Milwaukee Independent Charter Schools Study:  Report on One Year of Student Growth

Not much difference in performance between Charters and Public schools


Supporters of Charter schools see the potential of high-quality charter schools to help transform the education system by raising achievement levels, closing achievement gaps, providing competitive pressure to traditional public schools and stimulating greater innovation.

The first evaluations of charter school achievement seemed to suggest that charter schools performed no better than traditional public schools, on average. The Charter Schools Dust-Up, a meta-analysis of early charter schools studies, found that students in charter schools scored about the same or sometimes worse on standardized tests compared to students in traditional public schools (Carnoy et al. 2005). However, more recent reviews of panel studies evaluating charter school achievement contain findings which suggest results are more mixed and more positive (in favour of Charters) than the findings for example  of Carnoy et al. (2005). The problem with the Charter movement generally is the variation in the quality of Charter schools-some are very good indded – the KIPP Chain etc-others are clearly no better in terms of performance than public schools. (Although it is worth remembering that Charter schools tend to be in the most disadvantaged areas and have, for the most part, less per capita funding than the average public school)  Supporters  posit that giving charter schools more flexibility over such practices  as hiring teachers, budgeting school funds, and selecting curricula will lead to these positive outcomes (Finn, Manno and Vanourek 2001; Payne and Knowles 2009). Further, through a system of accountability, they expect to reduce the number of low-quality charter schools that are not able to meet the standards they agreed to in their charters (basically contracts). Indeed there has been a major push to tighten up vetting procedures and contracts in states-with each state having its own charter laws.

In addition charter school have proved popular with parents, particularly from minority communities.

The aim of this particular evaluation was to assess the effectiveness of independent charter schools in promoting two desirable student outcomes: student achievement growth and educational attainment.  This report provides findings comparing the first year of achievement growth (2006 to 2007) of students attending independent charters to the achievement growth of a group of matched comparison students attending  Milwaukee Public Schools.  The report states ‘Using regression models that produce the most precise estimates of 2007  achievement, our comparisons of students in our sample of independent  Milwaukee charters to matched MPS students exhibit few significant effects of attending a charter school on achievement growth in either maths or  reading.  The exception is in one of our three models for mathematics gains.  When we control for prior achievement, and not for student characteristics or switching schools, students in charter schools gain approximately .105 standard deviations more in maths achievement than students in MPS.  Further analysis reveals that the positive impact of independent charter schools on average in maths is concentrated primarily at the lower end of the achievement distribution; these schools were estimated to improve the maths achievement of students at the 25th percentile of the achievement  distribution by .109 standard deviations. There are no differences in any models in reading. There are differences, however, when we disaggregate the charter impacts  by charter school type. Conversion independent charters, schools which converted from private schools, hold an advantage in math and reading achievement.  Prior to controlling for both student characteristics and  if students switched schools, students in conversion charters make .170  standard deviations greater gains in math achievement compared to similar  students in MPS schools. Once controlling for student characteristics and school switching, the effect is reduced to .114 standard deviations.   Similarly, in reading, students in conversion charters make .124 standard deviations more gains than MPS students without controlling for student  characteristics and switching schools. By adding these factors the effect is reduced to .054 standard deviations. At the same time, students in non -conversion, independent charter schools, schools which began as new charter schools or start-ups, achieve gains that are no different from their  counterparts in MPS.’  School switching the report noted  has a  negative impact on student achievement gains .

Again both pro and anti -charter campaigners  will  draw some comfort from this survey. It  is hard to argue though that charters are damaging pupils prospects in Milwaukee.

John F. Witte; Patrick J. Wolf; Alicia Dean; Deven Carlson School Choice Demonstration Programme CDP Milwaukee Evaluation ; Report #21 — Version 1.1; December 2010



  1. For a chalkface (sorry, interactive whiteboard face) view of charter schools, it’s well worth reading Larry Cuban’s recent series of posts on Rocketship Schools. Fascinating reading, not least because it gives you a sense of what hybrid schools are really like.

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