladd, a professor of public policy studies and economics told her campus newspaper. “Our study finds that charter school students perform less well on average in charter schools than they would have in traditional public schools and the negative effects of attending a charter school are large.”
Another study, conducted by Caroline Hoxby, on behalf of the American Federation of Teachers, rendered similar findings.
North Carolina State University Economist Craig Newmark, however, said the models used for both studies were riddled with errors, consisting of mathematical and statistical materials omitted during the author’s final calculations.
In a policy report entitled “Another Look at the Effect of Charter Schools on Student Test Scores in North Carolina,” Newmark questioned Bifulco and Ladd’s findings, stating the report faced “serious problems.”
Newmark said both Bifulco and Ladd’s conclusions made him question the relevance of their public and charter school comparisons. “For example, the fact that charter schools have a much smaller percentage of gifted students than regular public schools is ignored,” Newmark said. “In each year studied, the percentage of gifted regular public school students is at least 4 percentage points higher than in charter schools. In the last year of the study, 2002-2003, this percentage is more than three times that of charters: 13.62 percent for regular schools compared to 4.2 percent for charters. Failure to incorporate this fact into their study biases it against charter schools.”
Newmark also found the same flawed premise in Hoxby’s procedures. In a report entitled “Reassessing North Carolina’s Charter Schools: A Note on
Caroline Hoxby’s Findings,” Newmark said the Harvard researcher did not take into account the higher number of academically gifted students found in the regular public school system. “Her sample of North Carolina charter schools includes 11 schools targeting at-risk students while her sample of North Carolina regular public schools does not include any,“ he said. “When I modify her method to account for these two facts, I find that the proficiency of North Carolina charter school students is not significantly different from their regular school counterparts.”
An “Innovation in Education” policy report by North Carolina Education confirms Newmark’s findings. The study found the state’s charter schools have more black and Hispanic students, fewer white pupils and a higher percentage of male students than traditional public schools. “There seems to be a growing tendency for charter schools to attract pupils who were not thriving in their traditional public school environment. Charter schools also have a slightly higher percentage of special education children than non-charter schools. This occurs because some schools form specifically to serve special-needs students; alternatively, some children with learning disabilities choose charter schools because they are not well-served by their assigned public school.”
Unlike Bifulco and Ladd, Hoxby admitted she overlooked some vital information in her first study. She reassessed the information and determined her methods were indeed biased when she compared charter schools against regular public schools. “Charter schools for at-risk students seek out applicants with poor achievement, so they should not be criticized for having students whose achievement is low,” Hoxby wrote in her second paper. “Put another way, if a school deliberately seeks out low-performing students, there is little or no information to be gleaned by comparing its outcomes to those of its matched regular public school.”
In the end, however, Newmark said Hoxby failed to reach the right conclusion. He criticized the latter report, stating the identifying factors were too restrictive and her strategies incomplete in at least two areas.
Unfortunately, the National Education Association and other educational organizations have latched on to the false findings and are using them to make a case against charter and school choice in general. “In a study that followed North Carolina students for several years, professors Robert Bifulco and Helen Ladd found that students in charter schools actually made considerably smaller achievement gains in charter schools than they would have in traditional public schools,” the NEA website states.
Despite the push to discredit charter schools in North Carolina, there are many who aren’t biting. Sen. Edward Goodall, R-Mecklenburg said it’s difficult to compare apples with oranges in these types of studies.
He said most assessments don’t mean much in the charter school realm because those children need to be judged on different criteria. “I’m not interested in their test scores,” he said. “Instead, I’m interested in how much they’ve progressed from where they’ve started out. Targeting at-risk children cannot be viewed as a failure.”
The “Innovation in Education” report agreed, stating North Carolina’s charter schools are thriving, while providing more than 21,000 students across the state with proven and effective alternatives to traditional public schools. “While it is true that students generally tend to come into charter schools at a lower achievement level than their peers in other public schools, charter pupils are gaining ground at a faster rate than other non-charter students,” the study stated.
Karen Welsh is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.