Skip to Content

Report: Charter Schools Making Achievement Gaps Worse?

Public school students are outperforming charter school students in math, and the gap is growing

By Kevin Hart

Monday, November 23, 2009 -- The American charter school movement was founded upon the basic premise of freedom with accountability. But recent analysis of federal data adds to mounting evidence that under-performing charter schools are not being held accountable for their academic performance, and that this failure to act may be exacerbating achievement gaps.

NEA believes that while charter schools and other nontraditional public school options have the potential to facilitate education reforms and develop new and creative teaching methods, the accountability component of the charter school model needs to be enforced.

According to Education Week columnist Diane Ravitch, a New York University professor and former Assistant Secretary of Education, concludes that public school students are not only outperforming charter school students in math, but that the gap between them is actually growing.

Ravitch analyzed 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress mathematics data, compiled by the U.S. Department of Education to measure academic performance at public schools. NAEP has been measuring charter schools since 2003. 

In 2003, public school fourth graders outperformed their charter school peers in math by six points – now, that gap is eight points. In cities, the gap grew from six points to nine points.

For eighth graders, public school students continue to outperform charter school students in math by seven points, although that represents some progress compared to the 10-point gap in 2005. However, in cities, where charter schools have been promoted as a promising reform model, the gap actually grew.

Public school eighth graders were outperforming charter school students in math by three points in 2005, but the gap has nearly tripled to eight points.

These findings are especially troubling, Ravitch points out, because many charter schools have been accused of “creaming” the most motivated students from low-performing school districts and serving far lower percentages of special education students and English language learners than their home districts.

Ravitch’s analysis comes on the heels of a study released by Stanford University in June that amassed data on roughly 70 percent of students enrolled in charter schools nationwide and came to very similar conclusions. That research found that charter school students lagged their public school counterparts in reading and were more than twice as likely to post lower math scores.

While these numbers are not a condemnation of the charter school movement as a whole, they show that much progress needs to be made in holding charter schools accountable.

There are several successful charter schools operating in the United States, but the charter school model calls for the schools to receive public funds in exchange for agreeing to be closed if they fail to deliver results. Closing a charter school has proven to be a highly political process, and research shows that states often do not take action on low-performing charters, even if they’ve performed poorly for years. Instead, the schools continue to receive taxpayer funding.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan took up the issue of accountability during a meeting of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June, when he told them that some of their schools were going to have to close and that low-performing charters were giving the movement a black eye. Duncan closed three under-performing charter schools during his time as head of Chicago schools.


Diane Ravitch Education Week analysis on charter school math performance

NEA position on charter schools