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Missouri charter schools don't make the grade

Friday, October 16, 2009 | 4:57 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — President Barack Obama has praised charter schools for their excellence and innovation on more than one occasion. However, assessment test scores in Missouri suggest they may not be any better than traditional public schools.

Charter schools are public institutions held accountable to an individual sponsor rather than a district school board.

In Missouri, both charter schools and traditional public schools are required to meet all standards set forth by the No Child Left Behind Act and the state. This includes conducting the Missouri Assessment Program test. According to 2009 MAP test scores provided by the Missouri education department, charter schools are under performing state averages — and sometimes significantly.

There are 44 charter schools in Missouri. By law, they are only allowed to exist within the Kansas City and St. Louis city school districts. Only students eligible for public school in those districts can be enrolled in charter schools.

Twenty-eight percent of students in Kansas City charter schools tested into the "Proficient" and "Advanced" categories of the communication arts portion of the MAP test. Among charter school students in St. Louis, the average was just above 13 percent. The state average, however, was nearly 48 percent.

Charter schools also fell below the state average for the math section of the MAP test. While the state average for the math section of the MAP test is almost 48 percent of students testing into the "Proficient" and "Advanced" ranges, Kansas City charter schools placed only about 24 percent of students tested into those two categories. St. Louis charter schools were even lower with just above 12 percent.

Only fifth and eighth graders take the science portion of the MAP test. Kansas City charter schools averaged just under 15 percent of students testing into the "Proficient" and "Advanced" ranges, and students in St. Louis charter schools averaged about 7 percent.

The MAP test also assesses specific high school subjects at the conclusion of courses like English II, Algebra I and Biology I. The trends reported above were reflected again in these tests. The state average was the highest, followed by Kansas City charter schools and then St. Louis charter schools.

Jocelyn Strand, DESE director of A+ and charter schools said comparing charter school MAP test scores to state averages might not be fair.

"Typically we compare charter school test scores to the school districts that they're in," Strand said.

Strand said that when compared to their home districts, charter schools are "pretty comparative." However, their home districts are urban areas with many schools classified as "failing." The St. Louis City School District lost its accreditation and no longer has an elected school board. Instead, it's appointed.

Some charter schools are performing at such low levels, they may not remain open much longer.

Strand said charter schools, such as Paideia and Ethel Hedgeman Lyle academies in St. Louis, may not reopen for the 2010-11 academic year.

Franc Flotron, a lobbyist for the Missouri Charter Public Schools Association, said this isn't necessarily a bad thing. He compared charter schools to the business market.

"When they fail, they go out of business," he said. "Traditional public schools that are failing never go out of business."

Students at closing charter schools have the option of enrolling in other charter schools in their area. The problem is that many have long waiting lists. Former charter school students are given no priority when it comes to enrolling in another charter school. They can also return to a traditional district school or enroll in a private school.

Académie Lafayette in Kansas City is an exception to the trend of charter schools performing lower than the state. The school has consistently outperformed all charter schools in the state on the MAP test. With the exception of the fourth grade mathematics MAP test, Académie Lafayette scored higher than the state average in every category by an average of 25 percent.

This particular charter school is a French language immersion school. From the moment students begin their first day of kindergarten, they are taught in French.

The head of community relations for Académie Lafayette, Rachael Gordon, said she attributes the school's high scores to the fact that it's bilingual.

"It stimulates parts of the brain that are otherwise dormant," Gordon said.

The process of learning a second language helps students subconsciously become better problem solvers and think more critically at an earlier age, she said.

Charter schools can be founded a number of ways. Hillary Elliott, Missouri Charter Public Schools Association director of communications, said some are founded by educational management organizations.

"Many are what we call 'Mom and Pop,' a group of individuals who want to start a new school without an affiliate organization," she said.

All charter schools are responsible for finding facilities and a sponsor. Currently, the only sponsors for charter schools in Missouri are four-year colleges and universities. The only other option is the State Board of Education. A contract, called a charter, between the school and sponsoring institution outlines the standards of performance for both operations and students. If a charter school fails to meet these standards, the sponsor may choose to let the charter expire, closing the school.


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Comments

Dave Roland October 17, 2009 | 10:05 a.m.

The reporter's understanding of how to evaluate the performance of Missouri's charter schools is extremely flawed.

Just looking at the raw results from the 2008 MAP tests, students attending grades 3–8 in Kansas City’s charter schools performed better than their counterparts in traditional public schools, although the traditional schools’ 11th grade students outscored the charter schools’ 11th graders. In Saint Louis, however, at every grade level the average performance of students attending charter schools is worse than the average performance of students attending traditional public schools. Comparing these cities’ MAP scores to each other, average performance in Saint Louis seems better than Kansas City in the lower grades, but for students at the eighth-grade level and higher, Kansas City students in both charter and traditional public schools achieve higher average performance than Saint Louis students.

But a simple comparison of MAP scores doesn't even come close to telling the real story. None of these comparisons take account of “selection bias” in making charter and non-charter comparisons. A recent study by the Center for Research on Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University examined the effectiveness of charter schools in 16 states, including Missouri. The Stanford study took careful account of the prior test scores of charter school students, and every charter school student was paired with one or more similar students (aligned by race, sex, grade, poverty status, English language learner status, special education, and prior test score by subject) in schools that acted as feeders for the charter school. The study revealed that Missouri’s charter schools attracted students who were underperforming in their traditional public schools, and that this state’s charter school students were realizing larger academic gains than their counterparts in traditional public schools. The difference was small, but statistically significant.

And so, in short, Missouri's charter schools, taken as a whole, have been doing a better job than the traditional public schools in improving their student. That doesn't mean that every charter school has been or will be successful, but (as some of those interviewed pointed out) charters provide an important alternative for parents who are not satisfied with their child's assigned public school, and if charters are not performing well, they can be shut down.

(Report Comment)
Elaine Briggs October 26, 2009 | 11:34 a.m.

That is truly interesting. And honestly, many of the students in Charter schools may be particularly at-risk, even when compared to their community. A much better measure of "do charter schools work?" would be how well they improve the achievement of students compared to how well traditional public schools do, if those students were statistically similar. It's kind of hard to believe this article didn't include the new CREDO research, which is extremely rigorous and tells a much different story than a cursory comparison.

I agree with the comment that bad charter schools should close, and that this is why they have a leg up on traditional public schools - they can close when failing, and discontinue to subject students to a poor quality of education. Public schools stay open as long as they have children who live in their district, no matter how long they have been failing to educate them.

I think it would be helpful to see an analysis of academic research. Arne Duncan has indicated that Race to the Top funds will be given to states with open charter school laws, and that charter school expansion is one of the top goals of these grants. Missouri needs to learn what makes a good Charter school and try to do the same.

(Report Comment)

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