Chicago charter schools doing better than many claim

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The recent Sun-Times coverage of Chicago charter school performance confirms the wisdom of Mark Twain, who once said there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

The Sun-Times didn’t lie, but it analyzed statistics in a way that casts charter schools in a negative light. There are other — I think better — ways to assess how charters are doing. The coverage focused on the release of citywide elementary school achievement data (NWEA). It included a news story and an opinion piece that ran a few days later from a principal at a school in an affluent neighborhood, both of which draw sweeping conclusions from limited data about how charter schools and district-run schools compare. We at the Illinois Network of Charter Schools feel compelled to tell the rest of the story.

First, the article and the op-ed in particular compare charter schools to non-selective magnet schools. Both are non-selective public schools and enroll through a random lottery, however these two types of schools serve a vastly different student demographic. Charter public schools serve an elementary school student population that is 90 percent low-income and 93 percent minority, which are both higher than district-run schools. The disparity is even greater when you compare charter schools to non-selective magnet schools with 67 percent low-income and 76 percent minority. As many high-performing schools prove, poverty is not destiny, but ignoring relative economic need in any school performance analysis leads to skewed results.

Second, the article acknowledges but doesn’t really take into account that several of the highest performing charter elementary schools in the city do not take the NWEA test or use a different testing schedule, which is part of the flexibility that is allowed in the charter model. These schools enroll thousands of students. Therefore, by omitting them, it makes apples-to-apples comparisons impossible. We have always acknowledged the need for charter school performance to exceed the targets set forth in their charters, and this most recent data analysis indicates that some are coming up short. But a full inclusion of all schools would paint a very different picture.

Third, in a week when the other major education story was the 4 percent annual increase in the city’s graduation rate, charter schools didn’t merit a mention in any news outlet that I saw. Over the past decade, charter schools have led the way in graduation rates in the city and have increased the citywide averages substantially. In 2013 the charter graduation rate of 74 percent was much higher than the 63 percent graduation rate at comparable open-enrollment high schools. The story is even more dramatic when one examines college enrollment rates, where charter schools continue to outperform the district average and comparison schools.


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