On Friday, Politico education writers Caitlin Emma, Benjamin Wermund, and Kimberly Hefling published an article excoriating Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos for the alleged poor performance of Michigan’s charter-school sector. But the best available evidence on Michigan charters, of which DeVos has long been a proponent, belies that conclusion.
The authors compare Michigan’s charter and traditional public schools in the state, and note that “the state’s charter schools scored worse on [a nationally representative test] than their traditional public-school counterparts.” However, such raw comparisons are an inappropriate way to tease out the true effects of a policy innovation such as charter schools. Students who choose to attend charter schools may be fundamentally different from those who elect to remain in traditional public schools.
Consider the metaphor of a terminally ill patient given six months to live. I give him a drug—call it Devoserin—that extends his life expectancy to two years. Politico might then write a story with the headline: “Devoserin patients only have two years to live!”
Just as a healthy person would not take a drug meant for the sick, students attending high-quality traditional public schools are much less inclined to enroll in charters. An accurate accounting of the benefits of Michigan charters must compare charter-school students to how they would have performed if they had remained in their local traditional public school—not to traditional public schools as a whole.
Fortunately, such a rigorous comparison exists. The evidence, published by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), merits just a single “to be sure” paragraph halfway through the 1,700-word Politico report. But its findings contradict most of the other statistics offered in the article.
The CREDO researchers compare charter school students to demographically similar students in traditional public schools. Each charter school student is “matched” to one or more traditional public school students of the same race, gender, socioeconomic status, prior academic record, and other characteristics. Then the researchers compare each charter student’s academic progress to the progress of his match.
Using this method, the researchers find that the average Michigan charter school student gains two months of learning per year relative to what his achievement would have been in a traditional public school. In Detroit, the gains are three months per year. As the researchers write, “These findings position Michigan among the highest performing charter school states CREDO has studied to date.”
This is a key distinction: while DeVos’ detractors point to Michigan charters’ low absolute achievement, the more informative metric is the charters’ performance relative to comparable traditional public schools. Indeed, according to the CREDO research, a majority of Michigan charter schools (59 percent for math and 66 percent for reading) have below-average absolute performance, but also outperform comparable traditional public schools.
Michigan’s charter sector has not, of course, been able to solve every problem. In particular, charters have not been able to bring students in poverty up to the achievement level of their non-poverty peers. Similar concerns exist for special education students and English language learners.
But this is not an argument for abandoning charter schools or the school choice model more generally. The evidence on Michigan charters is promising, and the sector’s opponents must consider that they would be taking months, if not years, of learning gains away from the students who need them most. Charter opponents ought also to consider that test scores are only one reason parents might elect to use charters: other concerns abound, student safety being chief among them.
DeVos’ opponents can criticize Michigan charter schools for not doing enough. But it would be worse than inconsistent not to also level that complaint against the state’s traditional public schools. Far from being a drag on student learning outcomes, the best research to date shows that charters are part of the solution.
Preston Cooper is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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