A new study conducted by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), reports that between 2007 and 2011, students in New Jersey charter schools outperformed their district school peers. These findings stand in contrast to the often cited 2009 CREDO study which concluded that, by and large, charter schools perform no better or worse than their traditional public school counterparts.
The study released earlier this month examined New Jersey test scores over 5 years from students in grades 3 through 8. Overall, charter school students made learning gains, scoring higher than their district school peers in math 40 percent of the time and lower 13 percent of the time; in reading, they outperformed traditional public school peers 30 percent of the time and underperformed 11 percent of the time.
"New Jersey charter school students on average gain an additional two months of learning per year in reading and an additional three months of learning per year in math compared to their district school counterparts."
The findings proved not to be clear-cut, however. Newark, data revealed, is responsible for nearly all of the state's gains. Despite the press release's statement that "urban charters" made gains while rural charters did not, the numbers presented on page 16 of the report actually show that Newark – and not the other major cities of Camden, Trenton, Jersey City, or Paterson – is the only urban area to show significant score increases.
The CREDO press release reports:
"In fact, charter students in Newark gain an additional seven and a half months in reading per year and nine months per year in math compared to their traditional public school counterparts. Students enrolled in suburban charter schools also learn significantly more in both math and reading compared to their peers in traditional public schools; however, students in rural charter schools learn significantly less than their district school peers in both reading and math."
These figures, however, should be repeated with care. Preceding the chart that displays these findings on page 17 of the report is the caveat:
"The data is analyzed in units of standard deviations of growth so that the results will be statistically correct. These units, unfortunately, do not have much meaning for the average reader. Transforming the results into more accessible units is challenging and can be done only imprecisely. Therefore, Table 3 below, which presents a translation of various outcomes, should be interpreted cautiously."
While many have jumped to praise New Jersey on its charter school success, others are proceeding more carefully. 61 percent of charter school students receive free or reduced price school lunch, the common measure for students in poverty. On average, both Black and Hispanic low-income students made learning gains in math and reading compared to peers in district schools, though the numbers are not broken down by location. Devora Davis, Research Manager and co-author of the study stated, "The results in our report confirm that New Jersey charter school leaders and teachers show a commitment to addressing the needs of Black and Hispanic students in poverty."
The study shows that Newark is definitely doing something right, even if the jury is still out on charter schools in the rest of the state. The question policy experts and lawmakers are asking now is, what did Newark do, and how can we replicate it?