A new study of nonprofit Charter Management Organizations — groups that start and manage new charter schools — might temper some of the enthusiasm that has arisen after the General Assembly lifted North Carolina’s statewide cap on public charter schools.
According to the report’s findings, after a student spent two or three years in the average CMO-run middle school, test scores were positive in all subjects (reading, math, science, and social studies), but the increase was not statistically significant. And while achievement impacts for individual CMOs often were more positive than negative, they varied significantly in either direction.
These mixed results might lead some to conclude that charter schools do not offer better educational outcomes than traditional public schools. School-choice backers counter that the CMOs in the study dealt with a challenging student population, making their results even more impressive.
The study, titled “Charter-School Management Organizations: Diverse Strategies and Diverse Student Impacts,” was produced by Mathematica Policy Research and the University of Washington’s Center for Reinventing Public Education. An interim report was published in November 2010, and new results were released in October.
The longitudinal study began in 2008 and is scheduled to conclude in 2012. It has focused on 40 CMOs serving 292 schools across the United States. By centralizing the administrative functions of several locations in a single office, a CMO can reduce a charter’s operating costs, freeing more money for classroom instruction. Approximately 75 percent of these schools are in large urban areas and enroll disproportionate numbers of black, Hispanic, and low-income students.
The Walton Family Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation subsidized the report through the NewSchools Venture Fund, said Mathematica Policy senior researcher Joshua Haimson.
He said not only were most CMOs located in large cities, they also were selected for having children that were drawn from the same population group as a nearby traditional public school.
“We are looking at the results of the study and we are glad to know there are a number of successful CMOs that are showing gain,” said Don Shalvey, deputy director of U.S. Education Programs for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “We want them to share what they are doing with other public schools.” Shalvey also said it’s important to sift out the CMOs that are failing to deliver high educational standards and outcomes.
“Why would anyone what to continue to support those who haven’t lived up to the promise they made to the children?” he asked. “We only want to work with CMOs that have real potential.”
Haimson said the researchers used “propensity-score matching,” meaning they grouped charter school students to traditional school counterparts with equivalent math and reading scores, demographics, race, and gender attributes.
Haimson said they found a great deal of variation within CMOs. “It was a mixed story over all,” he said. But he said those schools with student behavior policies offering rewards and sanctions and a written responsibility agreement, coupled with intensive teacher coaching, contributed greatly to high achievement. He added that researchers found most CMOs were neither terrific nor consistently bad.
Eddie Goodall, president of the North Carolina Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said none of the CMOs studied currently operate charter schools in North Carolina. He said it is unfortunate the study covered CMOs with a disproportionately large number of at-risk students because it makes the report not as applicable to charter schools in general.
Shalvey said the Gates Foundation now supports two initiatives to take advantage of thriving CMOs. One provides grants to a national network of high performing CMOs, the other encourages public charter schools and traditional charter schools located in the same area to sign a District Charter Compact.
“The research suggests we are doing the right thing in getting schools in the same area to reach a formal agreement to be transparent and collectively work to benefit their youth,” he said.
Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said he was pleased the report didn’t come off as anti-charter. He said the report is an honest attempt to look at charter schools, but there is a concern that an extremely high percentage of minority and low-income students were used in the study and could have skewed the results.
“It shows that nonprofit CMOs are willing to take on a challenging population of students,” he said. “It also proves the vital point that charter schools do not skim the cream of the brightest and best students away from traditional public schools, and this report shows that is not the case. We’re making progress.”
Both Goodall and Stoops said the report did not take into account the measured growth of the students.
“They do not know where these students are starting from,” Stoops said. “They are usually struggling and are years behind their peers. I don’t get a sense that they did this in the report. It takes time for those students to gain traction and academic footing.”
Stoops said the study also supported what JLF has been saying for years. “The bottom line in this report is that CMOs don’t have a magic program, but we already knew that,” he said. “We also knew that CMOs with higher achievement records always have strong behavior policies and better-trained teachers.”
Karen Welsh is a contributor to Carolina Journal.