Are start-up charters a better bet than traditional school turnarounds?

Opening up new charter schools is a more promising strategy than trying to turn around traditional public schools that are failing, according to a caveat-laden analysis in the most recent Education Gadfly from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

The study’s author, David Stuit, looked at 81 cases of charter start-ups opening near failing regular public schools. Because of the small sample size, the results aren’t statistically significant–which is to say, there are no results at all. The study has the additional caveat of having not measured for potential selection bias in who goes to the charter school and who stays behind in the regular school. That said, it might be worth doing at a scale large enough to yield statistically significant results and thus know whether this is a real phenomenon.

School districts around the country, armed with federal funds, are grappling with how best to turn around failing schools–a notoriously difficult task. There’s no fail-proof turnaround method, of course. For every success story, there are many more failures. Perhaps that’s not surprising, given that the same has long been true in the business world. A December 2010 Fordham Institute study found that just one percent of charter and regular public-school turnarounds were “successful,” which Fordham defined as schools whose students reached or exceeded the statewide average for test scores.

In Stuit’s latest analysis, he found that 19 percent of charter schools (15 schools in the sample) were able to get test scores above the statewide average, while only five percent of regular public schools accomplished the same.

Even if it is true that start-up charters are more likely to succeed than district turnarounds–something the current evidence doesn’t prove–a 19-percent success rate isn’t exactly awe-inspiring. But these results do raise questions about how we allot our money for school reform, especially with billions now devoted just to turnarounds, as well as how we think strategically about district-wide improvement.

As Stuit sums it up: “When contemplating whether to put one’s energy and resources into turning around failing schools or closing them and replacing them with charter start-ups, the answer for most cities will probably be ‘both, and’ rather than ‘either, or.’ My preliminary evidence suggests, however, that the charter start-up route is somewhat more promising. Still and all, reformers will need to get a whole lot better at implementing both strategies successfully lest all of this add up to ‘nothing much.’”