Charter schools are all the rage these days. The public is increasingly smitten with them — in this year’s Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup education poll, 68% of respondents said they support charter schools, up from 42% in 2000 — but few people know what charters are.
[A] recent and widely cited study from Stanford University of charter schools in 15 states and Washington found that students in 17% of charters do better than surrounding schools, 37% do worse and the remainder do about the same. Interestingly and generally overlooked: Those numbers are not fixed. Students do better the longer they stay in charters, and the results varied by state.
These results surprised few who follow charter schooling closely. What was surprising was how little interest there was in figuring out what can be learned from the 17% and how to create more schools like them. Instead, critics wrote them off as flukes or cherrypickers and rushed to pronounce the entire charter experiment a failure.
But the best charter schools are not random at all; they significantly and consistently outperform the averages, and they have a lot in common with each other in their ethos and operations. In particular these schools — which, in some states, have opened reverse achievement gaps with low-income minority students outpacing state averages — have tight controls over who teaches in them, a relentless focus on results, and an intense use of data to inform decisions.