"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, November 08, 2009

After Years of "Innovation," NJ Charters Perform No Better Than Poorest Public Schools

Below is part of an analysis done by Rutgers associate professor, Dr. Bruce Baker, for the Education Law Center in Newark, NJ. When looking at New Jersey test scores or graduation rates, New Jersey charter schools do much worse on average than most New Jersey public schools and no better than the poor public schools that corporate reformers demonize for their low test scores. Will a newspaper report these findings? Maybe the Asbury Park Press? Don't hold your breath.


By: Dr. Bruce Baker, Rutgers University

New Jersey is caught up in the latest school reform du jour – charter schools. Touted by US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Commissioner Lucille Davy is pushing a proposal to "fast track" approval of new charter schools to compete for federal "Race to the Top" grants and to comply with proposed rules for improving the state’s lowest performing schools.

Charter fever is now so strong in some circles it is taken for granted that charters significantly "outperform" traditional public schools and, therefore, should be embraced as the answer to, and replacement for, so-called "failing" public schools.

Before heading-off on yet another school reform quest, what does the evidence show about NJ charter school performance? Charters were first authorized in 1995, and we now have 76 approved charters serving students from 46 districts, with many for 5 years or more.

First, an important reminder: the Legislature, in the charter enabling law, made clear that charter schools "have the potential to improve pupil learning" by promoting "comprehensive educational reform," providing a "variety of educational approaches," and "encouraging innovate learning methods." Are NJ’s charters improving student performance? Do the results point to innovation? I take a brief look here at the first of these issues – performance on state assessments.

Secretary Duncan and others, including Bob Bowdon in his anti-traditional-public school movie "The Cartel", point to one or two successful charter schools, like Newark’s North Star Academy and Princeton Charter School, to make the case for charter expansion.

But my analysis of the data paint a different story: some charters do well, but overall, charters are ranked among the lowest statewide, performing far below successful, suburban and middle class public schools, and at levels comparable to schools in poor districts. In other words, there is little difference between the overall performance of charters, which primarily serve students in poorer urban districts, and the traditional public schools in those districts, especially if State education officials allow chronically low achieving charters to remain in business.

I’ll start with the 2008 State assessment results. I begin with the "averages" by grade level and by district factor group, or DFG. DFG are State classifications of school districts based on community wealth, with "A" and "B" the poorest districts and "I" and "J" districts the most affluent. The chart below shows the % of students who scored proficient or advanced on all of the 2008 State assessments by DFG:

This data is striking: charter schools, most of which serve relatively poor student populations, perform across grade levels on par with schools in the poorest districts -- DFG A and B – especially at both the beginning and end grades. Moreover, charter performance is no different for students scoring advanced and higher:


  1. It is unbelievable news at least for me that New Jersey charter schools do much worse on average than most New Jersey public schools and no better than the poor public schools. I was in wrong impression till now. Now, we should conduct the research about the reasons about this failure, this is not the question of who is responsible, but research should be aimed to find out the solutions.

  2. This same disturbing data was recently reported about charter schools in Chicago. It is a disturbing trend across urban centers and could be more accurately painted as a right-wing, corporatist attack against students and families-- largely poor and minority.

  3. Anonymous5:13 PM

    Arizona has had the same issues. There are a few high-performing charter schools, but the vast majority do no better - or even worse - than their public school counterparts. The only thing charter schools have managed to do successfully in AZ is segregate the middle and upper-middle class whites from the "riff-raff" left in the public schools.
    Funny that public schools have to have "transparency" and "accountability", but the charter schools have pretty much been allowed to operate willy-nilly, unless they go broke or have numerous major complaints.