School-choice advocates argue that children will get a better education if they can leave public schools for charter or private schools, especially in urban areas. The Indiana Growth Model tells a different story.
It suggests public schools, overall, are performing better than charter schools or the private schools — most of them religious schools — that are getting state vouchers.
The growth model is a statistical tool that measures students’ test-score gains compared to those of students with similar academic histories. It may not be perfect, and critics argue that it shouldn’t be over-used. But it’s unquestionably a better measure of school effectiveness than standardized test scores or school grades, which have been shown to correlate closely to student demographics.
You can download 2012-13 growth scores for all the schools in the state from the Indiana Department of Education website. Sort and rank them, and what do they show?
- For Indiana’s 1,400-plus public schools, the median score – the value at which half the scores are higher and half are lower – was at the 51st percentile in math and the 50th in English. That’s about what you’d expect: Most Indiana schools are public schools, so naturally the median score will be in the middle.
- For private schools reporting growth scores, median scores were at the 46th percentile in English and only the 40th percentile in math.
- For charter schools, median scores were at the 46thpercentile in English and only at the 36th percentile in math.
To be sure, there are charter schools and private schools with strong growth scores. In fact the scores are all over the map for charter schools, private schools and public schools. And among public schools, there’s no clear pattern to which schools do well and which don’t. Schools with high growth include rural, suburban and urban schools; some are in affluent communities and others serve poor neighborhoods.
But the overall trend is clear: Schools that are part of public school districts do better.
In math, I count only 12 charter schools with above-average growth scores, compared to more than 50 with below-average scores. Charter schools with subpar growth scores include highly regarded Indianapolis charters like KIPP, Andrew J. Brown Academy and Carpe Diem. Christel House Academy, which former state Superintendent Tony Bennett helped to get an A in 2012, had growth scores of 25 in math and 23 in English. (Its scores were better last year).
Private schools also did worse than public schools, as a group, when it came to growth on English tests. And in math, fewer than 80 private schools had better-than-average growth scores, and more than 200 had below-average scores.
Even among Catholic schools, it appears that, in math, more than twice as many had below-average growth scores as had above-average scores.
Public opinion has put a halo on Catholic schools ever since the Coleman Reports from 30-plus years ago concluded they were more effective than public schools. But that idea has been challenged by recent research, including a study by Todd Elder at Michigan State that found Catholic schools are worse than public schools at improving student performance.
It’s certainly true that improving test scores isn’t the only thing we want our schools to do, so the Indiana Growth Model shouldn’t serve as the be-all and end-all of school evaluation. It’s reasonable to wonder if a relentless focus on raising math and English scores can cause schools to neglect other important aspects of learning.
But if nothing else, the growth-model results should undercut the argument that we need charter schools and vouchers so children can “escape” failing public schools. And they should raise questions about the parts of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s legislative agenda that seem designed to tilt the playing field in favor of charter schools.
Quite a few public schools – including a number in the maligned Indianapolis Public Schools district — are doing great, as measured by the student growth. And quite a few charter and private schools are not.
Notes: Readers are welcome to download the linked spreadsheets and check the calculations. I may have missed or misidentified some charter schools, but probably not enough to affect the overall results. I counted Indiana’s four “turnaround” schools as charter schools because they seem to operate independently as charters do. Some people might quibble with that approach, but – even though their growth scores were quite low – excluding them wouldn’t change the findings.
The communications director of the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association and the director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association did not respond to emails asking if they could explain the growth-model results.