New charter school study showing gains in Newark is misleading

The Center for Research in Education Outcomes (CREDO) drew bold conclusions in a study of the effectiveness of charter schools in New Jersey. The study’s main claim was that 30% of charter schools in New Jersey outperform traditional public schools in Math, and 40% of charters outperform public schools in Reading. This led to headlines such as “Study: N.J. charters outperform traditional schools.”

But as a parent advocate researching and writing about education issues for the last two years, I have learned to look behind the headlines, as often the devil is in the details.

First, what Is CREDO?

CREDO is a part of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, whose website states CREDO “analyzes education reform efforts around the country.” CREDO is under the direction of Margaret Raymond, whose research is funded by the pro-charter, pro-education reform Walton Foundation and testing giant Pearson. This is not disclosed anywhere on the CREDO website, and when asked via email Raymond declined to identify her funders.

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In July 2009, CREDO released an often-cited study of charter school effectiveness in 15 states and the District of Columbia that found only 17% of charters performed better than traditional public schools, 37% performed worse and 46% demonstrated no significant difference.

The Newark effect

CREDO director Margaret Raymond claimed, “Charter schools in New Jersey, specifically in Newark, have some of the largest learning gains we have seen to date.”

New Jersey Education Commissioner Chris Cerf expanded on the same theme stating, “This is especially true for minority students and low-income students, with some of the largest gains in Newark, demonstrating that charter schools, on the whole, are providing much needed options for New Jersey students.”

While Raymond and Cerf hint at the fact that the largest gains were in Newark, the study confirms that in fact the gains in Newark were far greater than those in the rest of the state. “When we investigate the learning impacts of Newark charter schools separately, we find that their results are larger in reading and math than the overall state results.”

While the study noted some gains in suburban charter schools, they were not nearly as dramatic as in Newark, and rural charter schools showed losses far greater than the gains in suburban schools.

The gains in Newark were also not comparable to the other four major cities in New Jersey; Camden, Trenton, Jersey City, and Paterson. (see graph)

In fact, the study clearly demonstrates that charter students in those four cities, despite 15 years of charter expansion, have significantly less learning gains in reading than their public schools peers and there were no learning gains in math.

Yet somehow the study ultimately concludes, “students enrolled in urban charter schools in New Jersey learn significantly more in both math and reading compared to their peers in traditional public schools.”

This is a clear demonstration of why parents need to look behind the headlines. How can the study conclude that urban charter school students learn more when only the students in Newark showed any substantial gains? How is this fair to a parent in Camden or Trenton trying to make choices for their child?

What does this mean for public schools?

After the backlash in suburban districts against “boutique” charters, Governor Chris Christie and Commissioner Cerf focused the state’s charter school growth in “failing” urban districts. But the CREDO study clearly shows outcomes have not been improved in four out of five New Jersey cities, and other research has shown that gains in Newark may be not be replicable on a large scale.

Professor Bruce Baker has done extensive research demonstrating that the gains in Newark are likely the effect of the segregation of students based on poverty, special needs, English language proficiency, and even gender. The CREDO study acknowledged that the charters they looked at had less special needs and English Language Learners than the host schools they were compared to.

Baker states that it would have been shocking if the CREDO study didn’t show gains in Newark charters based on the inherent differences in the populations they serve. The question for all of us to consider is, should one school be considered more “successful” than another, based solely on test scores, if the schools doesn’t serve the same populations?

In a letter sent to district Superintendents after the release of the CREDO report, Cerf wrote, “The majority of students will always be served in traditional public schools, and we will continue to invest heavily to make sure those schools have the resources and supports they need to be successful.”

As a public school advocate, I share the fears of many that “successful” charter schools will continue to skim easier to educate students, leaving the public schools with less money to educate more difficult to educate students.

In the coming years we will need to ensure that Commissioner Cerf lives up to his promise and continues to invest in the success of all schools in New Jersey, not just charters.

What does the study mean for parents and students?

If the goal of charters is to give parents high-quality, publically funded options for the education of their children, Ms. Raymond and Mr. Cerf would be wise to rethink how they present research findings to the public.

To leave New Jersey parents with only the headlines generated by this study does those parents, and more importantly their children, a great disservice.

Parents need to understand that the purposeful conclusions drawn by this study, that charters perform better than traditional public schools, simply does not stand up to scrutiny. When making choices for their children, parents need to look beyond the headlines and glossy brochures. They need to ask questions, get involved, and stay informed.

As a parent who supports public education, I will continue to work to hold Commissioner Cerf accountable to his statement that he will invest in our traditional public schools to ensure that they are successful for all of New Jersey’s students.

Darcie Cimarusti is member of the Highland Park Board of Education in New Jersey. She is also a member of Save our Schools NJ. She is the founder of the blog MotherCrusader.

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