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New Jersey’s ongoing debate about whether traditional public schools or charters do a better job educating students got some provocative new data yesterday, courtesy of a study from Stanford University that came down on the side of the charters — particularly in Newark’s embattled school district.

are charter schools better

According to Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), charter school students overall made larger learning gains than their peers in traditional schools on state tests from 2007-2011.

What’s more, a third of the charters showed higher achievement levels than the other public schools in their districts, with a fifth doing significantly worse, the report said.

But the details of the long-awaited report also present a more nuanced picture of charter schools in the state, indicating that they are almost as varied as the traditional public schools to which they serve as alternatives.

For instance, Newark’s ever-expanding charter school network exhibited some of the highest achievement gains in the country, the report stated.

are charter schools better
Teachers prepare a classroom at a Newark public school. (Photo by Amanda Murphy)

Specifically, students enrolled in charters in the state-run district made learning gains, on average, almost twice those of their peers in conventional public schools. That finding, the report explains, is the equivalent of gaining an additional seven to nine months of learning each year.

“Charter schools in New Jersey, specifically in Newark, have some of the largest learning gains we have seen to date,” wrote Margaret Raymond, director of CREDO, which has conducted charter school research in more than a dozen states.

But those gains were not replicated by charters in other New Jersey cities — namely Camden, Jersey City, Trenton, and Paterson — where the CREDO report said charters had not outperformed traditional schools at all.

“Grouping the other four major cities in New Jersey,” the report read, “charter students in these areas learn significantly less than their [traditional school] peers in reading. There are no differences in learning gains between charter students in the four other major cities and their virtual counterparts in math.”

In fact, outside of Newark, the comparisons statewide were more closely in line with district peers, the report said. Newark charter students represent about a quarter of all charters statewide.

Either way, every charter report comes its own debate, and this one did not disappoint. The stakes are high, as Senate and Assembly leaders continue to work on new legislation to replace the state’s 15-year-old charter law with an eye on adding both flexibility and accountability to the state’s oversight.

The Christie administration seized on the CREDO report’s overall findings, so much so that they will now stand as state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf’s own long-promised evaluation of the state’s charter network, his office said.

“The rigorous, independent analysis of the achievement results of charter schools in New Jersey shows that the results are clear — on the whole, New Jersey charter school students make larger learning gains in both reading and math than their traditional public school peers,” read a statement from Cerf.

The report also won plaudits from charter school organizations, including the Newark Charter School Fund, which has served as a strong funding and advocacy source for the city’s charter community.

“Are all charter schools great? No, but many of the best in Newark are having a transformative impact on the students they are serving,” said Mashea Ashton, the CEO of the Newark Charter School Fund.

“The CREDO report bears that out. Newark has some of the most established and well-run charter schools in the state,” she said. “I’ve visited all of Newark’s charter schools and I can tell you the best ones share similar traits, including a longer school day, a longer school year, Saturday classes, more time on task for learning, data-driven instruction, a focus on results, and an emphasis on recruiting, training, and retaining the best teachers and school leaders.” But critics of charters — or at least the state’s oversight of them – have argued that they serve a more selective student population, and they were hardly assuaged yesterday.

Much of their focus was on the report’s methodology and continued difficulty in comparing students in charters and traditional schools.

“Any time that children are doing well in school, that’s good news,” said Steve Baker, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union.

“But when you look behind the overall numbers, it’s hard to draw clear policy conclusions, because you don’t really have apples-to-apples outcomes as to what is causing the higher achievement.”

Bruce Baker, an education policy researcher at Rutgers University, has been a leading critic of the differing populations in charters and traditional schools. And within a couple of hours of the CREDO release, Baker had posted a lengthy analysis on his blog, School Finance 101, that delved into the details.

He did not discount the CREDO methodology overall, but he raised familiar concerns about comparing students where everything from poverty levels, special education needs, to even the gender makeup of their schools varied.

“We simply don’t know what component of the effect has to do with school quality issues that might be replicated, and what component has to do with clustering kids together in a more advantaged peer group,” Baker wrote.

This story originally appeared on the New Jersey Spotlight. Reproduction is not permitted.

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