Are Charter Schools Better Than Traditional Schools?

by Marco Petruzzi, CEO of Green Dot Public Schools National

Question: “Are charter schools better than traditional schools?”

Short Answer: “No…or maybe yes. It’s complicated.”

But I’m not interested in short answers or easy sound bites. School quality is a complicated issue and requires a more considered response.

CREDO’s National Charter School Study

In 2013, Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) published the new edition of the National Charter Schools Study. It was immediately seized upon by the ed reform movement, its critics, and the media outlets supporting each side. Both were able to twist the findings to suit their own narratives.

In fact, the report found that charter schools, evaluated en masse, are doing just slightly better than traditional public schools in reading and about the same in math. So, for example, in reading proficiency, 25% of charter schools are doing significantly better than traditional public schools, 19% significantly worse, and 56% about the same. Only people who believe that all charter schools are great, or that all traditional schools are terrible, would be surprised by these findings. I’ve never believed either. I don’t know anyone in the charter arena who does.

What I appreciate about the CREDO report is that it defines success by how well a school is able to increase students’ learning over time, rather than on how students perform at a single moment.

Regardless of students’ incoming proficiency level, CREDO uses student growth to compare those enrolled in charter schools with their “virtually identical twin” in a traditional public school. It’s as close as we can get to an apples-to-apples methodology for measuring what makes a “good” school. This is hugely important, because the methodology itself eliminates the argument that some schools may be “cherry-picking” the best students.

The Los Angeles Landscape

In 2014, CREDO published the findings of a regional study — Charter School Performance in Los Angeles — that departed from the conclusions of the national evaluation and categorically demonstrated that charter schools in the city are outperforming traditional schools by a dramatic margin.

While charter schools across the nation were able to deliver some minimal extra growth in both English and math scores, those in Los Angeles experienced significant gains. The study shows that about 48% of the city’s charters perform significantly better than traditional schools in reading (compared to 25% at the national level), while only 13% are significantly worse, and 39% show no significant difference. In math, 44% of charters are significantly better than traditional schools; 22% are significantly worse.

The numbers indicate that in real terms, students in L.A. charters experienced academic growth equal to 79 additional days of learning in math and 50 days in reading, compared to their “virtual twins” that attended traditional schools. These gains were found across all grade levels and all demographic subgroups, and were even higher for low-income minority students.

The study doesn’t prove charters are “better” than traditional public schools, but it does show a preponderance of high-quality charter schools in Los Angeles. Regardless of where you stand in the charter debate, such findings are a cause for celebration. Traditionally underserved students in Los Angeles are getting a better shot at success in college and career due to the hard work of charter schools across the city. It’s indisputable.

It’s worth reiterating that the report also lays waste to accusations of student “cherry-picking” among charter schools. The data shows that charters not only accept students from all levels of performance (reasonably well distributed by decile), but that regardless of their entering level, all students do better at a charter school than their “virtual twins” who started at a traditional school at the same level. This should end the “cherry-picking” claims once and for all, but something tells me it’s naïve to think so.

But what makes the charter landscape in the city so conducive to success?

The reasons for charter school success in Los Angeles

It’s difficult to come to any easy conclusions as to why charter schools in Los Angeles should be so successful relative to the rest of the nation. In part, it may be due to so many being operated by large and experienced CMOs, a proven indicator of increased performance. It may be due to the California charter sector’s commitment to quality schools and accountability. The challenges of operating schools in Los Angeles (high cost of living, high cost of real estate, difficult authorizing climate) probably make it difficult for mediocre operators to survive for long. It’s difficult to really say with any degree of certainty.

I do know, however, without a doubt, that Green Dot’s success is due to two fundamental commitments: first, a genuine belief that every child, whatever their circumstances, has a basic human right to educational equity and the opportunity to achieve their potential and pursue their goals; and second, an unwavering commitment to teacher excellence by providing our educators with the ongoing, collaborative, and personalized support needed to become the very best in their profession.



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  1. Sandra Smith on May 2, 2015 at 1:01 am

    I was a part the music program at 99th street school, back on the 60’s

    Donald Dustin and Frank Harris.

    I truly enjoyed the violin through Gompers Jr. And Locke High schools

    Bring back music to our schools!

    Go Saints!

    • Dwayne Rice on May 2, 2015 at 9:48 pm

      Sandra, we love hearing from Locke music alumni like yourself! You’d be happy to know we’ve been working hard to rebuild the music program at Locke, and they are getting better every day:

      Mr. Dustin and Mr. Harris have both been involved as well. They helped us pick a new band director, and came to meet Boeing employees who remodeled the music rooms this summer.

      Please come visit the school sometime to see our progress!

      • Bruce Peterson on November 13, 2015 at 5:07 am

        The Music Building at Locke was dedicated in honor of Frank Harris, Don Dustin and Reggie Andrews on Saturday November 7, 2015. A beautiful ceremony with Locke Music alumni Patrice Rushen, Raymond Pounds, William Allen Young, La Vern Antoine, Leon “Ndugu” Chancler and more …..