How successful have Charter Schools, the US version of Free Schools, been in improving education?

Allan Beavis's picture
There have recently been quite vociferous calls on this site for “evidence” to support criticism of the free schools and academies policy. With more news this morning of a last minute education budget slash of £155m and fears that the impact will disproportionately hit the poorest parts of the country coming so soon after the DfE announced an allocation of £35m for free schools this year, many will view this as proof that launching the free school initiative with an austerity budget is reckless.

But what of the evidence that free schools will succeed over LA maintained schools?
In her brochure “The Six Predictable Failures of Free Schools” Laura McInerney refers to the research of Seymour Saranson who for 25 years studied Charter Schools, the US version of Free Schools/Academies. Their advice, which Fiona Millar has summarised on her post about this excellent brochure, is not to underestimate the complexity of setting up and maintaining a new school since free schools have as much chance of failing as they do in succeeding. Since no Free Schools has yet opened, we should therefore look to the US for evidence of how they “succeed” in practice.

There has never been more political momentum from Washington in favour of charter schools. US state schools, like ours, are under enormous financial pressure to convert – the Obama administration has $4.3 billion in education aid to states that comply with administration goals.

But despite the injection of government funds, has so-called school reform in America worked? The movement has led to more testing and more charter schools. It has not, however, led to poor students getting a demonstrably better education. And the minority of charters that do work have proven impossible to scale up. A report by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes reveals that “in the aggregate, Charter students are not faring as well as students in traditional schools.” It points to a successful minority of charter schools and these are the ones around which celebrities and philanthropists rally, where they can boast of backing academic winners, energized by their narrowing of the achievement gap between poor minority students and white students.

Research in the US also reveals that in 16 states, 83% of charter schools are doing no better than in traditional schools suggesting that such schools have not succeeded in overhauling educational standards data in poor and deprived areas. And mediocrity is widely tolerated. Because of the significant financial aid poured into Charters, many authorities are reluctant to close poor schools.

What have Americans thought of Charter Schools? Supporters have conceded that the intellectual premise behind school choice – that in a free market for education, parents will remove students from bad schools in favour of good ones – has not proved true. The education historian Diane Ravitch has told us that “Charters enrol 3% of kids. The system that educates 97% , no-ones paying attention to” and “We are likely to get lots of mediocre and very bad charters”. Many were duped into thinking that the Charter movement was interested in educating “poor black kids” but turned up at charter conventions to be greeted with “God Wants Bush” stickers.

As is the situation here, critics such as American Teacher’s Unions have been derided as backward thinking and a nuisance but the recent enforced resignation of Cathie Black (a well-connected millionaire publisher with no background whatsoever in education) after just three months in the job as New York City schools chancellor is heartening reminder that education is best taken out of the hands of “individuals” or “groups”and placed back into the care of professional and properly regulated educators.

City Hall aides were taken aback when Cathie Black mocked a crowd of parents protesting the closing of a school but we have become used to that kind of aggression here by free choice and Academy School advocators when we argue that “school choice” imposes cuts on the schools that can least take it, while costing taxpayers more. The budget crisis has created a window of opportunity for the Free School movement to defund maintained schools so that they become less effective and then use that ineffectiveness to argue for more Academies/Free Schools.

Is this enough evidence of the impoverished, narrow and socially divisive ethos of Free Schools ?
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Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 08/04/2011 - 13:20

Speeches from the morning session of the Free Schools Conference, including address by Mr Gove, are now on the DfE website.

I haven’t watched all the videos yet, but Mr Gove spoke of his road to Damascus moment when he changed from a cynical, pessimistic journalist to a passionate optimist. He told the assembled hall they were "believers", and a “microcosm of the best of British”. He would give them freedoms and release them from the “bureaucratic web” that ensnares UK school teachers. It’s a pity, then, that he doesn’t allow the same freedoms to all schools.

In the speeches I've listened to so far, any opposition to free schools (or Charter Schools in USA) is portrayed as being luddite, while those in favour are "founding fathers and mothers".

And then there's the statistics. We're used to Mr Gove misusing them. But here are some more given at the Conference:

Claim: "The USA is in the bottom third of industrialised countries [in education league tables]". Fact: OECD 2009 showed that USA was 14th out of 34 OECD countries. USA was at the OECD average for reading and science, although below average for maths which is, of course, worrying. However, it helps no-one to misquote figures and then say that your way is the only way to make things better.

Claim: (I've listened to this one twice, and still don't believe I heard it) Disadvantaged 4 year olds "have a 30 million word gap". I'm lost for words.

Ian Taylor's picture
Fri, 08/04/2011 - 13:59
There is a lot of sense in this video of Diane Ravitch. If you have time to watch it you will find it illuminating on the topic of Free Schools. Unfortunately I don't think believers in Free Schools are interested in evidence so they probably will not watch it.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 08/04/2011 - 14:20

The 30 million word gap comes from a non-peer reviewed research paper into words used to pre-school children in 42 families (13 professional, 10 middle, 13 lower, 6 on welfare) during 2 ½ years of monthly hour long observations. The number of different words was noted. The results were as follows (Note: the middle and lower class families were combined and described as “working class”):

Average child in family on welfare: 616 words per hour

Average child in working-class family: 1,251 words per hour

Average child in professional family: 2,153 words per hour.

The researchers used these averages and multiplied them to reach a conclusion that in a 5,200-hour year, the amount would be 11.2 million words for a child in a professional family, 6.5 million words for a child in a working-class family, and 3.2 million words for a child in a welfare family. This figure was multiplied by four to give four years of experience. Hence the 30 million word gap.

What the researchers showed was that children of professional parents are likely to hear more vocabulary than children in families on welfare. However, to use a phrase like “30 million word gap” appears at first to mean that there is a gap of 30 million words between the vocabulary of the former children and that of the latter. Which, of course, is nonsense.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 08/04/2011 - 15:18

taylorig: the video is profoundly depressing. And what America does today, the UK does tomorrow. Ms Ravitch spoke of demoralised teachers in public schools (equivalent to our LA schools) who are demoralised, stigmatised by mandatory benchmarks and threatened with dismissal if their students don't reach the arbitrary standard. The dynamics of choice, she said, meant looking out for oneself and one's own children with no thought for the wider community.

The recent OECD report on the UK economy had some encouraging things to say about Mr Gove's policies believing that academies and free schools will increase choice. However, it expressed warnings. "Although user choice reforms can have positive effects, they could potentially lead to increased segregation" (Summary page 12)*.

The OECD also warned about the widespread use of benchmarking in England which "can produce perverse incentives" because the tests are "high stake". It warns that "the focus on test scores incentivises 'teaching to tests' and strategic behaviour and could lead to negligence of non-cognitive skill formation." (Summary page 10)*

Ms Ravitch warned about constant negative stories about US education being broadcast in the media - a relentless rubbishing of public schools. We have much the same here. It's imperative that we do as much as possible to counter unfounded claims.

*Sorry, I can't provide a link. The Executive Summary is only available to buy or to subscribers.

H & F Parent's picture
Fri, 08/04/2011 - 15:35

As free schools suck money from the education budget at the direct expense of the state sector, I cannot support them.

However, quite soon England will have thousands of children being taught in free schools whether I like it or not.

Their parents have sent them to these places, one hopes with the best of intentions - although pointy elbows doubtless play a large part.

And because we're talking about children, who don't have any say in the matter, we just have to hope that the English free schools don't go the way of those in America and Sweden. It won't be the children's fault if their school fails.

Already we have seen in Yorkshire that proposed free schools are causing uncertainty, for if the schools don't open after all, some children may not have a place in September.

It's just not fair to put children on the frontline of the debate. But it's children who suffer the consequences of poor decisions, poor management and poor education. That is not where this so-called civilised society should be heading.

Allan, you neglected to link to the 2009 study that you are quoting. Here are some links to some other studies from the same organisation.

This March 2011 report concluded the following about charter schools in Indiana:

“Overall, charter school growth in Indiana and Indianapolis outpaced the growth of traditional public schools. Looking at the distribution of school performance, 98% of the charter schools grew with similar or better rates than traditional public schools in reading and 100% of charter schools grew with similar or better rates in math compared to traditional public schools.”

('Growth' is growth in attainment.)

Here is a link to another report from the same organisation about charter schools in Pennsylvania:

This April 2011 report concluded the following:

Overall, charter school performance in Pennsylvania lagged in growth compared to traditional
public schools. Looking at the distribution of school performance, 60% of the charter schools performed with similar or better success than the traditional public schools in reading and 53% of charter schools performed with similar or better success in math compared to traditional public schools.

Now I see why you didn’t link to the report; it wouldn’t do for people to find out the evidence isn’t as black and white as you would like. We are talking about children’s futures; shouldn’t we debate without withholding evidence, being selective about evidence and misrepresenting evidence and our opponents’ views?

Incidentally, the policy considerations for the second report suggested that the state reform their charter school authorisation process as many start-ups were willing and had the best intentions but lacked the capabilities.

Ian Taylor's picture
Fri, 08/04/2011 - 18:57

Charlie, I looked at the first link you give. It looks as though Charter Schools are having an impact. However it says this. "Much of the motivation for developing charter schools aims at improving education outcomes for
students who are in poverty. The enrollment profiles of charter schools across the country underscore this fact; in the Indiana sample 57 percent of the students are eligible for Free or Reduced Price Lunch, a proxy for low income households. Thus, the impact of charter schools on the learning of students in
poverty is important both in terms of student outcomes and as a test of the commitment of charter school leaders and teachers to address the needs of the population in better ways than in other settings. "
I had not realised that Free Schools were targeting their efforts at children who are in poverty. I will be surprised if 57% of WLFS pupils are entitled to free school meals. However, if that is the case I take my hat off to you.

taylorig, any chance you could explain the relevance of your comment? Charter schools were brought up as evidence by Allan. Are you now saying that we shouldn’t be looking at how charter schools have fared? If so, shouldn’t your comment be directed at Allan, or are you confused?

Allan Beavis's picture
Fri, 08/04/2011 - 21:04

It occurred to me after I sent the post, forgetting to add the link to all my sources, that someone might accuse me of withholding evidence (in the manner of Michael Gove perhaps?), so many thanks to Charlie for jumping in so quickly. My main source was in fact a very long article in the New York Times from 2010

from which can be accessed many other illuminating reports and articles. Since Ben charges me with misrepresenting evidence, may I now accuse of him of doing the same (and with much more evidence) by pointing out that the glowing reports he offers as proof that Charter Schools are a success story in America are from 2011 and examine just 2 states out of 51? The report I refer to was the last exhaustive research undertaken in 2009 and drew on data from the District of Columbia and 15 states, so I would prefer to accept the conclusion of the fuller 2009 report. Charter Schools have been running since, I think, 1992, so I would imagine that if credible research had proved conclusively that they are the success that Charlie would like to believe, we would have heard about it.

I didn’t feel it necessary, because of space restrictions in my original post, to go into too much detail but since Charlie requires full disclosure, the Executive Summary can be summed up as follows:-

There is a wide variance in the quality of the nation’s several thousand charter schools with, in the aggregate, students in charter schools not faring as well as students in traditional public schools.

While the report recognized a robust national demand for more charter schools from parents and local communities, it found that 17 percent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, while 37 percent of charter schools showed gains that were worse than their traditional public school counterparts, with 46 percent of charter schools demonstrating no significant difference.

The New York Times details the rigid, blinkered regime within one Charter school and draws attention to the long hours put in by teachers, resulting in burn-out, and of the obsession with exceeding targets in the hope of attracting more government and philanthropic funds.

The indignation of the Free School supporters like Charlie cannot mask the fact that Charter Schools have not delivered in a way that the government here would like us all to believe that Free Schools will. The tiresome spin here is that Free Schools will succeed where LA maintained schools have failed and that underprivileged children will get a much better chance in life. Unfortunately, the American model has proved that this is smokescreen hiding the fact that, if they succeed at all, they will benefit a small minority and that this minority will not be largely drawn from the underprivileged. The US experiment has shown that raising student achievement for the poor is difficult and expensive so questions have to be asked about this government’s rash free school experiment and how it gambles to channel life support away from those who need it most towards those who aims remain unconvincing and beneficial to a very few.

Ian Taylor's picture
Fri, 08/04/2011 - 21:17

Charlie, you gave a link and then this quote, as evidence that Charter Schools are a good model.
“Overall, charter school growth in Indiana and Indianapolis outpaced the growth of traditional public schools. Looking at the distribution of school performance, 98% of the charter schools grew with similar or better rates than traditional public schools in reading and 100% of charter schools grew with similar or better rates in math compared to traditional public schools.”
When reading this it looks as thought Charter Schools do better than traditional public schools, and so the study could be seen to support the Free School Movement. However, in this study what you did not say was that the children were from areas of high poverty. So, focus on reading and maths with children from deprived areas and they show improvements. I don't find that too surprising. As far as I am aware, Free Schools are not going to work with children from deprived areas, nor focus on reading and maths. It seems to me that Free Schools are being set up to help children who already have more advantages than most, and on top of that are going to take resources away from the poorest children, reducing their already limited life chances.

Allan Beavis's picture
Fri, 08/04/2011 - 21:32

Janet -

"Ms Ravitch warned about constant negative stories about US education being broadcast in the media – a relentless rubbishing of public schools. We have much the same here. It’s imperative that we do as much as possible to counter unfounded claims."

I can't agree with this statement more and this is the reason I put up the original post and the long reply to Ben.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 09/04/2011 - 10:14

The recent OECD report, while believing that academies and free schools will increase choice, warns that these schools may increase the correlation between high socio-economic background of parents and the quality of schools resources. The OECD found that pupils from better socio-economic backgrounds already "tend to be taught in smaller classes and have access to better quality teaching resources" (page 102). The OECD concluded that "the impact of these reforms therefore needs to be closely monitored" (page 103).

Despite supporting academies and free schools, the OECD admits that there is "mixed evidence within the OECD area whether school systems with more user choice provide better outcomes. User choice may also increase segregation of high-ability and low-ability students... Several high performing school systems... offer very limited user choice, such as Finland, Canada and New Zealand" (page 106) although "more school choice... increases PISA scores in the Netherlands."

On the one hand, the OECD thinks that increased user choice could provide better educational outcomes by inducing stronger competition between schools (page 107). On the other it is uncertain about whether "increased user choice ... will improve overall educational performance." (page 107).

OECD support for academies and free schools, then, is rather hesitant and inconclusive.

taylorig, you say I give a link and then a quote as evidence that Charter schools are a good model. Look again. I give two links and two quotes. One of which shows charter schools doing well in one state and another that charter schools are doing badly in another state. I am in no way saying that charter schools are a good or bad MODEL, I was only saying that the evidence is more mixed than some people would have you believe.

taylorig’s targets: Thoroughly read a post and try and get the full sense of the author’s argument. Don’t try and answer the question before you fully understand what it is.

Allan, you seem to be so full of indignation that you have just leapt onto the attack without bothering to read what I actually posted. As I patiently explained to taylorig above, the evidence shows one state doing well and one state doing badly. I imagine that reports for other states will be accessible as well. The evidence I’ve seen points to the fact that you would prefer to accept the conclusion that suits you, but I may be wrong. Have a look at the following link in which CREDO explain how they made a mistake with their research which negatively skewed the achievement of charter schools.

The main conclusion of the explanation is that, “the CREDO study is not reliable, most obviously because the statistical mistake means that its estimates of the charter school effect are substantially biased downwards from the truth.” This was also published in 2009, odd how the New York Times failed to mention it.

In any case, only knowing a result without being able to explain why won’t score highly at GCSE let alone A level, so there is no value in ignoring the detailed state studies.

Allan’s targets: Thoroughly read a post and try and get the full sense of the author’s argument. Try and link to the original source so that you avoid bias from secondary reporting. Conclusions should be drawn from your evidence, not just created after you have stated your evidence.

Allan Beavis's picture
Sat, 09/04/2011 - 14:19

Charlie –

You’re digging yourself in deeper and embarrassing yourself.

The CREDO team successfully and conclusively discredited Dr. Hoxby’s (a controversial Charter School supporter) attempt to misrepresent their data by

i) successfully refuting her claims in an article entitled “Fact and Fiction: An Analysis of Dr. Hoxby’s Misrepresentation of CREDO’s research” thereby forcing Dr. Hoxby
to make revisions to her original flawed article to which you refer and

ii) publishing a Finale to the exchange by pointing out that “few readers will miss the fact that the “amplified” proof is markedly different from the original and reaches somewhat different conclusions. A different proof was needed given that the previous one was shown to be both mistaken and unfounded. The new proof is also incorrect, though it comes closer to reflecting the approach that CREDO uses.

Here is the link to the CREDO site, with all the reports, including the ones which Charlie has chosen to ignore. It seems that Free School supporters here share the same level of zeal as do Charter School supporters in their attempts to falsify facts and conceal the truth.


You are right about that refutation. I misinterpreted the thread of those articles. Sorry if that mislead anyone. Still, odd that you could read that so carefully but not my original post.

Charlie's target: understand the context in which a document is being presented.

As for feeling embarrassed, yes a little, it was a silly mistake to make, but I’m not trying to intentionally deceive anybody or hide any evidence, linking to the adjacent document in a list would be a particularly inept way of trying to do that. The more recent state by state evidence is valuable in showing how charter schools work and how they don't; you shouldn't ignore it. Tell you what, you can ignore your second target for now.

Oops - 'mislead' should be 'misleads'

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 12/04/2011 - 16:00

Here is a new piece by Diane Ravitch on the Cathie Back debacle in New York and Washington's obsession with private sector companies and individuals running schools. It is easy to say that this is happening in America, but very worrying when you realise that these policies are being implemented here.

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