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New review finds state charter schools are mixed bag. That doesn't mean bag won't get bigger.


The State Charter Schools Commission authorized Georgia State University to study the performance of the charter schools it has approved. The recently released study reveals the proverbial "mixed" results we've seen in earlier reviews of charter performance in Georgia.

Most charters schools in Georgia are locally approved, but the commission is a constitutionally created entity that can overrule local school boards and endorse new charter schools. The Legislature pushed for a commission to overcome what it saw as hostility from local school boards to the charter concept.

The commission tends to be judicious in its approvals, but the GSU review still found “a mixed bag, with 15 statewide charter schools neither excelling far ahead of nor dragging far behind the traditional public schools against which they’re meant to compete,” according to my AJC colleague Ty Tagami.

Charter schools remain a favored reform strategy in Georgia and will likely play a role in the Opportunity School District plan being promoted by Gov. Nathan Deal and put before voters in November. If approved, the OSD will be able to take over failing schools and turn them into charters as one option.

In looking at the performance of some of the state charters approved amid controversy due to local school board opposition, I find no difference compared to their traditional peer schools and, in some cases, lower results, especially in math.

I'm not sure of the value of an appointed state commission in downtown Atlanta approving local dollars over the objections of locally elected school boards to launch schools that then lag in performance. If the commission is not in the business of incubating great schools – the original purpose according to the Legislature -- what is the point?

If you look at this report, note the performance of the online charters. The state has got to maintain a better watch on the dollars flowing to virtual education, which is under question everywhere in the country. Online classes seem a natural fit for ambitious and self-disciplined students or for those whose parents are able to monitor them and ensure they keep up with the work. Online classes do not seem to be good solution for struggling students with poor study habits. We are seeing more schools embrace a blended approach that combines online and in-person instruction and that is a welcome trend.

A piece of good news in this review is the performance of middle school grades. Middle school tends to be where students lose interest in school and go off track. The typically smaller environments of charter schools may be an antidote to that loss of interest and focus. Or, it may be the grade configuration of charters is a factor. I still like the small K-8 model that many private schools follow and that some public districts around the country are reinstating.

Here is the executive summary of the report:

A total of 15 state charter schools operated in Georgia during the 2014-15 school year. Two of the schools, Georgia Cyber Academy and the Odyssey School, had previously appeared as a single institution in the Georgia Department of Education’s administrative records. Thus, this report documents the performance of 15 state charter schools in the 2014-15 school year and also provides performance data for 2013-14 and 2012-13 for 13 the state charter schools, other than Georgia Cyber and Odyssey, which operated in 2014-15.

Key findings are:

State charter schools are diverse and many provide learning environments that differ from those of traditional public schools. State charter schools vary along multiple dimensions, including grade levels, student demographics, instructional mode (face-to-face or virtual), curricular focus and geographic area served.

Four of 15 schools serve only elementary and middle grades, another five serve elementary, middle and at least some high school grades, three serve both middle and high grades, one serves only middle school students and two only serve grades 9-12. Four of the fifteen are single-gender schools, and African-American enrollment at five schools is 95 percent or more.

One school has over 20 percent of students classified as gifted, while four report no gifted students. Three of the 15 schools provide fully online course offerings while the remaining 12 provide face-to-face instruction exclusively.

The three fully online virtual schools and one “brick-and-mortar” school enroll students from throughout the state, one school enrolls students who reside within a five-county region, and the remaining 10 enroll students from a single school district only.

The majority of state charter schools serving elementary grades perform as well as the average public elementary school in the state. The estimated contribution to student achievement in grades 4 and 5 across all four Milestones-tested subjects (math, ELA, science and social studies) was not significantly different from the state average for five of the nine state charter schools serving elementary grades. Performance for the other four was significantly below the state average.

This cross-subject average masks significant variation across subjects, however. For example, in ELA only two of the nine schools performs below the average elementary school in the state while in math six of the nine are significantly below the state average.

Most state charter schools serving middle grades perform as well or better than the average public middle school in the state. The estimated contribution to student achievement in grades 6-8 averaged across all four Milestones-tested subjects is not significantly different from the state average for seven of the 13 state charter schools that enroll students in one or more of grades 6-8. The cross-subject average performance of two state charters exceeds that of the average middle school in the state, and the contribution to student achievement for four state charters falls below the state average.

Performance of state charters serving middle grades is particularly strong in language arts, with the performance of six schools exceeding the state average and the performance of another six is not significantly different from the state average; only one school’s performance in language arts is significantly below the state average. In contrast, performance of state charter schools was relatively weak in science.

None of the 13 state charter schools serving middle school students had estimated contributions to student achievement in science that exceeded the state average, the performance of seven schools was not significantly different from the state average and the performance of six fell below the state average.

Performance in math and social studies were both quite mixed, with some state charters exceeding the statewide average and some falling below the state average in each subject. State Charter Schools Performance Evaluation, 2014-2015.

The performance of state charter schools serving high school grades is uneven when compared to the average public high school in the state. Variation across subjects must be interpreted with caution, however, since some state charters have just begun to expand their range of grade offerings into high school and, thus, the sample of schools varies across subject areas. Further, three of the five state charters offering all high school grades (9-12) are virtual schools.

In 9th Grade Literature, five of nine state charters are performing above the state average and the performance of the other four is not significantly different from the state average. For the five schools with test scores for American Literature, the contribution to student achievement for three schools is not significantly different from the state average while performance of the other two exceeds the state average.

For Analytic Geometry four of six schools perform at a level indistinguishable from the state average and two perform below the state average.

In Coordinate Algebra, performance of two of nine state charter schools exceeds the state average, performance of six is not significantly different from the state average and the performance of one school falls below the state average.

In Biology two of nine schools perform above the state average, performance of four schools is indistinguishable from the state average and performance of the other three schools is significantly below the state average.

In Physical Science four of seven schools have estimated contributions to student achievement below the state average and performance of the other three is indistinguishable from the state average.

In economics three of four schools fall significantly below the state average and one school is above the state average. Performance is also generally low in U.S. History, with four of six schools performing below the state average and two whose performance is indistinguishable from the state average.

 


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.