Conventional public schools in Indiana are doing better than charter schools when it comes to helping the state’s poorest children achieve passing grades on state tests. Not a lot better, but enough that it should give pause to those who assume charter schools are superior and we need more of them.
This claim rests on a simple comparison of 2013 ISTEP-Plus passing rates for charter schools and district public schools where more than 80 percent of students qualified for free and reduced-price school lunches. On average, students in the district public schools were more likely to pass the tests.
Now this isn’t sophisticated research, and it certainly doesn’t prove charter schools are inferior. It looks only at the schools’ overall passing rates for math and English/language arts exams, which of course make up just one small measure of school effectiveness. It says nothing about individual schools.
But neither should the result be particularly surprising. It meshes with what University of Illinois professors Christopher Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski have found: that conventional public schools, on the whole, outperform not only charter schools but also private schools.
Other research, such as the 2013 CREDO study often cited by charter-school supporters, show almost no difference between the types of schools. (A 2011 CREDO study of Indiana schools concluded that charter schools, overall, performed better).
I merged Department of Education spreadsheets with data on free and reduced-price lunch counts and ISTEP-Plus passing rates. Then I sorted by free-and-reduced-lunch rates and focused on schools where 80 percent or more students qualified for lunch assistance. Results include:
- For charter schools: passing rate for E/LA, 62.3 percent; passing rate for math, 62.5 percent.
- For conventional public schools: passing rate for E/LA, 64.1 percent; passing rate for math, 68.1 percent.
The data set includes only schools that enroll students in grades 3-8, who take ISTEP exams; it excludes high schools and many primary-grade schools. I also tried to screen out nonstandard schools such as juvenile detention centers and dropout recovery schools.
Again, the differences aren’t huge but they appear to be significant. Suppose students in high-poverty traditional public schools passed the tests at the same rate as students in high-poverty charter schools. The result would have been nearly 1,000 fewer students passing in E/LA and 2,000 fewer in math.
Why does conventional wisdom say charter schools – and, for that matter, private schools – are better? As College of Holy Cross professor Jack Schneider explains, some of it is the exclusivity factor and some of it is the value that attaches to “choice”: People feel something must be better if they chose it rather than being assigned to it. But a lot of it is simply that charter schools and private schools have done a better job of “shoring up their brands” and boosting their reputations via marketing.
“Traditional public schools need not build their brands in order to ensure survival,” Schneider writes. “After all, they educate 90 percent of young people. But they may need to do so in order to secure the good faith of the American public — faith that is essential to a healthy and thriving system.”
Note: As always, readers are encouraged to check the calculations for this post and invited to challenge its conclusions and suggest alternate interpretations. A previous version of this post included a potentially misleading comparison of percentages of students who passed both ELA and math exams.