By Camilla Benbow
(Originally printed in The Tennessean on June 20, 2012)
Last month, the Metro Nashville Public Schools board approved two new charter schools while turning down eight other charter school applications. Nashville charters educate approximately 3,000 local students.
For the uninitiated, charter schools are public schools that use public dollars and are run by operators who can be either for-profit or nonprofit. Tennessee allows only nonprofit charter operators, and governance must include parents. Charters have considerably more latitude to hire and fire teachers, choose curricula or set their own, often extended, schedules.
Charter schools are held accountable for student achievement using the same state tests as other public schools.
Policy-makers and politicians of both parties support charter schools. Charters also enjoy the support of prominent local business people and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.
Educational researchers, on the other hand, think the verdict is still out on the benefits of charter schools.
Results on reading, math vary
A number of studies have suggested that charter school effects on student achievement are mixed. For example, the National Charter School Research Project found positive effects for elementary math and reading and middle school math, but no meaningful effects on high school or middle school reading. The project is affiliated with the Center on Reinventing Public Education.
Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that 17 percent of charters performed better than their public school peers, while 37 percent actually performed worse. The rest did about as well as public schools.
In Nashville, CREDO found that between 2008 and 2011, three charter schools had positive effects in math or reading relative to public schools. Of these, LEAD Academy and KIPP Academy Nashville had effect sizes that were deemed statistically significant.
CREDO also has found evidence that charters are more beneficial for students in poverty, students who are English language learners and students in urban settings.
Peabody scholar Ron Zimmer and colleagues have found that attending a charter high school was associated with an increased probability of graduating from high school and attending college.
On the other hand, Peabody Professor Ellen Goldring has found that while parents say they choose charter schools for better academics, only half who switch actually move their children to schools with higher average achievement scores. This raises questions about how parents choose and how choices are presented to them.
Peabody research also has shown that charters experience higher rates of teacher turnover and that principals of traditional public schools do not perceive significant competition for students, teachers or other resources from charters.
For parents who wish to be better informed about their choices when it comes to charter schools, a good starting point is the Tennessee Department of Education’s Tennessee Charter Schools Annual Report, available online at www.tn.gov/education/fedprog/fpcharter schls.shtml. Peabody’s National Center on School Choice is at www.vanderbilt.edu/schoolchoice.
Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College.