Student performance roughly comparable between different types of schools


A new study of Milwaukee schools suggests that there is little difference in performance between students in  Charter schools and non Charter public schools. Researchers from the University of Arkansas and the University of Wisconsin-Madison led the study.

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was the first urban school voucher program of its kind when it started in 1990. In 2008-09, the year studied in this round of reports, the program enrolled 19,803 students in 127 private schools through the use of vouchers.

The evaluation also found that while students in the choice program perform at levels roughly comparable to similarly income-disadvantaged students in the Milwaukee public school system, they perform better than low-income students in other U.S. urban areas. It found too  that school choice in Milwaukee has neither worsened nor improved the levels of racial segregation.

This is just one of several evaluations of school choice programs that have failed to show major relative improvements in test scores, but the size and age of the Milwaukee program, combined with the rigour of the study, make these results hard to easily explain away.

Research studies comparing Charter schools performance with other schools have traditionally shown mixed results so that for every study demonstrating relative  success you can find one that shows they deliver very  similar results.

In truth those involved in the Charter movement have often been frustrated by the inability of all Charter schools to create clear blue performance water between themselves and non-charters.

There have been a number of reasons put as to why Charter schools havent quite   managed to create this performance gap. First, Charter schools tend to open up in the most deprived areas with the most disadvantaged intakes, often replacing failing or failed schools, so they start from a very  low and challenging  base .Secondly too may authorities have been too lax in  vetting  and evaluating providers and their offers  before they agree a Charter arrangement-there are after all  outstanding providers-think KIPP- and there are some  not so good ones. Selection processes are supposed to have become more rigorous recently. Thirdly, Charter schools tend to have less funding and resources than other local schools. Fourthly, some claim that the way success is measured using standardised test scores is itself deeply flawed because of their content and structure.

Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of “Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality’ has claimed that  test scores are actually little more than a red herring. Charter schools will often offer a highly traditional curriculum long on history, science, foreign languages, classic literature, mathematics and English composition, taught with structure and discipline. What matters most, he believes, has nothing to do with relative performance in SATS tests. What matters is  giving parents a choice radically different from  what he terms  ‘the progressive curriculum used in the county’s other public schools’. He argues that  Charter Schools differ in what they teach and how they teach it, and parents care deeply about both, regardless of whether test scores rise. If test scores in reading and math are the measure, he says, a good school just doesn’t have that much room to prove it is better than a lesser school.

He may well have a point. This study found that families in the choice program reported that their children’s commitment to education and study habits are more important harbingers of academic success to them than are  the test scores.

The choice agenda is all about parents being offered choice, often for the first time and choices that are different from the mainstream, so measurement of a schools success should try to take this into account. Measurement by narrow test results is probably not an adequate or sufficient  means of measuring success.

The trouble is if Choice program advocates  use this argument  others  in the Charter movement  make it difficult to sustain, as they try to  have it both ways . On the one hand, they obsess about their SATS performances and   comparisons with non Charters, while  concurrently  seeking to show just how different they are from other run of the mill schools.

The research team is looking at the effects of the voucher program on such outcomes as student achievement, parent and student satisfaction, civic values, and how parents and students experience the program. The five-year evaluation also will determine the systemic effects of the choice program on education finance, public schools, non-participating students, private school capacity and school-level racial integration.

The reports are available online at


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