Comparing apples to apples in Chicago's charter schools

Amid the Chicago Teachers Union's demands during this week's strike, there is a quieter but no less important discussion occurring. Chicago's parents, activists, journalists, and regular citizens are discussing the performance of traditional public schools compared to the performance of charter public schools.

Charter schools are operated by many different private nonprofits. Where the private nonprofit Chicago Teachers Union provides teaching services to 86 percent of Chicago public schools, the remaining 14 percent–charter schools–draw their teachers from other places. In other words, charter school teachers do not need to be members of the Chicago Teachers Union.

So why does this matter?

It matters because not only do charter schools cost less per pupil, but they produce better student outcomes than traditional public schools. They are more productive than their traditional public school competitors, doing more educating with fewer dollars.

These claims and counterclaims are made often with each side citing their own data to prove their point. But today, education policy expert Jay P. Greene researched something about charter schools that should raise everyone's eyebrows. Instead of looking at aggregate performance (for example, graduation rates or test scores for all charter students), he compared test scores of the lowest income charter students with the lowest income traditional public school students.

Greene found charter school students outperform traditional public school students on reading and math in both the fourth and eighth grade (a common benchmark):

So I was curious as to how charter schools in Chicago compare academically to the district. I ran the NAEP numbers from the Trial Urban District Assessment for free and reduced lunch eligible general education students. This is about as close to an apples to apples comparison as you can get in the NAEP data-much smaller range in variation in family income, general education students.

This suggests you can take a poor, underperforming African-American or Latino child from a traditional public school and put him in a charter school, where he has the chance to improve or thrive educationally.

Because charter schools are free of the restrictions on teacher hiring, firing and evaluations that hamstring Chicago's traditional public schools, they recruit and retain demonstrably better educators. This is not to say there are no good teachers in traditional public schools–far from it. But it does suggest strongly that the inflexibility and high cost of unionized public school teachers does not help in educating students well. That is, of course, everyone's goal with taxpayer-financed, government-provided education, right?

Try as we might, we cannot choose the outcomes of schooling. Every student is different, which is a wonderful thing. But we can choose the means we employ to reach certain outcomes. If our means fail or don't succeed to the level we would prefer, we should reevaluate them and seek alternatives. For Chicago's students, charter schools are a good alternative that should be allowed to thrive.


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  • Charters do not have better outcomes. Research says they get basically the same results. Also, remember, they don't have to accept difficult, delinquent, special education students. That makes it easier to run a school.

  • Although some charter schools may "counsel out" students I worked (and no longer work) for a charter school in the city that made it a point to do whatever was possible to keep kids in the school. We had a very strick school, and most students that left convinced their parents that they could not be successful there because they didn't like the rules. At the school I was at, if a student wanted to leave, they must meet with their advisor, the dean, and the principal with their parents in order to get their transcipts. It was a long process on purpose to encourage students to stay. We even had a number of students who would leave and then come back, because they did not like the CPS schools. And by law we need to take them back because we are their "home school." So although some schools may counsel students out, it is not fair to say that they all do.
    When I taught, I taught students with extreme emotional. behavioral disorders that needed specialized IEPs based on their disabilities, multiple autistic students, a few hearing impaired students, and several sever intellectual disabled students. Many of them required occupational and speech therapy and we had a team of counsels to help, or find the help for these students. As well as a number of students who required one on one aids in all classes. So don't make general statements that bring down all charter schools when like CPS, there are good schools and bad ones and it isn't fair to generalize for all of them. With all of this the school that I worked at outperformed the CPS average for the ACT by 2.5 points composite for the past 4 years.

    The truth is when I worked at this school, freshman came in with low motivation, little family support, poor educational background, and little understanding of what it meant to be a "capable, well-behaved, cooperative, and hard working student" but we worked our tail off to teach them how to become that in the 4 years we had them. Most of them kicking and screaming throughout the process, but the proof is in the pudding, and our school had one of the highest graduation rate, and one of the highest students attending college after graduation in the city, and we are proud of them. So please don't generalize and say all charters are unaccepting and bad, because that simply is not true. Parents just need to do the research to find out which charters are successful and which ones are not.

  • In reply to ChrisR123:

    ps here is a charter i found and you can check the results for yourself

  • In reply to ChrisR123:

    ChrisR123, thanks for this cool story. If the goal is to teach children well, we should have as many school options available as there are different learning styles so we can serve today's kids well and tomorrow's better.

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