Do Charter Schools Improve K-12 Education?


President-elect Donald Trump has nominated a charter school advocate from Michigan, Betsy DeVos, to be his Secretary of Education. This raises the obvious question, do charter schools improve K-12 education? A recent study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) suggests that they do in general, although very unevenly.

As summarized and elaborated upon by the Economist, here are the results:

  • Charter schools work well for low-income children in cities. In 41 urban areas (see map), students learned 40 more days of math and 28 more days of reading every year on average. Black and Hispanic children performed especially well. Where they have worked well such as in Boston, New York City and Washington D.C., students make gains up to 100 days per year.
  • One lesson learned is that autonomy needs to be coupled with accountability. When charter schools expand with little oversight, as in Arizona, results can be worse than in regular schools.
  • A second lesson is that leadership matters. Business practices such as performance tracking and incentives achieve better test scores. A successful charter organization such as KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) opens new school only when it spots a leader capable of running it.
  • A third lesson is how to scale up the type of education provided by the best charters. These have five qualities: frequent feedback for teachers, tutoring, longer school days and terms, effective use of data to track student progress, and a relentless focus on academic achievement.

Conclusion. Charter schools are a valuable state and local educational option. Many charters are succeeding very well and the factors which lead to success are increasingly well understood. At the very least the competition created by charter schools leads to better performance by public schools. The answer to the question in the title is yes!

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4 thoughts on “Do Charter Schools Improve K-12 Education?

  1. Good morning Jack,
    Never have I felt more comfortable or in agreement with your assessments of U.S. policies. I find myself totally in appreciation of your choice of Kasparov, as a guide about Putin. Having majored in Russian history at one time and also studied the Russian language to the extent that I did my Master’s thesis entitled “A Soviet Interpretation of the Mexican Revolution 1910-1917” I have had many years of learning about Russia. I then read and typed in the Russian cyrillic alphabet. Putin’s actions follow Stalin’s practice but not as blood thirty at home. Yes, we can hope Trump listens to his NATO allies. I should add in the Air Force, I worked in intelligence during the ‘Berlin Crisis’ and saw the Soviet aggressiveness in action.

    I also appreciated your review of Charter schools. I am sure there are dedicated teachers who work for a profit as there are those who advance learning as a vocation. Overall, I believe education and health should be a public concern and thus preserved and fostered through public means. When universal education has parity with the best private schools then I will support either approach. For now, in my mind America has become too materialistic and profit is only measured in dollars and cents. Watching and working with a person in the learning process has its inherent ‘wonder’ that cannot be measured in dollars and cents. When a student approaches me years later and thanks me for being his/her teacher that pleasure far exceeds the monetary reward I acquired over more than 4 decades of teaching. I hope those who measure their time and commitment in dollars and cents have that same experience.

    In any case I am so appreciative to have this dialogue with you. It is through opposites that one’s mind is most challenged.


    • With regard to the value of charter schools, I take a completely utilitarian approach. A charter school teacher is still working for a salary which probably doesn’t differ very much from the salary of a public school teacher.
      For me the issue is the quality of the education provided, not the organization of the school (public, charter or private). There are too many failing public schools especially in large cities. Just the existence of charter schools alone, provides competition which improves public schools. Furthermore for many poor inner city kids, attending a charter is there only realistic chance of getting a good education.

      • Jack,
        Your argument has validity on the topic of competition. However, that diminishes cooperation. Having to create new buildings, additional personnel and a lack of access hardly seems cost-effective. Moreover, I am not sure how the teachers are chosen and the sense of fairness in matters of discipline and extra assistance for some students.

        As a point of closure my son currently teaches at a charter school in Minneapolis. He just began this fall. I have not discussed his evaluation of it in comparison to public schools. I do know that it is primarily made up of Somali children. He informs me that the family seems more stable amongst them than American children. Ethnic make up is another comparison that must be considered. Sadly America remains a ‘tossed salad’ rather than forming into a stew. Racial, actually a misnomer for there is only one race, that is the human race, and cultural differences must also be considered. In general, I see the division between private and public schools as another form of class separation. Thus, we bring different premises and conclusions to the topic.

        I will add that your claim of being “utilitarian”, also causes me a little concern. Yes, it does seem practical or functional. In addition it also seems to follow the moral adage, “the greatest good for the greatest number”. Here we are addressing quantity rather than quality, which feeds into our behavioral system of education rather than a focus on an individual, developing mind.

        Thanks for helping me access to this section. Hope to see you tomorrow evening.


  2. I appreciate your scruples about fairness, quality and race, but, again, for me it comes down to which system gets the best results overall. I suspect that some sort of combination of public, charter and private gives the optimum result meaning that the largest number of students get a decent education this way.

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