Choices and Challenges: Charter School Performance in Perspective

After twenty years of charter schooling, the research literature is voluminous, but much of it is contradictory and confusing—not to mention politically motivated. With this in mind, Columbia University professor Priscilla Wohlstetter and her colleagues set out to separate the empirical wheat from the ideological chaff and review more than a decade of charter school literature to show how charters have progressed. While the authors can, through their synthesis of high-quality studies, tell us much about accountability (more schools close due to mismanagement than from their failure in the marketplace) and the unintended consequences of charters (re-segregation, but not widespread, and not unanticipated), the book is important especially for telling readers what we still don’t know about the charter sector. Consider the key issue of performance: Most charter research analyzes student achievement, but it generally consists of student snapshots and is devoid of the large-scale, random-control studies that are the gold standard. As a result, we’re left with contradictory evidence on how well charter students perform and inconclusive findings on how various factors like autonomy affect school outcomes. But by identifying this gap of knowledge, the authors map out new possibilities for research: How are charters using their autonomy, and what keeps them from exercising their freedom? Which academic programs are most successful at raising student achievement, and do they differ much from those offered at traditional schools? Now that charter movement is older and larger (2.3 million children currently being educated), questions such as these will become increasingly critical, and this guide will take future school-choice explorers far.

SOURCE: Priscilla Wohlstetter, Joanna Smith, and Caitlin C. Farrell, Choices and Challenges: Charter School Performance in Perspective (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, March 2013).

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