Response to: “You’re Not Going to Give Up”

Politico magazine published an article called “You’re Not going to Give Up” about charter schools in Washington, DC. The article makes bold claims and lacks the nuance to give policymakers and laypeople a comprehensive view of the academic literature about charter schools. Consider the following excerpts:

But make no mistake: These almost Rockwell-esque scenes represent a genuine revolution, a triumph of a two-decade-long education reform experiment that has turned the nation’s capital into ground zero for an ambitious overhaul of its failing schools. Thurgood Marshall—and dozens of other public charter schools that range across a wide variety of teaching styles and program themes—are the result.

It’s a success that’s seen in student lives: At Thurgood Marshall Academy, 100 percent of the school’s graduates are accepted into college. And two-thirds of those students finish college, a rate that is higher than the national average—and about eight times the rate for D.C. students in general, says principal Alexandra Pardo.

And further:

D.C. today stands out because a whopping 44 percent of all its public school students—36,565 young people in 112 schools—are enrolled in charter schools, the highest state percentage in the nation. It’s a number that has grown rapidly, increasing more than ten-fold since the 1998 school year. It’s a figure that also stands out because D.C. charter school students consistently score higher on tests than those at traditional public schools in the capital.

And finally:

Ramona Edelin, executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools, a membership group for charter school administrators, says, “What’s so powerful to me as an educator of 45 years is that some of these schools are having stunning success with the students that so many are concerned about. Students of color from impoverished backgrounds are doing dramatically better in charter schools in D.C. than they are in the traditional public school system.”

Read more:

So here we have this story that hinges on an anecdote, then using sources of a very pro-charter groups alludes to its big assertion: “Charter schools are the answer.” Now don’t get me wrong, I will not say that charter schools or always the answer or never the answer. I tend to favor them in certain contexts and not in others; however, I know a very important fact about charter schools from the literature: Sometimes charter schools show drastic improvements when compared to public schools, sometimes they perform about the same, and sometimes they do worse.

There is tremendous variation in the charter school literature and  it is time we start talking about context. This article in Politico indicates that charter schools have been amazingly productive. This is a half truth. Some of them have been inspiring and awesome. Others have been terrible. In fact, across the national charter school studies, students in charter schools generally perform equal to that of their peers in traditional public schools (Clark et al. 2014; Gleason et al. 2010; Booker et al. 2007; CREDO 2009, 2013; Davis & Raymond, 2012; Hanusek et al. 2007; Bifulco & Ladd, 2006; Zimmer et al., 2009; 2012). Other studies in more specific contexts, such as cities like New York City and Boston, show more favorable learning gains for students (Abdulkadiroglu et al., 2009; 2011; Angrist et al., 2011; Dobbie & Fryer, 2011; Hoxby et al., 2009). These examples are thoroughly reviewed in Berends (2015) where he explains that studies on charter schools have run the gamut of displaying positive, negative, and neutral academic results while charter school studies on educational attainment lean toward positive significant effects, but again are limited to investigations on certain geographic areas (Booker et al., 2011; Furgeson et al., 2012; Dobbie & Fryer, 2011). Ultimately, the generalized finding of charter school research is that this type of schooling produces academic gains in some limited contexts but not in all contexts.

My point is that we need to add some nuance to our conversations about charter schools. It is misleading to provide an example of a high performing school attached to the word “charter” and then expect the readers to make an association with this school and all charter schools. This potentially props-up bad charter schools and brings down good public schools. As Mark Berends said in the video posted on my blog last week, it is time to start asking “under what conditions do charter schools produce high-achieving students and under what conditions do they do not?” instead of asking, “do charter schools outperform public schools?”

We know the answer to the last question: It depends.


Abdulkadiroglu, A., Angrist, J., Cohodes, S., Dynarski, S., Fullerton, J., Kane, T., & Pathak, P. (2009). Informing the debate: Comparing Boston’s charter, pilot and traditional schools. Boston: Boston Found.

Angrist J., Cohodes S., Dynarski, S., Pathak P., & Waters, C. (2013). Charter Schools and the Road to College Readiness: The effects on college preparation, attendance, and choice. Report prepared for the Boston Foundations and NewSchools Venture Fund.

Berends, M. (2015). Sociology and School Choice: What we know after two decades of charter schools. Annual Review of Sociology. 41 (15), 1-22.

Booker, K., Sass, T. R., Gill, B., & Zimmer, R. (2011). The effects of charter high schools on educational attainment. Journal of Labor Economics, 29(2), 377-415.

Bifulco, R., & Ladd, H. F. (2006). The impacts of charter schools on student achievement: Evidence from North Carolina. Education, 1(1), 50-90.

Booker, K., Gilpatric, S. M., Gronberg, T., & Jansen, D. (2007). The impact of charter school attendance on student performance. Journal of Public Economics, 91(5), 849-876.

Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). 2009. Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States. Stanford, CA: CREDO.

Clark, M. A., Gleason, P. M., Tuttle, C. C., & Silverberg, M. K. (2014). Do Charter Schools Improve Student Achievement?. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 0162373714558292.

Davis, D. H., & Raymond, M. E. (2012). Choices for studying choice: Assessing charter school effectiveness using two quasi-experimental methods. Economics of Education Review, 31(2), 225-236.

Dobbie, W., & Fryer Jr, R. G. (2011). Are high-quality schools enough to increase achievement among the poor? Evidence from the Harlem Children’s Zone. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 158-187.

Furgeson, J., Gill, B., Haimson, J., Killewald, A., McCullough, M., Nichols-Barrer, I., & Lake, R. (2012). Charter-school management organizations: Diverse strategies and diverse student impacts. Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.

Gleason, P., Clark, M., Tuttle, C. C., & Dwoyer, E. (2010). The Evaluation of Charter School Impacts: Final Report. NCEE 2010-4029. National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.

Hanushek, E. A., Kain, J. F., Rivkin, S. G., & Branch, G. F. (2007). Charter school quality and parental decision making with school choice. Journal of public economics, 91(5), 823-848.

Hoxby, C. M., Murarka, S., & Kang, J. (2009). How New York City’s charter schools affect achievement. Cambridge, MA: New York City Charter Schools Evaluation Project, 1-85.

Zimmer, R., Gill, B., Booker, K., Lavertu, S., Sass, T. R., & Witte, J. (2009). Charter schools in eight states: Effects on achievement, attainment, integration, and competition (Vol. 869). Rand Corporation.

Zimmer, R., Gill, B., Booker, K., Lavertu, S., & Witte, J. (2012). Examining charter student achievement effects across seven states. Economics of Education Review, 31(2), 213-224.

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