Politics & society, Research

LA charter school study: who benefits?

By Kathleen Maclay


Children entering charter schools in Los Angeles already outperform peers who attend traditional public schools, then pull ahead even a bit more, especially those attending charter middle schools, according to a study released today from the University of California, Berkeley.

Pupils who enter charter elementary or high schools displayed significantly higher test scores, relative to counterparts entering traditional public schools at the same grade levels, the report said. Elementary students in charter schools benefit from slightly steeper learning curves, relative to peers remaining in conventional schools, researchers said. Charter high schools were no more or less effective than traditional schools in boosting student performance.

Charter schools, while publicly funded, operate independently of many state requirements and the administration of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Some 274 charter schools operate in L.A. Unified this fall, more than any school district nationwide.

The map above shows the spread of charter schools and the income levels of communities where they have been established in the L.A. Unified District since 2002.

The map above shows the spread of charter schools and the income levels of communities where they have been established in the L.A. Unified District since 2002.

Public schools awarded independence from state rules and labor agreements over the past 15 years – so-called conversion charter schools – draw more middle-class and higher-achieving children, compared with peers served by traditional schools, researchers said. Some 55 percent of all pupils attending conversion charters at the elementary level were Latino, compared with 77 percent of those in traditional schools. Half of these charter pupils were eligible for lunch subsidies, compared with 84 percent attending traditional schools.

Newly created charter schools, increasingly run by management firms, also draw students already achieving at higher levels than peers in conventional schools, although these gaps were smaller than the greater selectivity of conversion charters.

These patterns emerged between 2007 and 2011, the period during which the Berkeley team of Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the Graduate School of Education, and then-Berkeley graduate student Hyo Jeong Shin, now a statistician at the Educational Testing Service, tracked a sample of 66,000 students and teachers with data from L.A. Unified and the state Department of Education.

“Our study reveals two distinct charter movements,” said Fuller, author of Inside Charter Schools. “Conversion charters often serve middle-class families on the west side of the L.A. district and in San Fernando Valley, while newly created charter schools continue to locate more in blue-collar and poor neighborhoods.”

Small to modest gains

Still, he said, charter students in poor and middle-class communities posted academic gains, as judged by testing, but improvements were most striking and the strongest for middle-schoolers. Significantly steeper learning curves were detected in elementary charter schools, but differences relative to the growth of peers in traditional schools were of “small to modest levels of magnitude,” Fuller said.

While charter high schools attract stronger students at entry, they did not lift learning more than traditional public high schools, the study found.

Charter middle schools, in contrast, did improve student learning more decisively, relative to traditional campuses. Students switching into charter middle schools from a traditional elementary school enjoyed the strongest gains in math and English language arts, researchers found.

“Charter middle schools attract a more representative cross-section of L.A. students, and then discernibly raise their achievement,” said Shin.


“We are not suggesting that charter schools unfairly cherry-pick stronger students or highly committed families,” Fuller said. “However, parents with more savvy or time seem more likely to seek out stronger schools.”

The study also found that startup charters rely heavily on younger, less experienced teachers. While many were not fully credentialed to teach at the time of data collection, this did not appear to constrain their effectiveness at elementary and middle-school levels, according to the Berkeley researchers.

“Going forward, we have much to learn from charter middle schools,” Fuller said. “They are serving a diverse cross-section of L.A. students, then boosting their learning.”

At the same time, Fuller advised “school officials and charter leaders might ask whether maintaining segregated students among many conversion charters serves the public interest.” Fuller added, “Why charter high schools, despite all the public investment, yield no comparative advantage for kids remains a troubling mystery.”

The full report, graphics and map detailing growth of the charter movement in L.A. is available online.

The Spencer Foundation of Chicago funded the study, along with aid from Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE).


Additional work by Fuller on L.A. charter schools and teachers in 2011 was reported here.