CREDO 2013: It’s time to rewrite the script on education reform

As per usual, the latest CREDO National Charter School Study hit the education reform space accompanied by a flurry of analysis. Some commentators trumpeted the top level headline that the charter school sector has improved its performance over time; others critiqued the charter sector for not vastly outperforming traditional district schools.

Maybe it’s unsurprising, but a lot of the blanket critiques and big picture conversation around these findings miss the most salient points. So what’s the real story?

The bell curve: That’s a problem, right?

The 2009 CREDO study (often used as ammunition against charter schools’ ability to perform) found that 17 percent of charter schools outperformed traditional schools, 46 percent performed similarly, and 37 percent performed worse.* The 2013 CREDO study noted similar performance trends:

  • In reading, 25 percent of charters outperformed traditional public schools in reading, 56 percent performing similarly to traditional schools, and 19 percent performed worse.
  • In math, 29 percent of charter schools outperformed traditional public schools, 40 percent performed similarly, and 31 percent performed worse.

Should we be surprised by the bell curve? Alarmed? No, not really. Normal distributions are, well, normal. Other education analysts, such as Andy Smarick, have found that such a bell curve exists for all school sectors (traditional public, charter public and private.)

The takeaway? Some schools are successful, and some are not – regardless of sector. Yes, we should continue to shift the percentages in the right direction, but the curve is the curve.

State differences: What gives?

The report found sizable differences in the performance of charter schools in certain states. Charter schools in states like Louisiana and New Jersey and cities like Washington, DC and New York City outperformed their traditional school partners significantly. Why?

There’s not some mysterious set of forces at play in these states. Rather, their charter authorizing agencies are effective regulators of quality. They enforce tough criteria for opening new schools, close schools that aren’t performing well, and (most importantly) seek to replace low-performers with high-potential or high-performing schools.  (See the work of the DC Public Charter School Board for an example of effective regulation.)

The takeaway? Authorizing matters. A lot. Effective regulation of quality leads to better quality.

Education reform is not a zero sum game

So what do we do now? We could waste precious time and resources battling over which bell curve is ever so slightly to the right. Or we could think bigger and scour CREDO’s latest findings for insights into how to improve performance across every sector.

What would that mean? That would mean we see more and more cities make the leap to sector-agnostic, citywide initiatives that replace low performing schools with those that have demonstrated the ability or that have a high potential to better serve kids. Those cities will have a lower percentage of failing schools than they do now. They’ll provide a higher percentage of families with access to the quality options their children deserve.

Which path will you take?

Commitment to continuous improvement of quality school options regardless of sector is a hallmark of  portfolio school districts. Read our occasional series on the subject.

[*Editor’s note: The percentages cited in the original version of this post included a typo. The 2009 CREDO report found that 46 percent, not 56 percent, of charter schools performed on par with traditional schools. The post has been updated to reflect the correct percentages.]