Students in N.C. charter schools earned higher reading and math scores in 2011 than their counterparts in traditional public schools, while the charter schools got less money for doing it, according to a new study from the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform.
The latest study, "The Productivity of Public Charter Schools," piggybacks on an April report that compared per-pupil spending on charters and other public schools. It compares scores on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress eighth-grade reading and math exams for the two groups and links those to spending.
The report, which looks at all states that had charter schools in 2011, shows that N.C. charter school students averaged 13 points higher in reading and nine points higher in math than students in N.C. school districts. Meanwhile, charter schools averaged $8,277 per charter student compared with $9,999 per district student. The study does a lot of other number-crunching but that's the gist: Higher scores for less money.
Skeptics may assume that's because charter schools are working with the students who tend to score higher. But according to this study, the N.C. charter schools averaged slightly higher percentages of low-income and disabled students than public schools across the state.
Of course, there are plenty of caveats to consider, and the 43-page report explores many of them. This is one year's performance (a year that precedes North Carolina's charter school expansion) for one grade level. As the study notes, those students may have experienced a mix of charter and traditional public schooling (and, for that matter, private and home-schooling), all of which contributes to eighth-grade scores. The report uses that data to extrapolate a "return on investment" based on lifetime earnings. I'm skeptical of that technique, which is used to turn small data points into huge savings by any number of educational groups, including traditional public schools.
The researchers note that the overall analysis leads to one clear national finding: "Charter schools tend to exhibit more productivity than traditional public schools."
You can bet that will come up as North Carolina debates how to balance its investment in various forms of public education.
"In addition, the report suffers from alarmingly vague documentation regarding data sources and methodologies, and it constructs entirely inappropriate comparisons of student population characteristics," Baker writes. "Simply put, the findings and conclusions of the study
are not valid or useful."
As some of you have noted, and as I pointed out in the post about the April report, the University of Arkansas research is part of the university's School Choice Demonstration Project, which is funded by the Walton Family Foundation.