N.J. charter school study shows success, but need for close monitoring: Editorial
The latest study on charter schools shows promising results, especially in Newark. It’s further evidence that New Jersey’s on the right track: Charter school growth should be encouraged, but also closely policed.
The study was done by the same group of Stanford University researchers who in 2009 found that nationally, charter schools were not outperforming district schools. But when they looked at New Jersey, it was quite the opposite.
They compared students in just more than half of the state’s 86 charters with their peers in traditional public schools who shared similar demographics. Overall, the charter school students made bigger learning gains.
Newark’s charters particularly stood out. They showed some of the highest achievement gains in the country, almost twice that of their peers in traditional public schools — roughly the equivalent of an additional seven to nine months in school each year.
That’s a great indication, but not a slam-dunk. Because there’s also evidence of mediocrity here: Charters in cities such as Camden, Jersey City, Trenton and Paterson did not outperform traditional schools. That underscores the need to vigorously weed out bad charters.
We must be very careful whom we allow the privilege of running a school. State Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf deserves credit on that point: He’s emphasized a cautious expansion of charters, favoring those with a proven track record, such as Newark’s highly successful TEAM Schools — which also aggressively recruit the neediest students.
So far, Cerf has closed or put on probation more than 10 percent of the state’s charter schools. He’s also been stricter about selection of charters, doubling the size of the state’s charter office, and making sure its staff is better trained and vetted by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, the gold standard in this field.
He’s also required all charters to sign “performance frameworks” that spell out criteria for staying open. They’re evaluated not just on academic performance, but also their efforts to recruit and retain the most difficult students.
Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson is helping on that front, as well, by offering unused district space to charters on the condition that they take their fair share of the lowest-performing students.
Even though this new study matches students of similar demographics, critics say, the overall populations of charter and district schools still differ. Charters may have fewer students in special education, for example, or the deepest pockets of poverty. That creates a different school environment.
But these researchers didn’t cherry-pick schools: They used all charters for which data were available from the state Department of Education. Some charters might not have been in existence long enough to have consecutive test scores, they said. But none was deliberately excluded.
And above all, what their findings tell us is that Cerf’s got the right criteria in mind: What matters most isn’t how a school originated. Judge it based on its quality, and its willingness to take all students.