Official Report: New Texas Charter Schools Found Wanting

The charter-school lobby can’t be happy about the latest official analysis and evaluation of charter schools’ performance prepared by the independent Texas Center for Educational Research for the Texas Education Agency. The new TCER study of new charter schools reaches sobering conclusions about the performance of Texas charter campuses.

The study, entitled “Evaluation of New Texas Charter Schools (2007-10): Final Report,” bears a July 2011 date but was not made public until August 19. You can read the executive summary and link to the full report by clicking here: http://www.tcer.org/research/charter_schools/new_charters/documents/ntcs_final_execsum.pdf.  

TCER researchers have been producing annual studies of the state’s charter schools for TEA since 1997, soon after the Texas experiment with charter schools was launched. Over the years, TCER’s reports on charter performance have bent over backward to be charitable to charter schools but still have not been very flattering. This latest report focusing on charter schools created in the past few years is especially blunt in its overall assessment of charter results to date. Key findings include:

–significantly lower academic achievement of students in state-created open-enrollment charter schools versus similar students in the traditional public schools; and

–much lower levels of professional experience and much higher levels of turnover among teachers at charter schools versus teachers at traditional public schools.

The new TCER report summarizes its analysis and suggested explanation of charter schools’ weak results as follows:

“Despite site visit and survey respondents’ perceptions that new charter schools, as small schools, provide improved learning environments, this evaluation provides little evidence that new open-enrollment charter schools are improving students’ academic outcomes. Analyses comparing open-enrollment charter students’ academic outcomes to those of similar students who remained in the traditional district schools indicate that open-enrollment charter schools had negative and statistically significant effect on students’ mathematics outcomes in Grades 4 through 8. In addition, analyses comparing the performance of new open-enrollment charter schools with their more established peers find that charter school student outcomes do not improve as schools gain more experience.

“Although further study is needed to identify the reasons for these outcomes, findings from this evaluation suggest that poor academic outcomes may be attributable to the characteristics of teachers who work in open-enrollment charters. Increasingly, research is noting the importance of teacher quality to student achievement, and many studies have identified teacher experience as a key factor in improving student outcomes (Clotfelter, Ladd, & Vigdor, 2006, 2007; Hanushek, Kain, & Rivkin, 2004). As discussed earlier in this summary, about a third of new open-enrollment charter school teachers were in their first year of teaching in 2008-09 compared with less than 10% of teachers working in campus charters or in traditional district schools statewide. Overall levels of teacher experience (i.e., average years of experience) in open-enrollment charters tended to be about half of that of campus charters and traditional district schools statewide. In addition, new open-enrollment charter schools tended to have high rates of teacher turnover (38% vs. 15% for the statewide average), which creates challenges for schools in creating coherent educational programs. The rate of teacher turnover tended to increase in more established charters (41%), which may help to explain why academic outcomes do not improve as schools gain more experience. Correspondingly, current research on charter schools nationally has highlighted high rates of teacher attrition as ‘one of the greatest obstacles that will need to be overcome if the charter school reform is to deliver as promised’ (Miron & Applegate, 2007, p.27).”