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Critics See Problems in New York City Charter Study

Study does not compare apples to apples.
KIPP Infinity Charter School, in Harlen, serves students in grades 5-8.

A report issued by the New York City Charter Schools Evaluation Project in September, and since been held up as clear evidence that charter schools are doing a better job than traditional schools, is now facing criticism that its claim of being an “apples to apples” study just isn’t true.

The report, How New York City’s Charter Schools Affect Achievement, examines the performance of students who applied for openings in New York’s charter schools, which are 94 percent filled through random lotteries. When researchers compared the academic performance of those who were “lotteried in” with those who were “lotteried out,” they discovered a higher rate of achievement in the charter group.

Critics claim the report does not take into account the “peer effect,” whereby a child learns not only from teachers but from fellow students. Writing in Edwize, a blog sponsored by New York’s United Federation of Teachers, Jonathan Gyurko says, “Charter schools benefit from the fact that 100 percent of their students hail from motivated families; as a result, a charter student is surrounded by peers who are there by choice—rather than by attendance zone.”

Alexander Hoffman, writing in GothamSchools, an online news source about the New York City public schools, says the report is flawed because, in contrast to a medical study, it has no placebo group. Both groups—students in charter schools and students in traditional schools—know what kind of education they are getting. “I know from my own experience teaching that students who get their choice of schools take a bit more ownership,” Hoffman says. “If they get their second choice, or last choice, or somehow do not get their choice, that’s a big hurdle for their teachers and parents to overcome.”

Led by well-known school choice advocate Caroline Hoxby of Stanford University, the researchers claim that since these two groups were essentially the same—both comprised of students who sought admission to charter schools—they were able to make a comparison in which where students were educated, charter school or traditional school, was the only variable.

Among the report’s findings:

  • Charter school students are more likely to be black and to be poor than the average student in a traditional school.
  • Compared to lotteried-out students, students in a charter high school increase their Regents examination scores three points for each year they are in the charter school before taking the exam.
  • Students in charter schools from kindergarten through grade 8 close about 86 percent of the “Scarsdale-Harlem achievement gap”—a measure of performance differences between students in wealthy suburbs and students in low-income urban neighborhoods—in math and 66 percent of the gap in English.