It's the $64,000 question of public education: Are charter schools better than their traditional public school counterparts?
A report to be released today from the California Charter Schools Assn. takes a crack at it, comparing charter schools in Los Angeles with their traditional peers. Its conclusion is that charters generally perform better academically than nearby regular public schools, and that charters improve as they age.
As is often the case with education statistics, it's not quite that simple. A majority of the regular schools surveyed actually did better in one batch of test scores than the nearest comparable charter school and improved more from 2006 to 2007.
But by most measures, charters had the edge.
"It's pretty significant that seven out of 10 charters actually outperform their most similarly matched district public school," said Caprice Young, chief executive of the charter schools association, citing one finding in the report. She said the study was intended to answer the question parents are most likely to ask: How does their local charter school stack up against the nearest comparable regular schools?
It found that charter schools did especially well in educating African American students and that charters show some of their strongest success in middle schools, whose traditional counterparts have been stubbornly resistant to progress.
The differences between charters and regular public schools were smallest in the elementary grades, where the Los Angeles Unified School District has sharply improved achievement in recent years.
The study found that charters, on average, were improving their test scores at a faster clip than traditional schools. However, it also found a big difference in achievement between "mature" charters -- at least 6 years old -- and those more recently established. The older charters scored significantly higher, leading the association to call for patience in judging young charter schools.
Ramon C. Cortines, L.A. Unified's newly appointed senior deputy superintendent, said the report pointed to how traditional schools could learn from charters -- a strikingly different attitude from that typically expressed by district officials.
"I think that what it says is that they have some best practices, and those should be replicated in the district in all schools," he said. "I would say the same about islands of excellence in the Unified district. . . . We need to each learn from each other."
He said the district Monday held the first in a series of meetings that will bring together principals from charters and traditional schools to discuss how they can learn from one another.
The study is sure to trigger debate about how to determine which schools are comparable -- or whether that is even possible.
Charters are public schools that are given partial or nearly full independence from a school district in exchange for improving academic performance. They mostly are authorized by a school district but are typically run by a private, nonprofit organization. Los Angeles has more charters than any city in the country, with 125 schools, mostly small campuses in low-income neighborhoods, serving roughly 40,000 students.
For the report, the charter association compared each charter in Los Angeles with three regular public schools within a five-mile radius that had similar demographics, in particular a similar racial breakdown.
For instance, it compared the Bright Star Secondary Academy, with 89 students, with three large, comprehensive high schools: Manual Arts, Crenshaw and Los Angeles. Bright Star scored more than 200 points higher than the average Academic Performance Index of the three schools, the biggest difference in the city.
Jeannie Oakes, a professor of education at UCLA, said that though she had not read the report, the comparison struck her as flawed, in part because of the difference in size between most charters and nearby traditional public schools, and because charters might attract more motivated students. She said a similar national report by Caroline Hoxby of Harvard University several years ago was criticized for "selection bias."
Oakes said it would be more valid to compare charters with magnet schools, which students choose to attend, rather than being assigned. "Then you're controlling for the pluck or the gumption in the family, the ability to navigate the system," she said.
Priscilla Wohlstetter, a professor of education at USC who specializes in charter school governance, said the report was a "good effort," but added that she would like to see the comparison based on "something more than test scores." Wohlstetter, who has an affiliation with the charter school association, recently released her own report about the performance of California charter schools, looking at a variety of measures, including financial stability and teacher-pupil ratios.
It also found that charters outperformed traditional public schools in key areas, but fell short in others.
One area where charters lagged, Wohlstetter's report noted, was the performance of students not fluent in English. That was an area of mixed results in the charter school association report, where regular district schools did better overall and in the elementary grades, but not in middle or high schools.